Christmas in Elizabethan England

We continue the traditions of our ancestors. The festive season has been a party period for the people, for hundreds of years.

Photo: The Knight of the Burning Pestle, Shakespeare’s Globe 2014 / 2015

The Twelve Days of Christmas, from December 25 to January 6, was the longest and most enthusiastically-celebrated public festival in the Elizabethan calendar (and might be extended in both directions). It was a time of lively social activity, with games, sports, music and feasting at all levels of society.

Photo: The Knight of the Burning Pestle, Shakespeare’s Globe 2014 / 2015

Thomas Middleton’s Father Hubburd’s Tales (1604) relates accounts of a number of distinctively Christmas-flavoured sports, music and games. These included the singing of carols, the dancing of rounds and jigs, wassailing (sharing a large bowl of hot spiced cider) and games. We might recognise ‘Hoodman’s Blind’ as an early version of Blind Man’s Bluff, but ‘Hot Cockles’, in which a blindfolded player was repeatedly struck by others until the player could guess who dealt the (hopefully harmless) blow, has thankfully fallen out of favour.

Presiding over the fun was the Lord of Misrule, a clownish figure encountered in formal Court entertainments as well as in more homely settings. He represented the temporary abandonment of the strict social order and conventions of the time, and it was his responsibility to organise the entertainments and games. John Stow’s 1598 Survey of London records that the Mayor and Sheriffs ‘had their several Lords of Misrule, ever contending without quarrel or offence, who should make the rarest pastimes to delight the beholders.’ They provided ‘fine and subtle disguisings, masques and mummeries, with playing at cards… in every house, more for pastime than for gain.’

Decking the halls with ivy is a favourite festive past-time. Photo by Echo Grid / Unsplash

Festive decoration marked the season and brightened the dark days of winter. Here’s John Stow again: ‘Against the feast of Christmas, every man’s home, as also their parish churches, the conduits and standards [water pipes] in the street, were decked with holm, ivy, bays and whatsoever the season of the year afforded to be green’.

The general sense of good-natured excess at Christmas included the food. Particularly at this time of year, the wealthier were expected to entertain and to feed the less fortunate members of society. The owners of estates provided their tenants with a feast on at least one of the twelve days of festivities, which might include exotic fare such as woodcock, turkey and swan. Extra bread and beer was given to those who came to the house unbidden.

Photo: The Knight of the Burning Pestle, Shakespeare’s Globe 2014 / 2015

The farmer-poet Thomas Tusser explained the importance of festive social responsibility in his Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry (1573): ‘At Christmas we banquet, the rich with the poor. / Who then (but the miser) but openeth his door’. His treatise stressed the importance of thrift and domestic economy, but even Tusser regarded generosity and quality as key Christmas sentiments: ‘Ill bread and ill drink / Makes many ill thinke.’

If you’re going to splash out at Christmas, you might as well do it in style, said Tusser. After all, ‘both meat and cost / Ill dressed is lost’.

Words by Tim Griggs, Shakespeare’s Globe Research and Birkbeck University of London