The history of Christmas part 3: From day to night ~ the Tudor and Cromwellian Christmases

In a Tudor household

By the time the House of Tudor took the English throne in 1485, Christmas was a big event in the calendar, and in the life of British people. Everyone was expected to stop their daily life and celebrate for the 12 days of Christmas. In 1541, Henry VIII banned all sports on Christmas Day except archery, to encourage people to focus on Christmas. In 1551 his son Edward VI, passed a law that everybody should walk to church to attend the services.

Feasting was an important part of Christmas day for every household, and with the manorial system across the country people dined on long trestle tables in the lord of the manor’s hall, or with the farmers they worked for, large gatherings were the norm. Turkeys were already in Britain, they had been brought to Europe from their native America in 1519, and sprouts appeared on record in festive cookery in 1587.

In a Cromwellian household

But then came the English Civil War, in the 1600s, commonly known as a battle between King and Parliament, it was equally a battle between moderate and radicle puritan Christians. As the Civil War progressed those that had begun the war, angered by the King’s desire to fight battles against other Puritan states while he defended Catholics and charged his people taxes to fight the wars they disagreed with, saw the tide turn. They had not begun the war because of religion, but those with radicle beliefs gradually took over Parliament, and in the end they arrested and disposed of anyone who disagreed with their extreme point of view. Over indulgences were frowned on, theatres were told to close, saints’ days were no long holidays and any form of recognition of pagan beliefs or religious images were frowned on and then finally banned by law.

In 1644 it was Christmas’s turn to come under Cromwell’s power. Any celebration of Christmas was banned by law. Cromwell called Christmas ‘an extraeme forgetfulnesse of Christ, by giving liberty to carnall and sensual delights.’ By law, Christmas was a work day, all merchants had to open for business by law, there were no church services – unless the day fell on a Sunday. Carols were forbidden and anyone caught cooking Christmas foods or singing Carols might be fined, or worse.

When King Charles II was restored to the thrown in 1660 these laws were reverted, but even so Britain had become used to a less raucous, extreme celebration.

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The history of Christmas part 2: A medieval ‘Christes Maesse’

In the 4th Century AD the Christian Church chose December 25 as the day to celebrate Christ’s birth.

Inside the church the day was all about quiet prayer and reflection. Three church services would be held to celebrate mass, one at midnight, dawn and another during the day.

Outside the church people celebrated as they had always done at this time of year, with songs, Carols were sung in the streets, and singers would walk from house to house. In houses there were banquets, the winter evergreen boughs of holly, ivy, yew and rosemary were cut and brought inside to decorate houses, and gifts were exchanged in accordance with the Roman tradition, usually at the New Year.

The first published mention of Christmas appears in an English Saxon book written in 1038, ‘Christes Maesse’.

In 1066 following the Norman invasion of Britain, William the Conqueror chose Christmas day to be crowned king in Westminster Abbey in London. The celebrations and cheers within the Westminster Abbey at the moment he was crowned were so loud his guards outside thought he was being attacked and stormed in only to cause a riot that spread into the streets and resulted in a mob setting houses around Westminster Abbey alight.

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