An Elizabethan Christmas

Posted By claire on December 23, 2009

nativityI have already written about the Tudor Christmas traditions over at The Anne Boleyn Files, but I thought it would be interesting to research Elizabethan Christmas traditions and think back to how Christmas was celebrated in Elizabeth’s reign, rather than the whole Tudor period.

There was much celebration in England when Elizabeth I came to the throne. Elizabeth was a vibrant young woman replacing her half-sister Mary I who had been solemn and bitter and who had brought nothing but persecution, cruelty and hardship to England. Mary’s court had been solemn and serious whereas Elizabeth’s court was extravagant, luxurious and full of dancing and entertainment, and this carried over into the Christmas celebrations.

The Christmas Feast

Christmas was a time to “eat, drink and be merry”, a time to celebrate and enjoy a little luxury. Those families who could afford a Christmas feast would celebrate it in style with foods like roast goose, turkey or beef, and Brawn and Mustard (roast wild boar with mustard). Turkey had been eaten at Christmas by some people during Henry VIII’s reign, as it was introduced into England at that time, but it had not yet superseded goose which was still the traditional meat of Christmas Day for those who could afford it. In 1588, Elizabeth I ordered the whole of England to eat goose for their Christmas Dinner to celebrate England’s victory over the Armada because it was the first meal she ate after the Navy had defeated Spain’s ships.

Accompaniments to the roast meat included plum porridge, mince pies and frumenty, a pottage made from boiled, cracked wheat. The Christmas meal was washed down with beer, a popular drink in Tudor times when water was not fit to drink.

The following poem from 1573 gives us a good idea of the Elizabethan Christmas:-

Good husband and huswife, now chiefly be glad,
Things handsome to have, as they ought to be had.
They both do provide, against Christmas do come,
To welcome their neighbors, good cheer to have some.
Good bread and good drink, a good fire in the hall,
Brawn, pudding, and souse, and good mustard withal.
Beef, mutton, and pork, and good pies of the best,
Pig, veal, goose, and capon, and turkey well drest,
Cheese, apples and nuts, and good carols to hear,
As then in the country is counted good cheer.
What cost to good husband, is any of this?
Good household provision only it is:
Of other the like, I do leave out a many,
That costeth the husband never a penny.
Thomas Tusser, 500 Points of Husbandry, 1573

Richer households would have a more luxurious Christmas banquet which could include roasted swan or peacock which were displayed as table centrepieces with their feathers and skins put back on. A boar’s head may also be used as a table decoration. These centrepieces showed just how rich the householder was.

With the discovery of the New World and the Elizabethan voyages to America, the rich were also able to make use of new and exotic fruit and vegetables in their Christmas banquet. Tomatoes and potatoes were mixed with foods like citrus fruits which were specially imported from Southern European countries.

The Banqueting or Sweet Meat Course

This course was another way in which the host of the Christmas feast could flaunt their wealth, their status and their creativity. They would have already impressed their visitors with their roast meats and now they would use sweet delicacies to do the same.

Sugar was a luxury cooking ingredient in Tudor times and was rather expensive, so an array of sweet delicacies would impress the guests. Delicacies on display would have included:-

  • Leech – A sweet made from milk, sugar and rose-water, which was cut into cubes. It was then displayed as a chequerboard, with some of the leech left plain and other cubes gilded.
  • Collops of Bacon – A collop was a rasher of bacon but these collops were crafted from ground almonds and sugar, a bit like our present day marzipan.
  • Sugar-plate – Sugar-plate was made from sugar, egg white and gelatin, and then crafted to look like walnuts, eggs and other food items.
  • Gilded fruit – Fruit like lemons were gilded and used to decorate the banquet table.
  • The Marchpane – This arrangement made from almond paste which was iced or gilded and then decorated with sugar figures and crystallised fruit, was the centrepiece of this course.

