The Christmas Season is the time for merry-making and parties. So come and join some wonderful authors (and their characters) for an Online Virtual Party.
Browse through a variety of Blogs below for a veritable feast of entertainment!
(And just as with any good party, you’ll find a few giveaway prizes along the way.)
To get things rolling, let’s enjoy some early Tudor festive feasting…
For me the run-up to Christmas is signaled by the taste of advent calendar chocolate before breakfast. For others this is the season of dieting, ‘getting ready for party season’ as certain magazines insist on calling such abstinence. Whether fasting or feasting, food is still intrinsically important to our celebration of the Christmas season. For our early Tudor forebears this was even more the case.
For them, December days until Christmas itself were a miserable period of denial and dearth. Advent was considered akin to Lent – no meat was allowed, and for most of the population stockfish would be the order of the day. These revolting hardened, cured fish needed to be hammered and soaked for hours before eating. In great houses, as darkness crept in, meals were made up of piscine feasts: fresh salmon and cod, dog-fish, tench, bream, whiting, plaice – even fresh eels and porpoise. But for those who were further inland and could not afford to have fresh fish delivered to their door, salted and cured fish were the main source of calories.
The feelings of most of the populace during Advent are probably summed up by this fifteenth century carol:
‘Farewell Advent, Christmas is come
Farewell from us both all and some.
With patience thou hast us fed,
And made us go hungry to bed,
For lack of meat we were nigh dead,
Farewell from (us both all and some).’ [i]
Darkness, dreariness and the stink of fish – it’s no wonder that when Christmas finally arrived it was celebrated for a full twelve days. You’d want to squeeze as much joy from the occasion as possible too if all you’d eaten for three weeks was ‘stinking fish not worth a louse’. After one last fast on Christmas Eve, greenery was brought into the household to signal the beginning of festive cheer – holly and ivy were pre-eminent as backdrops to the celebrations then, just as they are today.
The Twelve Days of Christmas were jam-packed with potential celebrations. After Christmas Day itself there were the feast days of Saints Stephen, John the Evangelist and Thomas Becket to enjoy – sandwiched between the latter two came Childermas or Holy Innocents Day, commemorating the massacre of the innocents by Herod. This not altogether jovial theme was the occasion for misrule, when children were elevated to mock-bishops and abbesses, preaching sermons, processing around the shires and gathering money for their churches. 31 December was the feast day of St Silvester although it was then, as today, more famous for being New Year’s Eve. New Year’s Day and Epiphany or Twelfth Night (1 and 6 January respectively) were, with Christmas, the major days of celebration. These were the occasions for great feasts for those who could afford it and dancing bears, drunken singing and parish-sponsored plays for those who couldn’t.
In my forthcoming book 1509 I write about the feasts of the great and good in this festive period:
‘During the Christmas of 1507-8 the Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham invited almost 300 to Christmas supper – and his Epiphany banquet on 6 January hosted 459. Roping in two additional cooks from Bristol to assist, Buckingham served an incredible feast of swans, peacocks, suckling pigs, herons, quails ‘from the store’ and a veritable massacre of small feathered birds: 23 widgeons, 18 teals, three dozen larks… The party got through almost 700 loaves of bread. Swans (plural) also featured on the Christmas menu of Buckingham’s brother-in-law, the earl of Northumberland, who served deer alongside them. In other great households – and even in university colleges – boar’s head was served. Already this impressive dish was becoming associated with Christmas meals in popular song:
‘The boars head in hand I bring
With garlands gay and birds singing
I pray you all, help me to sing,
Qui estis in convivio.’ [ii]
The ‘birds singing’ mentioned here could well be live creatures garnishing the great charger of meat and chirruping as they enter the hall.
Other foods and drinks were considered particularly ‘festive’. The Wassail Cup, containing warm spiced alcohol, was paraded into great halls on Twelfth Night. There it was greeted by the steward crying ‘wassail’ three times, to which the household chapel responded with a song. Twelfth Night also saw the enjoyment of a voidee of spiced wine and sweetmeats, ceremonially presented to the lord and lady of the household. In Furnival’s Inn in London the lawyers enjoyed venison and brawn with baked pears for their Christmas meal.’
