Life in Elizabethan England Next

Keeping Christmas

A note of caution: Christmas customs are hard to pin down and harder still to identify as verifiably in use during the Elizabethan era. (The past is not all the same place.) With the shifts from Catholic to protestant and back and forth again, some customs were banned or simply stopped, revived, then abandoned. Here are some of the things we're sure of.

So now is come our joyful'st feast,
Let every man be jolly.
Each room with ivy leaves is drest,
And every post with holly.
       Though some churls at our mirth repine,
        Round your foreheads garlands twine,
        Drown sorrow in a cup of wine,
And let us all be merry.
            George Wither (1588-1667)

The Christmas season or Christmastide runs the twelve days from 24 December to 6 January; that is, Christmas Eve to Epiphany or Twelfth Day. The evening of that day is called Twelfth Night, and is the last party of the season.

It is a festival season with only passing reference to religion, although in Catholic reigns there are three Masses for Christmas Day, starting with Matins.

Feasting, generosity, disguisings, pageants, role-reversal, and silliness are the principal elements. Also gambling, especially card playing and tables. (Puritans do not approve.)


Hospitality is the rule. All who can do so furnish their tables with all the meats, marchpanes, pies, custards, and so on that they can afford, and more.

Entertainments in the season include mummer's plays of various kinds, often incorporating music and morris dancing (also performed at May Day). The story of St. George and the Dragon is especially popular. Morris dancers are regularly invited to perform at Court.

Such entertainments are meant for the whole manor or household, including tenants; the whole village; or the whole Court.

The Queen keeps Christmas most often at Greenwich Palace, which is relatively small. Alternate locations in certain years are Hampton Court (in 1568 and 1579) and Nonesuch Palace. Court festivities, as at other times, include dancing, gambling, and plays.


The decorations about any house include holly, ivy, box, yew, bay, laurel, holm oak, and in fact, anything still green. Both church records and household accounts show money spent for holly and ivy to be brought in for the holiday.

In the church itself, along with the greenery, a wooden figure of the Christ Child sometimes rests on the altar. The "nativity scene" hasn't come to England from Italy yet.

Mistletoe grows only on oak and apple trees. It isn't mentioned in a Christmas context before 1622, at which time it seems a fond custom, not newly introduced, but we can't tell how far back its use in England goes, or if it was regional, or what.. If it was common, it should be easy to find.

Kissing under the mistletoe has not yet become traditional, even in 1622.

Yule or Christmas log. The young men of the household go out on Christmas Eve and dress (trim) a log or block of wood from the central trunk of a tree specially chosen for the purpose. They drag it into the fireplace in the hall, where it is lit with a bit saved from last year's log, and is expected to burn all night.

Sensible people save pieces from the Christmas log through the next year to protect the house from fire.


The most popular Christmas dinner is brawn (roast pork) with mustard or roast beef. Also popular are mince pies, frumenty, plum porridge, and a Christmas pie of neat's tongue, eggs, sugar, lemon & orange peel, spices.
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

Hartley: Lost Country Life
Hubert: Christmas in Shakespeare's England
Hutton: Seasons of the Sun
Monson: "Elizabethan Holiday Customs"

::  Gifts at the New Year
::  More Christmas Revels

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22 March 2008 pkm