8 Ways the Tudors Shaped Modern Christmas

8 Ways the Tudors Shaped Modern Christmas

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The history of Christmas is long and complicated, but by the 16th century, when Henry VIII ruled England, it was beginning to resemble the holiday we know today in some important ways. It may surprise you to learn that some of our favorite traditions of the Christmas season date back to Tudor times, including singing carols, giving gifts, eating turkey—and even kissing under the mistletoe. Take a look back at eight holiday customs from the Tudor period.

12 Days of Christmas

During the four weeks leading up to Christmas Day (known as Advent), most people observed a period of fasting up to and including Christmas Eve. Then the celebrations began, and continued for 12 days, from December 25 to January 6. The three biggest celebrations fell on Christmas Day, New Year’s and Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, on January 6, which honors the arrival of the three kings or three wise men (Magi) to see the baby Jesus.

Though people in Tudor times marked the beginning of the year on March 25 (when they held the Feast of the Annunciation), celebrating and exchanging gifts on January 1 was a holdover from Roman times, when that date was considered the beginning of the year. All work (except taking care of animals) would stop during the 12-day stretch, as everyone from laborers to noblemen devoted themselves to the enjoyment of the Christmas season. Work began again on the first Monday after Twelfth Night, known as Plough Monday.


Today we may recognize the word from classic Christmas carols like “The Wassail Song” and “Here We Come A-Wassailing,” but what did it mean to go wassailing in Tudor times? During the Christmas season, and particularly on Twelfth Night, groups of people traveled from house to house singing to their neighbors and wishing them good health. As they did, they passed around the communal wassail bowl, a vessel filled with warm ale, wine or cider mixed with spices and honey. The word “wassail” is believed to come from the old Anglo-Saxon toast waes hael, meaning “be well” or “be in good health.”

Another type of wassailing took place mostly in the country, and involved the blessing of orchards and fruit trees, rather than people, though it also prioritized communal drinking. A holdover from pagan times, this version of wassailing is still around today in cider-producing areas of England and Woodstock, Vermont, among other places.

Christmas Carols

Over time, the custom of wassailing would become tied up with another Christmas tradition of the Tudor period: caroling. Christmas carols at the time were mostly religious in nature, based around the Nativity story, though some covered themes like hunting or feasting. Some Christmas carols popular during the Tudor period have endured to this day (in different forms): “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” “Good King Wenceslas” and “The First Noel.” In the 17th century, Puritans in both England and America would ban all Christmas festivities, and caroling didn’t become customary again until Victorian times.

Giving Gifts

Though ordinary citizens of Tudor England may have simply given gifts on New Year’s Day in the spirit of Christmas, royal gifts took on a wider political significance: On the first day of 1532, for example, King Henry VIII accepted a gift from Anne Boleyn (a set of “Pyrenean boar spears”), but rejected the gold cup given him by his then-wife, Catherine of Aragon, whom he was trying to divorce at the time. In 1572, Henry and Anne’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, was forced to refuse an impressive jewel given to her by the Duke of Norfolk. At the time, Norfolk was imprisoned in the Tower of London for allegedly conspiring to replace Elizabeth on the English throne with Mary, Queen of Scots; he was executed later that year.

READ MORE: The Wildly Different Childhoods of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots

The “Kissing Bough”

The Christmas tree tradition as we know it likely began in Germany during the 16th century, but it didn’t become widespread in England until some 300 years later. Before then, the most popular decoration in people’s houses during the Yuletide season was the kissing bough, write the authors of A Tudor Christmas (2018). Kissing boughs were woven wooden hoops hung with evergreens like holly and bay leaves and suspended from the ceiling. Of course, a sprig of mistletoe was a must for any kissing bough. The tradition of kissing under that parasitic plant goes back as far as ancient Greece, due to mistletoe’s association with fertility.

Mince Pies

After fasting for four weeks, and abstaining from all meat, eggs and cheese, Tudor-era Britons would have been ravenous come Christmas Day. Mince pies (or “pyes”) were such common fare during the 12 days of celebrations that they were known as Christmas pies. Stuffed with meat—particularly mutton, which signified the shepherds who visited the infant Jesus—the pies were also made with suet, sugar, spices and dried fruit. Ideally, they were supposed to contain 13 different ingredients, to symbolize Christ and his 12 apostles.

