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Credit Henriette Barneveld

Image courtesy of Henriette Barneveld

Tudor England shunned ‘festive fatigue’ for three-month Christmas celebrations

Those who are beginning to suffer from ‘festive fatigue’ may want to spare a thought for those who lived in the Tudor times – when Christmas celebrations ran for three months.

While modern consumers can bemoan the Christmas experience seemingly starting earlier each year, with decorations and sales seen in abundance from late November, 16th century folk began their yuletide celebrations on Halloween.

And while the coming of Epiphany means the tinsel and decorations are packed away for another year on January 6th, Tudor celebrations carried on for almost another month, until Candlemas eve on February 1st .

The extended festivities meant some of those living in the time of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I would keep their festive revelries going for almost a quarter of a year.

The fascinating insight into Christmas past has been revealed by Professor Nick Groom, of the University of Exeter’s English department.

Professor Groom – known as the ‘Prof of Goth’ and a world expert on Gothic fiction – said that the early descent of darkness in the winter months, coupled with much of the land being fallow, heralded the beginning of a long period of general festivity across the land.

Such was the excitement around the time that swept across all levels of society, some places even appointed a “Lord of Misrule” to organise the food and drink, and preside over celebratory games and jovial pranks.

Professor Groom explained- “Christmas was not merely an annual festival – it was effectively a whole season, and a season to enjoy the fruits of the year’s farming with meat and vegetables, cakes and ales.”

Professor Groom has also researched the origins of many of the Christmas traditions we take for granted in modern times.

Arguably the earliest English tradition centres round festive foods and feasts, which can trace its origins back 1,300 years, when baking a mid-winter cake became a custom.

Culinary treats and traditions have played an integral role in festivities since, with the first turkeys arriving from the Americas in the 16th century, and quickly adopted as a popular seasonal roast. A century later, boar’s head was the Christmas dinner of choice for most of the great houses, although until the 19th century most who could afford it dined on roast beef.

Perhaps surprisingly, the humble mince pie enjoyed by all the ages today contained real meat until well into the 19th century. They came in a variety of elaborate shapes and eating them was considered a means to guarantee good fortune for the year ahead – with the phrase ‘As many mince pies as you taste at Christmas, so many happy months will you have’ found in literature of the times.

The traditional games enjoyed by all generations of families today still carry the hallmark of yesteryear. Hundreds of years ago, families would still hold dances, sing carols, play music, and perform little plays, while games played included charades, blind-man’s buff, puss in the corner (a kissing game), questions and commands (truth or dare), and hide and seek.

Professor Groom said that the custom of decking the halls with boughs of holly, or bringing greenery into houses, dates from about the 17th Century.  Although these decorations often only went up on Christmas Eve they would stay up throughout January. Holly and ivy were usual, along with cypress and bay, and mistletoe became popular in the mid-17th century, although it was considered unlucky in some places.

Professor Groom said: "Decorating interiors with evergreen leaves was clearly a reassurance that spring would return after the long dark months, but it was also a reminder of the fundamental importance of the natural world.

“The countryside was part of the daily fabric of domestic life, celebrated not only throughout Christmas but also at other times in the year, such as on May Day.

“What we might today call environmental awareness or sustainability was simply a way of life in early times.  And the seasonal foliage didn’t just look lovely: it filled houses with subtle fragrances and rich perfumes as well.”

Date: 20 December 2018

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