“They both do provide, against Christmas do come,
To welcome their neighbors, good cheer to have some.
Good bread and good drink, a good fire in the hall,
Brawn, pudding, and souse, and good mustard withal.
Beef, mutton, and pork, and good pies of the best,
Pig, veal, goose, and capon, and turkey well drest,
Cheese, apples and nuts, and good carols to hear!”
--Thomas Tusser, “500 Points of Husbandry,” 1573
One thing I learned as I research Elizabeth Christmas traditions for my book The Winter Queen is that they really knew how to party at the holidays! The Christmas season (Christmastide) ran 12 days, from December 24 (Christmas Eve) to January 6 (Twelfth Day), and each day was filled with feasting, gift-giving (especially to impress the Queen, who expected elaborate presents from her courtiers), pageants, masquerades, a St. Stephen’s Day fox hunt, and lots of general silliness (including a game called Snapdragon, where a bowl of raisins is covered with brandy and set alight. The players have to snatch the raisins from the flames and eat them without being burned).
(Later in Elizabeth’s reign, she mostly kept Christmas at Greenwich, or sometimes at Hampton Court or Nonsuch Palace, but in 1564, the year my story is set, she spent the holiday at Whitehall in London. It was the coldest winter in memory, so cold the Thames froze through and there was a Frost Fair, so travel was difficult).
Even though there were no Christmas trees or stockings by the fire, we would definitely recognize many of the decorations! Anything that was still green was used—holly, ivy, yew, bay (hence the song, “Holly and ivy, box and bay, put in the house for Christmas Day!”). The Yule log started things off on Christmas Eve, brought in by the men of the household, decorated with wreaths and ribbons, and lit from a bit of last year’s log saved for the purpose. It was a tradition to sit around the fire and tell tales of Christmases past on that night.
Food was just as big a part of the holiday as it is now! Roast meats were big, of course (pork, beef, fricaseed, cooked in broths, roasted, baked in pies), along with stewed vegetables and fine white manchet bread. Sweets were always a favorite with the Queen, including candied flowers, hard candies in syrup called suckets, Portugese figs, Spanish oranges, tarts, gingerbread, and the famous figgy pudding. The feast always ended with a grand piece of sugar art called a subtlety, and in 1564 this was a candy recreation of Whitehall itself, complete with a sugar Thames. All this was washed down with wines (malmsey, Gascon, Rhenish), beer, and ale, with much singing and goofiness predictably following all that liquor! But in 1564, they could work it all off the next day skating and sledding on the Thames, or going for a ride in the country.
On my website (http://ammandamccabe.com) I have lots more info on historical Christmas, as well as period recipes and lists of sources. (A couple fun reads about the holiday are Maria Hubert’s Christmas in Shakespeare’s England and Hugh Douglas’s A Right Royal Christmas). If you’re feeling brave, here is a very authentic Christmas recipe to try—roasted peacock! This was often the grand centerpiece of a royal feast…
“Take a peacock, break its neck and drain it. Carefully skin it, keeping the skin and feathers together with the head still attached at the end of the neck. Roast only the bird, with its legs tucked under. When it is roasted enough, take it out and let it cool. Sprinkle cumin on the inside of the skin, then wind it with the feathers and the tail about the body. Serve with the tail feathers upright, its neck propped up from within, and a lighted taper in its beak. If it is a royal dish, cover the beak with fine gold leaf. Carry the proud bird to the table at the head of a procession of lower dishes for to be sampled first by the monarch. Serve with ginger sauce.”
If you try this dish, be sure and let me know! How do you celebrate the holidays???
Thanks for being with us today, Amanda.
You can pre-order The Winter Queen at Amazon! But Amanda tells me she'll give away a copy to one lucky person who leaves a comment here today!
And speaking of give-aways, be sure to enter my Merry CHRISTMAS BALL Contest! On December 1st, I'm giving away a $100 B&N gift card!