Tudor Christmas Pie (the Original “Turducken”)

According to Weir and Clarke, the historical record shows the first turkeys arriving in England from the New World in 1526, or right in the middle of Henry VIII’s reign. Though the most common celebratory fare for Christmas during Tudor times remained the boar’s head, usually displayed on a platter with an apple stuffed into its mouth, wealthier diners could enjoy a particular delicacy of the time: the Tudor Christmas Pie. This creation, which was not for the faint of heart, consisted of a turkey stuffed with a goose, which was stuffed with a chicken, which was stuffed with a partridge, which was stuffed with a pigeon—all baked inside a pastry “coffin.”

The Yule Log

The tradition of burning the Yule Log, which would spawn a tasty cake and thousands of YouTube videos, is thought to have originated with Viking invaders, who made bonfires to celebrate the winter solstice. The word “Yule,” which actually comes from the Old Norse jól, a heathen midwinter festival lasting twelve days, has long been used in English as a synonym for Christmas.

In the Tudor period, many families would head to the woods on Christmas Eve and select a log, which they would decorate with ribbons and set ablaze. After keeping it burning during the 12 days of Christmas, they would keep a charred remnant of the log. This was considered good luck for the year to come, and could be used to help kindle the next year’s Christmas fire.

Martin Luther

"At last meditating day and night, by the mercy of God, I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith. Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open."

In the sixteenth century, the world was divided about Martin Luther. One Catholic thought Martin Luther was a "demon in the appearance of a man." Another who first questioned Luther's theology later declared, "He alone is right!"

In our day, nearly 500 years hence, the verdict is nearly unanimous to the good. Both Catholics and Protestants affirm he was not only right about a great deal, but he changed the course of Western history for the better.

Thunderstorm conversion

Martin was born at Eisleben (about 120 miles southwest of modern Berlin) to Margaret and Hans Luder (as it was locally pronounced). He was raised in Mansfeld, where his father worked at the local copper mines.

Hans sent Martin to Latin school and then, when Martin was only 13 years old, to the University of Erfurt to study law. There Martin earned both his baccalaureate and master's degrees in the shortest time allowed by university statutes. He proved so adept at public debates that he earned the nickname "The Philosopher."

Then in 1505 his life took a dramatic turn. As the 21-year-old Luther fought his way through a severe thunderstorm on the road to Erfurt, a bolt of lightning struck the ground near him.


End of Eastern Roman Empire

Gutenberg produces first printed Bible

Establishment of Spanish Inquisition

Book of Common Prayer released

"Help me, St. Anne!" Luther screamed. "I will become a monk!"

The scrupulous Luther fulfilled his vow: he gave away all his possessions and entered the monastic life.

Spiritual breakthrough

Luther was extraordinarily successful as a monk. He plunged into prayer, fasting, and ascetic practices&mdashgoing without sleep, enduring bone-chilling cold without a blanket, and flagellating himself. As he later commented, "If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk, it was I."

Though he sought by these means to love God fully, he found no consolation. He was increasingly terrified of the wrath of God: "When it is touched by this passing inundation of the eternal, the soul feels and drinks nothing but eternal punishment."

During his early years, whenever Luther read what would become the famous "Reformation text"&mdashRomans 1:17&mdashhis eyes were drawn not to the word faith, but to the word righteous. Who, after all, could "live by faith" but those who were already righteous? The text was clear on the matter: "the righteous shall live by faith."

Luther remarked, "I hated that word, 'the righteousness of God,' by which I had been taught according to the custom and use of all teachers . [that] God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner." The young Luther could not live by faith because he was not righteous&mdashand he knew it.

Meanwhile, he was ordered to take his doctorate in the Bible and become a professor at Wittenberg University. During lectures on the Psalms (in 1513 and 1514) and a study of the Book of Romans, he began to see a way through his dilemma. "At last meditating day and night, by the mercy of God, I . began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith&hellip Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open."

