Attendance at mass was a must whether you were rich or poor, religion was a serious business and observance of the holy days and a reverence of the holy family would ensure you a comfortable afterlife. Once their duties to God were performed the Tudor citizen could then enjoy the day as their status befitted.
If you lived in the country (as did most) you would probably have a quiet Christmas. If you lived in a town, there would have been opportunities to celebrate more widely, join in with a pageant or witness a procession, such as the one that saw the Worshipful Company of Butchers deliver a boar’s head to the Lord Mayor of London.
Carols would be sung, the rich would feast, the poor hopefully have a good meal, dance and celebrate the nativity. Plum porridge was a popular breakfast. It was made with beef or mutton combined with dried fruits, spices, bread and wine. Later this would evolve into the Christmas pudding we know today. Figgy pudding was also served, figs were used in remembrance of Christ who is said to have eaten figs on his way into Jerusalem.
King Henry VIII is known to have spent a whole year’s tax revenue at the start of his reign with his Christmas excesses. In 1509, he gifted many in his court and spent the equivalent of £13.5m on lavish and opulent dining and entertainment.
Brawn was a popular meat product for all walks of life. This was made from fatty cuts of boar or pork and spiced for flavour. It would be decorated beautifully in the homes of the rich, with herbs, or gilding and dusted with flour to give the impression of snow. Greenwich Palace had extra ranges placed in the kitchen for the ‘boiling of brawns’. The first course was always a boar’s head with an apple in its mouth. This was served in all royal courts up to and including King William IV. Its entrance into the feast was a musical affair giving due importance to the occasion with trumpeters heralding its arrival.
Other meats that were served include partridge, lark, quail, beef, mutton, hens, capon and soused veal. They were delivered to the table as grandly as the boar’s head and were washed down with plenty of wine.
The poor person’s ‘Christmas feast’ may include pork or a bird that they had caught. Those a little better off could possibly have eaten chicken or goose. There is an apocryphal story that in 1588 Elizabeth I ordered that everyone should eat goose for Christmas dinner as it reminded her of her victory meal after her navy beat the Spanish Armada. Historians Alison Weir and Siobhan Clarke discount this theory as goose was a luxury item and it was unlikely to have been observed by her subjects.
There are records that turkeys arrived in England (from the New World) in 1526 and sold at Bristol for 2d each. However, the serving of swan and peacock remained popular for some time after the introduction of turkey. Stuffing, known as forcemeat, was served at this time too, made with egg, currents, pork and herbs and served along with poultry dishes, much as it is today. Brussels sprouts were recorded as being served in 1587 – that’s almost a modern Christmas dinner!
Another meat and sweet dessert was called frumenty. One variant was wheat boiled in milk with eggs, fruit, spices, sugar, almond milk and cream. This would be served with meat. Mince pies were traditionally made with shredded meat, preferably mutton to reference the three shepherds. Thirteen ingredients would be added (Christ and his twelve apostles) and these would be decorated with gilding or even a pastry baby Jesus that was in his pastry cradle – these would be called nativity pies.
Once the feasting was over the entertainment would begin – singing, carols, plays and disguises (masquerades) were all popular, however, present giving would wait until New Year’s Day.
A Tudor Christmas, Alison Weir and Siobhan Clarke (Jonathon Cape, 2018)