Other Christmas Food and Drink

As well as the roast meats and sweet delicacies, the well-to-do Elizabethans would have enjoyed:-

  • Christmas pudding – A “pudding” made from meat, spices and oatmeal and then cooked in the gut of a boar
  • Brussels Sprouts – The wonderful Brussels Sprout made its debut in England in the late 1580s.
  • Gingerbread – Made from bread, ginger, spices, sugar and wine. This made a stiff paste which was then moulded.
  • Mulled wine – Wine heated and infused with sugar and spices.
  • Syllabub – A hot milk drink flavoured with rum or wine and spices
  • Lambswool – A drink made from mixing hot cider, sherry or ale, apples and spices. The mixture was heated until it “exploded” and formed a white “woolly” head.
  • Tarts and custards for dessert
  • Quince marmalade

Humble Pie

The phrase “to eat humble pie” means to apologise or to face humiliation for your mistake or blunder, but it has its roots in Tudor and Medieval times when servants or lower-class people would use offal (kidneys, intestines, brain, heart or liver) and left-overs to make a pie. The “humbles” would be boiled in a stew with dried fruit, apples, suet, spices, sugar and salt, and then baked in pastry.

Christmas Traditions

Traditions enjoyed at Christmas in Tudor and Elizabethan times included:-

  • The Lord of Misrule – A commoner would be chosen as “The Lord of Misrule” and would be in charge of organising the entertainment and revelry for the Twelve Days of Christmas.
  • Mummer’s Plays with music and morris dancing
  • Decorating with greenery – Holly, ivy and other winter greenery would be brought inside the homes to decorate it.
  • The Yule Log – A Yule or Christmas log would be brought into the home on Christmas Eve and burned throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas. It was considered lucky to start the fire with the remains of last year’s Yule Log.
  • Christmas Carols – Christmas carols were sung on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning around the parish and carollers would be rewarded with money, food or drink.
  • Wassailing – The enjoying of a communal cup of spiced ail. Wassailing has also been linked to blessing the orchards and land, and going round the parish in groups with an empty bowl for householders to fill with spiced ale.
  • Twelfth Day and Night – This was celebrated with a church service commemorating the coming of the Three Kings. A special cake would be baked and then given out to members of the family and household. This cake would contain a bean and whoever found it would be pronounced King of the Bean. This tradition still exists in countries like Spain, where a Roscon filled with cream and decorated with glace fruit is shared. This cake has little gifts and novelties mixed in with the cream and also contains a bean. Whoever finds the bean is crowned King with the crown that comes with the cake and is considered lucky.

You can find out more about Christmas in Tudor times in my article over at The Anne Boleyn Files – Tudor Christmas.


Merry Christmas!

I would just like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Thank you so much for your support over the past few months and I hope that all your Christmas wishes come true. God Bless x


15 Responses to “An Elizabethan Christmas”

  1. Jenny says:

    I already knew most of what has been written although, being a small eater, I don’t think I would have lasted a day with all that food and drink. I also know that sald (hot variety) was introduced into England by Katherine of Aragon (it may have been mentioned on a post before I found this site but I am sure that information comes from Alison Weir) I also think that the same source informed me that Katherine of A, before she left Spain was advised not to drink the water as it was putrid, but the ale or wine instead (how times change!).

    Howver, I have learned two new bits of what some people would call “useless information” (and I am a mine of that) which I found fascinating – That of Brussels Sprouts and the reason for saying “Humble Pie”. As we all have said, we learn from each other so those two snippets of info. are already stored in my mind.

    When I first opened this post I found a Random Posrt reference to the Birth chart of Elizabeth 1 which I found fascinating and agree on most things written – Years ago I did study astrology and am in agreement with Rochie that it is another way of looking at life. Understanding my own birthchart has helped me throughout life and although it has been years since I studiedthe subject I must look at Rochie’s website –

    Really Claire – how you manage all these side-lines and with having kids as well amazes me!!! But that what seems to happen on the posts – Quuite often it is impossible not to side-track and then start off a new subject.

  2. Claire says:

    Thanks, Jenny, yes it is hard to concentrate today with 3 very excited children wanting to know how many hours it is until Santa comes!! I found the swan and the peacock info interesting but I wonder if the source I used is wrong because I thought it was only the monarch who could eat swan because swans were the King or Queen’s property. Not sure!
    I must also publish the Coronation chart of Elizabeth I as I’m sure that people would find that interesting. I think I need to do a crash course on astrology because I’m completely clueless!

  3. Claire says:

    I’ve found information on present day laws concerning swans and it is illegal to kill them because they belong to the Crown. One report mentions that the law was introduced by Henry VIII in 1592 but that is impossible because he was dead then!

