'Once Upon a Christmas...' Part 3

Updated: Apr 1, 2021

Pop the kettle on and enjoy the final instalment!

Keep gripping onto your seat! We’re zooming back towards the 1500s. The Tudor period saw the arrival of the turkey in Britain. Henry VIII was the first king to include turkey for his Christmas dinner. This may have been to show off; for many years, turkey was an expensive luxury, only eaten by royalty and the wealthy. One reason was because it had been imported from its native Mexico via Spanish traders. Turkeys also had a laborious preparation program. Most were bred in Norfolk before being walked 80 miles to London (wearing leather boots!). Here, they would be fattened up a second time. Most of the population made do with a goose, or roast beef if you lived in the North.

It was only by the 19th century that this arrangement began to shift. The arrival of the railways meant quicker journey times, so turkeys didn’t need to be fed in London. Families were larger as well and preferred the bigger portions of turkey to goose. These changes drove the price of turkey down and set up this bulbous bird as the traditional Christmas dish.

Greenwich Palace (or Palace of Placentia) during Tudor times.

The main Christmas celebrations in Tudor times centred around the Twelve Days of Christmas (25th December to 6th January). During this period, three days were particularly celebrated with huge feasts. For instance, at Greenwich palace, 24 courses would be served. In 1532/33, an extra boiling and working house was built to accommodate for the plethora of cooking. Try asking your family to build an extra kitchen in their back yard!

Back then, Christmas was a chance to turn the tables on hierarchy and loosen restrictions in people’s lives. Leftover food from the feast days was given to the poor. Until 1541, a choir boy was elected as the Boy Bishop every year. This involved doing all the jobs of a bishop, apart from leading Mass. In addition, the 6th December was marked as ‘Barring out’ day. Children would be allowed to lock teachers out of school, until they promised them extra breaktimes or no homework.

Despite the extra freedom, strict rules were still imposed. People were expected to fast over Advent, as well as not being able to eat any meat, eggs or cheese on Christmas Eve. Edward VI decreed that everyone had to walk to church on 25th December (and yes, we still have this law today). Even sports were forbidden on Christmas Day (with some exceptions). Terrific Tudors or Tyrannical Tudors? You decide!

Are you still holding on? I hope so, because we can trace some of our traditions even further back in time.

Our Christmas pudding was born out of the medieval period, starting life as a spicy porridge. Boiled wheat, spices and fruits would be used to rustle up a dish known as ‘frumenty’. In contrast to the luxurious turkeys mentioned before, this formed a large part of the everyday diet from the 1400s onwards (continuing to be fed to the poor in Victorian workhouses).

By Tudor times, the pudding had evolved into boiling meat, together with the spices and oatmeal. If you thought Brussel sprouts were disgusting though, consider how pig guts were used to wrap around the mixture. Mind you, since their Christmas feasts included a roasted boar’s head and pickled pig ears, this does not seem terribly surprising... The pudding would continue to develop through the centuries before settling on today’s recipe of fruit without the meat by the 1800s.

'Medieval frumenty'

3 medieval carol singers ‘Good King Wenceslas’ has a dark backstory...

Well, after all that frumenty, why don’t we sing some carols in church? Oh wait, medieval churches used to throw carol singers out! Despite references to the Nativity being introduced to carols for the first time, most churches thought all the singing and dancing was too lively. So, carols in church become door-to-door carols. The Middle Ages saw some classics get written, such as ‘While Shepherds Watched’. Both the 1600s and 1800s experienced a revival in the popularity of carols. As a result, many of today’s best-known hymns, including ‘O Come, All You Faithful’ and ‘Hark, the Herald’ were penned during those periods.

Certain carols have interesting backstories: whilst the Victorians created a story around ‘Good King Wenceslas’ he was in fact a Bohemian duke who lived in the 1st century. His mother and brother resented Wenceslas for spreading Christianity, so they chopped him up! Secondly, ‘Silent Night’ could have been introduced as anything but peaceful. In 1818, Joseph Mohr intended to premiere the hymn on his church organ. Eventually, he resorted to playing on guitar after a flurry of mice damaged the bellows. Some things you just cannot make up...

So many traditions have conglomerated around Christmas over time, from Santa and stockings to carols and crackers. Nevertheless, if all these features are boiled away, we can get to the true essence of the Christmas spirit: love.

God’s love for all of us meant He sent down His son Jesus Christ, so we could have a relationship with Him. When His birth is celebrated at this festive season, let’s be joyful that this baby boy revealed God’s love to the whole world. A baby child was the first ever Christmas gift. His name was Jesus, and he was God’s present to everyone: even to you and me.

When Jesus died on a cross at the hands of the Romans, God forgave the whole of humanity. He has forgiven you and me for every wrong thing that we have (or will ever) do. God did this simply because He loves us and wants a relationship with us. If we choose to accept his forgiveness, His Holy Spirit will rest on us and give us strength through life’s journey.

We hope you have enjoyed this historical Christmas Stocking! And we wish you a very Happy Christmastime and a blessed new year.


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