In the 17th Century, Christmas Day was more than just a religious date – it marked the beginning of the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas between Christmas and Epiphany Eve, commonly called ‘Twelfth Night’. We may know it from the much later song, but for people in Stuart England it was a highlight of the year while also being a flashpoint in the political and cultural turmoil of the English Civil Wars. Over the twelve days, we’re going to be exploring some of the Christmas customs and history from the 1640s and 1650s…
A very Merry Christmas! Today, fittingly, we look at what it would it have been like to have spent Christmas Day with a 17th Century family…
‘Let’s dance and sing and make good cheer, since Christmas comes back once a year’ – John Taylor, Royalist poet‘
After today, the inventiveness of the nation’s cooks will be being put sorely to the test as the remains of innumerable turkeys are whittled down into pies, curries, and soups for those not yet tired of this magnificent fowl.
This once-exotic bird’s dominance of virtually every Christmas Day meal is now unassailable and, despite its detractors, the British buy around ten million each festive period, with 76 per cent of households tucking in on December 25.
Not unlike today, the people of 17th Century England liked some poultry at Christmas – but they liked it A LOT!
When troops of the Royalist commander the Earl of Newcastle plundered the home of the Stanhope family of Horsforth, near Leeds, following their failed attack on Bradford in December 1642, they stole all the poultry that had been set aside for the Stanhopes’ Christmas dinner – 40 shillings’ worth that included “13 fat geese, 10 capons, 13 hens, 6 turkeys”.
The greatest loss was probably the turkeys – by the 1640s although they were not the exclusive preserve of the rich they had been a century before (King Henry VIII is supposed to have been the first to sit down on Christmas Day and as early as 1573, the turkey was referred to as “Christmas husbandlie fare”) they were by no means cheap: in 1630 Winifred Oliver, a servant maid from St Mary Bourne in Hampshire, was sent to buy two turkeys for five shillings, the equivalent of three days’ wages for a craftsman.
This bird, native to the Americas and domesticated by the Aztecs, had come to Europe via Spain and, by 1573, Thomas Tusser noted that they had become common at Christmas, though geese and castrated roosters called ‘capons’ were still more popular dishes. Turkey was included in Gervase Markham’s 1615 housekeeping guide The English Housewife while The London Poulters’ Guild records show company clerks were given them as Christmas presents.
Traditionally, Christmas Eve was kept as a strict fast day on which meat, cheese and eggs were all forbidden and this followed an Advent of restricted diet, fasting, and piety, so appetites were nicely primed for the big event of Christmas Day.
As the giving of gifts was usually reserved for New Year’s Day, after attending an early morning church service (assuming the churches were open for Christmas Day) people would gather at their homes festooned with holly (a symbol for everlasting life), ivy (thought to ensure the birth of healthy children and keep away the plague), and rosemary (a holy plant that symbolised remembrance), mistletoe (for good fortune) and with a large ‘Yule Log’ glowing in the fireplace.
They would then commence eating together. In More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality, Karen Davis details how Christmas feasting in England meant meat – lots of it! From force-fed castrated male chickens to swans, from geese to turkeys, Markham’s recipes list two courses of more than a dozen types of meat, including roasted venison, a pastry of venison, a kid with a pudding in the belly, olive pie (made of slices of veal or other meat rolled up), and a ‘custard’ with other side dishes. By the early 1600s, there is evidence of certain foods having a close association with Christmas celebrations: although eaten at other times of the year, the ‘minced pie’ – a mixture of meat, fruit and spices baked in pastry case – had made an appearance while ‘plum porridge’ – a beef broth with prunes, raisins, and currants – was very popular with the poor.
‘a properly laid-out meal in a nobleman’s dining room will consist of three courses: two meat courses and a sweet course, each one consisting of up to a dozen different dishes. Note that, at such a dinner, you are not expected to consume everything in front of you: you should pick what you want from each dish, as you would from a modern buffet. At least, that is what you are supposed to do. Some people do try to consume everything in sight. Monsieur Mission remarks that ‘the English eat a great deal at dinner; the rest a while, and [go] at it again until they have quite stuffed their paunch.’Ian Mortimer – The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain
At the dawn of the 17th Century, Christmas Day had become more than just a religious date – it marked the beginning of the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas, just under a fortnight of feasting, parties, drinking, carousing, and general merriment that marked the period between Christmas and Epiphany Eve, commonly called ‘Twelfth Night’ (which we’ll come to in a future blog post).
While they may have been merry festive, mealtimes were not what we’d consider Bacchanalian affairs – table manners were still enforced and represented the social hierarchy of both the household and any guests. The patriarch would sit at the top of the table, would be served first and would get the pick of the food, with what was left descending the social ladder that lead away from the centre. Forks were still a foreign invention and people instead used knives to serve themselves, if there were no servants to carve – the end of the knife is for spearing the meat and lifting it from the dish on to your plate before tucking in with your hands and then wiping your fingers on the napkin placed over your shoulder, rather than tucked into the collar or sitting on the lap. Sweet and savoury would often be mixed together, with a small mound of salt on the corner of your plate.
