I love to explore different Christmas traditions from around the world and different time periods. I’m fascinated with Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, and all of his six wives. I’ve been exploring the traditions of a Tudor Christmas. This was an important time in religious history as Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church to start the Church of England.

I’ve been researching what the Tudor Christmas holidays were like at this time. Henry VIII went all out for Christmas and spent million of pounds (in today’s money) on festivities, which he recouped (and even made a profit) as his loyal subjects were expected to lavish him with expensive gifts in return.

Many of our Christmas traditions date back to this time, like carol-singing, drinking mulled wine, kissing under the mistletoe, and eating mince pies.

The period leading up to Christmas was a solemn affair. The 40 days of Advent were strictly observed. People were expected to atone for their sins and avoid certain foods. The fun started on Christmas Eve and continued through the 12 days of Christmas up to the Epiphany on January 6. Work was suspended for most people, and the common man got to shine. Someone would be designated the Lord of Misrule and would take the lead of the Christmas merrymaking activities. Even the King had to obey the Lord of Misrule.

Christmas trees were not yet in fashion in England. People’s houses were decorated with a kissing bough. Although hanging mistletoe may have its roots in the older pagan traditions, the Tudors hung a ball made of evergreens such as holly, bay, rosemary, and mistletoe from the ceiling. As you entered the room you were expected to kiss your hosts in greeting.

For Christmas dinner a roasted boar’s head was served in most households. It would be stuffed with seasoned meats and dressed with herbs and fruits, and with a roasted apple in its mouth. In royal households they would also serve peacock and swan. Turkeys made their way to England from the New World by the end of the Tudor period.

My mother always served mince pie at Christmas. My Irish grandmother loved it, and so did I. The modern version she served was made of candied fruits and spices. In Tudor times it was made with mutton, suet, and spiced dried fruits.

There were different holiday activities for each day of the Christmas season. Some days were set aside for hunting, some for outdoor sports. There would be jesters and acrobats, and many games played, even a precursor to blind man’s bluff. Some days were more serious in nature. On December 28 they set aside time to remember the massacre of the Holy Innocents. And then children were given freedom to play and enjoy a children’s feast.

Gifts were exchanged on New Year’s day, not on Christmas Day. If you were a member of court, you were expected to impress the king with your gift. Gifts could be used for political gain, or even to make a point. In 1532, Henry VIII famously rejected a gift from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, but accepted gifts from his new sweetheart, Anne Boleyn.

On Twelfth Night, which was the last day of festivities, they would enjoy plays, costume balls, and dancing. There would be a great feast with an enormous cake specially made with a bean or a coin inside. The lucky person who found the bean would be King or Queen of the Bean and would lead the singing, dancing, and fun for the evening.

Ironically for Henry, who loved Christmas, because of the Reformation, Parliament eventually outlawed many of the Christmas festivities in 1644. This didn’t last long though, and was reinstated by Charles II in 1660.

Do you recognize any of your holiday festivities in the Tudor Christmas?