Life in Elizabethan England Next

More Christmas Revels

In many homes, they play flapdragon or snapdragon. You take turns picking raisins out of a dish of flaming brandy and popping them into your mouth. Try not to get burnt! Wager on each person's chances of success.

On Christmas Eve, girls play fortune-telling games, especially hoping to divine who they will marry.

Ordinary rural people enjoy feasting, dancing, card playing, carol singing, storytelling, party games like hot cockles and shoeing the mare and attempting to bit an apple with a candle stuck in it hung on a string from the end of a stick.


Christmas carols are mainly associated with Christmas Eve and morning, often performed by the town waits (musicians hired by the town).

Originally a carol was a song to accompany a ring dance for men and women, holding hands. The word acquired its current meaning sometime in the 15th century. They are never sung (or danced) in church.

Most carols are about the nativity, but may also be generally devotional. Others can even be satiric, amorous, or funny!

Musicians and carollers visit the principal houses in the parish, in ascending order of importance. Householders are expected to reward them with a penny, cider, cakes, and so on.

Caroling is intimately associated with wassailing, which is mainly performed by young men.


Wassailing involves blessing the land, especially apple groves, and livestock with cider. In Kent, groups of young men make a round of the orchards, performing the rite for a reward.

In the towns, groups of girls and boys go round the neighborhood with a be-ribboned but empty drinking cup or bowl begging for the master of each house to fill it with spiced ale to drink his health, or with cakes, or cheese, or a silver penny. It's bad luck for the host to decline.

Wassailing outings are also a holiday diversion among the gentry. Great county families often have wassail cups of considerable value, which they preserve and pass down as an heirloom. However, the custom has not been followed at Court since old King Henry's time.

When someone greets you with a cheery "Wassail!" you should reply "Drink hail!"

Lord of Misrule

All "persons of worship" including Lieutenants and Sheriffs of counties, and even bishops, appoint a Lord of Misrule to manage the merriment of the Twelve Days.

At the inns of court and at the universities, Misrule is usually elected on St Thomas's Day, so there is plenty of time to plan. He then chooses officers for his Court of Misrule such as Marshal, Master of the Game, Constable, and Chief Butler. For Christmas 1561, the Lord of Misrule at the Inner Temple was Lord Robert Dudley.

On each of the twelve days of Christmas, his rule runs from evening until breakfast the next day. His duties consist consisting mainly of presiding over the feasting, games, and dancing.

At supper, the courtiers of Misrule are cried in to the hall with silly names like Sir Francis Flatterer, Sir Randall Rakabite of Rascall Hall in the County of Rakehell, Sir Morgan Mumchance, or Sir Bartholomew Balbreech of Buttocksbury. All very Blackadder.

Twelfth Day and Night

The day begins, like Christmas, with a dramatic religious service featuring the coming of the Three Kings. It had become traditional for the king to make offerings at Mass of gold, frankincense, & myrrh to symbolize his connection with those kings and with Christ. This custom survived the Reformation.

The festivities are the most sumptuous of the year, filled with royal balls and parties. For Twelfth Day and Night among less exalted folk, a bean is baked into a cake and pieces distributed among the children and servants.

Whoever finds the bean is pronounced King of the Bean, and reigns for the rest of the day and night. If a pea is used as well, whoever finds it becomes (or chooses) the Queen of the Pea.

Hutton: Stations of the Sun
Hubert: Christmas in Shakespeare's England
Machyn: Diary
Strong & Oman: The English Year

::  Keeping Christmas
::  Gifts at the New Year

Previous Top Home Notes Next

22 March 2008 pkm