Lower down the social scale, Christmas meals become more difficult to trace. In all likelihood the mere presence of meat on the menu once more was probably a cause for celebration – whether that was in the form of stew, pie or (for the middling sort) a roast. For those working on the estates of hospitable lords, they might get to join the great hall of their master for a Christmas or Epiphany feast. The Duke of Buckingham invited ‘42 from the town and 90 from the country’ to eat at his table (well, at a table safely down the other end of the hall or tucked away in a corridor) on Epiphany.
Although few of us will be chowing down on boar or swan this Christmas, or dressing up as a bishop, there is a connection across the years at this time of year. Smells, tastes and sounds may have changed subtly over the past five centuries, but crucial to the early Tudor Christmas was a communal celebration over the dining table. And that is surely something we all still appreciate.
- Images of Tudor feasts from the inestimable Dr Annie Gray
- John Elliott Jr, Alan H. Helson, Alexandra F. Johnston, Diana Wyatt (eds.), Records of Early English Drama: Oxford (British Library & Toronto University Press, 2004), 2 volumes
- J. Gage (ed.), ‘Extracts from the household book of Edward Stafford… 1507-8’ Archaeologia, xxv (1834)
- Ian Lancashire, ‘Orders for Twelfth Day and Night c.1515 in the Second Northumberland House Book’, English Literary Renaissance, Vol.10 (1980)
- Richard Leighton Greene, The Early English Carols (Clarendon Press, 1977)
- Olga Horner, ‘Christmas at the Inns of Court’ in Meg Twycross (ed.), Festive Drama: Papers from the Sixth Triennial Colloquium of the International Society for the Study of Medieval Theatre, Lancaster, 13-19 July 1989 (D. S. Brewer, 1996)
- Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (Oxford University Press, 2001)
- Thomas Percy, Bishop of Dromore (ed.), The Regulations and Establishment of the Household of Henry Algernon Percy, the Fifth Earl of Northumberland, at his Castles of Wresill and Lekinfield in Yorkshire. Begun anno domini M.DXII (London, 1827)
Thank you for joining our party – now you’ve had your amuse bouche, follow on to the next course in this festive feast of entertainment…
- Helen Hollick : “You are Cordially Invited to aBall” (plus a giveaway prize)
- Alison Morton :“Saturnalia surprise – a winter party tale” (plus a giveaway prize)
- Andrea Zuvich : No Christmas For You! The Holiday Under Cromwell
- Ann Swinfen : Christmas 1586 – Burbage’s Company of Players Celebrates
- Anna Belfrage : All I want for Christmas (plus a giveaway prize)
- Carol Cooper : How To Be A Party Animal
- Clare Flynn : A German American Christmas
- Debbie Young : Good Christmas Housekeeping (plus a giveaway prize)
- Derek Birks : The Lord of Misrule – A Medieval Christmas Recipe for Trouble
- Edward James : An Accidental Virgin and An Uninvited Guest
- Fenella J. Miller : Christmas on the Home front(plus a giveaway prize)
- J. L. Oakley : Christmas Time in the Mountains 1907 (plus a giveaway prize)
- Jude Knight : Christmas at Avery Hall in the Year of Our Lord 1804
- Julian Stockwin: Join the Party
- Juliet Greenwood: Christmas 1914 on the Home Front (plus a giveaway prize)
- Lindsay Downs : O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree
- Lucienne Boyce : A Victory Celebration
- Nancy Bilyeau : Christmas After the Priory(plus a giveaway prize)
- Nicola Moxey : The Feast of the Epiphany, 1182
- Peter St John: Dummy’s Birthday
- Regina Jeffers : Celebrating a Regency Christmas (plus a giveaway prize)
- Richard Abbott : The Hunt – Feasting at Ugarit
- Saralee Etter : Christmas Pudding — Part of the Christmas Feast
- Stephen Oram : Living in your dystopia: you need a festival of enhancement…(plus a giveaway prize)
- Suzanne Adair :The British Legion Parties Down for Yule 1780 (plus a giveaway prize)
[i] Cambridge University Library, possibly written by James Ryman, c.1492. Reprinted in Richard Leighton Greene, The Early English Carols (Clarendon Press, 1977), pp.1-2.
[ii] Balliol College, Oxford MS of the early sixteenth century. Printed in The Early English Carols, p.80.