  4. Jeane Westin says:

    Merrry Christmas and a Happy New Year to Claire and all Tudor friends. I’ve enjoyed this site ialmost every day since I found it and look forward to next year’s posts. I, too, am amazed at the amount and quality of your work, Claire, as well as the quality of the comments you elicit.

    I will be taking a couple of days to have Christmas, then back to my revisions on His Last Letter:Elizabeth I and the Earl of Leicester due to my editor in mid January. Fortunately, that leaves me little time to over-indulge Christmas goodies.

    Withe much appreciation, Jeane Westin, The Virgin’s Daughters:In the court of Elizabeth I

  5. Claire says:

    Just found a law website that says:-
    “And so in 1482, Edwards IV approved An Act For Swans which set out that only the king or wealthy land-owners could own swans with ownership confirmed by carving a family emblem on the bird’s upper beak. The legislation held that any swan held by a commoner, could be seized by a member of the aristocracy “whereof the King shall have one have, and he that shall seize, the other half”.”

  6. Claire says:

    Hi Jeane,
    Thank you so much for your kind words, you have been so much support over the past few months, thank you! I can’t wait to read your new book!
    I do hope you manage to take some time out over Christmas and enjoy a few Christmas goodies, and I hope you have a wonderful Christmas and New Year with your family.
    Speak soon x

  7. Jenny says:

    Well Claire, You obviously know how to get round the internet better than myself – On Google I put in a number of questions on Swans and could only get the one that you mentioned about H8 which of course cannot be right and a vague one about the fact that the Swan, in those days, was considered to be a Royal Banqueting delicacy which depending on the Monarch , the consumption of which, could be allowed to certain members of the aristocracy. But nothing really concrete.

    A swan swimming on the water is a beutiful sight to behold, but on land quite ugly with the legs – Strange.

    I don’t know if you remember not so long ago about the invasion of Australian Black Swans at the pool at Lincoln Cathedral. people were enthralled because it was going to be a “punch up” and legend has it that if the white swans disppear from that pool then England falls (like the Ravens in the tower of London). Well the “fight ” began and the white swans won!!!

    Another site I entered about swans also stated that Austalian Black Swans could be “gay” and only ttake a female to produce and kill her. Don’t know how true that is!

  8. Lexy says:

    Merry Christmas to everybody!
    Very interesting article as always, Claire! But carving something on swan’s beak, reading this I thought poor swans, how cruel! Tudor and Elizabethan era was definitely not a time for animal’s right… Not for human’s too, I know.
    By the way, while stuffing my capon, I wondered: how did they stuffed the turkey with the goose and so on without damaging the birds?
    And once again happy holydays, and good luck to other cook busy not to burn everything ( I’m champion of it!)

  9. rochie says:

    I love the information about the ‘Lambswool’ drink that had to explode in the preparation. Better to occur before the drinking of it rather than after, I guess!
    Have a wonderful Christmas everyone. Haven’t we had fun!

  10. Courtney says:

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!! Thank you so much for posting this Claire. I love all the information on your sites. I wanted to thank you also for being so helpful about the brooch I e-mailed you about, although we dont know the history of it I will always cherish it 🙂
    I’m dropping hints left and right to my husband for V-day already about maybe getting me something from the Opulence line lol, I love the cross, beautiful designs. Keep up the great work on the sites

  11. I’ve invited the whole family round this xmas for a big dinner, so the roast is pretty central to that.. I found a tonne of ideas at this roast recipe site, but cant decide on one – there’s so many to choose from! It’s fun planning such a big xmas meal though!

  12. Savarnah says:

    Its amazing considering i’m trying to celebrate christmas like the Tudors. This is going to help me so much! Thanx Claire! Merry Christmas to all!

  13. Claire says:

    Merry Christmas to you too, Savarnah!

  14. e says:

    Hi I’m sorry where were you able to find the information “In 1588, Elizabeth I ordered the whole of England to eat goose for their Christmas Dinner to celebrate England’s victory over the Armada because it was the first meal she ate after the Navy had defeated Spain’s ships.”? I would really love to read more about it!

  15. alicia says:

    This information is really helpful because we have to do research in class and present the information and this is really helpful for information and also some of this stuff I didn’t even know but know I do and I can tell my dad all about this

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