And lo, the feasting and drinking of the twelve days began. The anonymously-printed pamphlet The Arraignment, conviction, and imprisoning, of Christmas in 1646 spoke of a time of abundant food and celebration, including: ‘in every house roast Beefe and Mutton, Pies and Plumporrige, and all manner of delicates … and made all merry with Bagpipes, Fiddles, and other musicks, Giggs, Dances, and Mummings’.
The water poet John Taylor (1578–1653) offered a glimpse into a typical Christmas Day celebration from before the civil war:
I was presented with a cup of browne Ale, seasoned with Sinamon, Nutmegs, and Sugar. When dinner was ready, I was set at the upper end of the Table, my owne company set round about me, and the rest ate with the servants. We had Brawne of their owne feeding, Beefe of their owne killing; we had brave plum broth in bowle-dishes of a quart. The White-loafe ranne up and downe the Table, like a Bowle in an Alley, every man might have a fling at him. The March Beere marched up and downe, and we were all merry without the helpe of any Musicians. We had good cheere, and good welcome which was worth all, for the Good-man of the house did not looke with a sour or stoicall brow, but was full of mirth and alacrity, so that it made the house merry.Dinner being done, Grace being said, the Cloth taken away, the poore refreshed, we went to the fire, before which lay a store of Apples piping hot, expecting a bowl of Ale to coole themselves in. Evening Prayer drew nigh, so we all repaired to Church, so went I home againe and passed the time away in discourse while supper, which being ended, we went to Cards. Some sung Carrols, merry songs, some againe to waste the long nights, would tell Winter-tales. At last came in a company of Maids with Wassell, Wassell, jolly Wassell. I tasted of their Cakes, and supped of their Bowl, and for my sake, the White-loafe and Cheese were set before them, with Mince-Pies, and other meats. These being gone, the jolly youths and plaine dealing Plow-swaines, being weary of Cards, fell to dancing; from dancing to shew me some Gambols. Some ventured the breaking of their shinnes to make me sport, some the scalding of their lippes to catch at Apples tied at the end of a sticke, having a lighted candle at the other; some shod the wilde Mare; some at hotcockles, and the like. These Country revels expiring with the night, early in the morning we all tooke our leave of them, being loth to be too troublesome; and rendering them unfained thanks for our good cheere (who still desired that we would stay with them a little longer) we instantly travelled towards the City.Being entered into it, we saw very few look with a smiling countenance on us, but a few Prentices or Journeymen that were tricked up in their Holiday cloathes. At last the Bells began to ring, every house-holder began to bestirre himselfe, the Maid-servants we saw hurrying to the Cookes shops with Pies, and before we were aware, whole Parishes of people came to invite us to dinner.
But where there was great plenty there was also increasing want and at Christmas there was some expectation that the rich, especially outside London, would provide hospitality for the poor during the Twelve Days. James I admonished landowners in a speech in 1616 for allowing an alarming decrease in hospitality and charity, which he blamed on the aristocracy and gentry spending season in the capital rather than at their country estates. Ronald Hutton’s The Rise and Fall of Merrie England mentions the Earl of Clare who, in the 1620s, ‘complained that his grandfather had ‘flushed all his revenues down the privy’ with festive entertainment of strangers’. As the Many-Headed Monster blog points out:
‘There was, in principle at least, an expectation that the rich would keep ‘open house’ on Christmas Day to ensure that the poor did not go without … In seems likely that in practice this ‘all-in-it-together’ spirit was rather limited though, and that the wealthy, as Ronald Hutton puts it, ‘mostly entertained their social equals and immediate inferiors’. Some tenants and neighbours might get to feast at their lord’s expense, but the generosity was not in reality extended to all comers.’
Indeed, it seemed to become less likely people would keep open house during the Twelve Days – though this may be due to a greater number of people needing charity, rather than a decrease in hospitality. The early 17th Century suffered from what we would now consider economic recessions, leaving many unable to enjoy the fruits of the season and taking desperate action to ensure some kind of celebration:
In 1597 Phillip Marshall, a widow of Bratton in Devon … was driven to take drastic action to find some food for the festive table. She confessed to the village constables that she and her daughter had stolen a lamb from a nearby field on Christmas Eve, which they ‘killed and dressed’ in their own house ‘to serve their great need’. We might assume a similar sense of desperation had motivated whoever it was that stole a piece of meat from the butcher John Crocker late on Christmas Eve of 1629. Crocker reported that ‘between 5 and 6 of the clock in the evening a little before he had lighted his candle he had a piece of beef stolen from his stall in the market place of the town of Okehampton’. That food thefts – what their perpetrators would no doubt have seen as ‘crimes of necessity’ – were common at Christmas time is reflected in the suspicion that was directed at relatively poor people who suddenly had a healthy table on the big day.’The Many-Headed Monster: ‘At Christmas we banquet, the rich with the poor’: Christmas Dinner in Tudor & Stuart England
From pillaged gentry to desperate commoner, Christmas – even in the depths of the English Civil War – was still meant to be a time of indulgence and generosity. But, as we’ll explore tomorrow, there was a war being fought over Christmas that didn’t involve guns and violence … at least not at first!