On the heels of this new understanding came others. To Luther the church was no longer the institution defined by apostolic succession instead it was the community of those who had been given faith. Salvation came not by the sacraments as such but by faith. The idea that human beings had a spark of goodness (enough to seek out God) was not a foundation of theology but was taught only by "fools." Humility was no longer a virtue that earned grace but a necessary response to the gift of grace. Faith no longer consisted of assenting to the church's teachings but of trusting the promises of God and the merits of Christ.

It wasn't long before the revolution in Luther's heart and mind played itself out in all of Europe.

"Here I stand"

It started on All Saints' Eve, 1517, when Luther publicly objected to the way preacher Johann Tetzel was selling indulgences. These were documents prepared by the church and bought by individuals either for themselves or on behalf of the dead that would release them from punishment due to their sins. As Tetzel preached, "Once the coin into the coffer clings, a soul from purgatory heavenward springs!"

Luther questioned the church's trafficking in indulgences and called for a public debate of 95 theses he had written. Instead, his 95 Theses spread across Germany as a call to reform, and the issue quickly became not indulgences but the authority of the church: Did the pope have the right to issue indulgences?

Events quickly accelerated. At a public debate in Leipzig in 1519, when Luther declared that "a simple layman armed with the Scriptures" was superior to both pope and councils without them, he was threatened with excommunication.

Luther replied to the threat with his three most important treatises: The Address to the Christian Nobility, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and On the Freedom of a Christian. In the first, he argued that all Christians were priests, and he urged rulers to take up the cause of church reform. In the second, he reduced the seven sacraments to two (baptism and the Lord's Supper). In the third, he told Christians they were free from the law (especially church laws) but bound in love to their neighbors.

In 1521 he was called to an assembly at Worms, Germany, to appear before Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Luther arrived prepared for another debate he quickly discovered it was a trial at which he was asked to recant his views.

Luther replied, "Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scriptures or with open, clear, and distinct grounds of reasoning . then I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience." Then he added, "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me! Amen."

By the time an imperial edict calling Luther "a convicted heretic"was issued, he had escaped to Wartburg Castle, where he hid for ten months.

Accomplishments of a sick man

In early spring of 1522, he was able to return to Wittenberg to lead, with the help of men like Philip Melanchthon, the fledgling reform movement.

Over the next years, Luther entered into more disputes, many of which divided friends and enemies. When unrest resulted in the Peasants' War of 1524&ndash1525, he condemned the peasants and exhorted the princes to crush the revolt.

He married a runaway nun, Katharina von Bora, which scandalized many. (For Luther, the shock was waking up in the morning with "pigtails on the pillow next to me.")

He mocked fellow reformers, especially Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli, and used vulgar language in doing so.

In fact, the older he became, the more cantankerous he was. In his later years, he said some nasty things about, among others, Jews and popes and theological enemies, with words that are not fit to print.

Nonetheless, his lasting accomplishments also mounted: the translation of the Bible into German (which remains a literary and biblical hallmark) the writing of the hymn "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" and publishing his Larger and Smaller Catechism , which have guided not just Lutherans but many others since.

His later years were spent often in both illness and furious activity (in 1531, though he was sick for six months and suffered from exhaustion, he preached 180 sermons, wrote 15 tracts, worked on his Old Testament translation, and took a number of trips). But in 1546, he finally wore out.

Luther's legacy is immense and cannot be adequately summarized. Every Protestant Reformer&mdashlike Calvin, Zwingli, Knox, and Cranmer&mdashand every Protestant stream&mdashLutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and Anabaptist&mdashwere inspired by Luther in one way or another. On a larger canvas, his reform unleashed forces that ended the Middle Ages and ushered in the modern era.

It has been said that in most libraries, books by and about Martin Luther occupy more shelves than those concerned with any other figure except Jesus of Nazareth. Though difficult to verify, one can understand why it is likely to be true.

8 Ways the Tudors Shaped Modern Christmas - HISTORY

Life in Tudor Britain was harsh - the average life expectancy was just 35 years.

Most Tudor people lived in the countryside, but some people lived in towns or big Tudor cities like London, Bristol or Norwich.

Tudor England was a farming society. Most of the population (over 90 %) lived in small villages and made their living from farming. Under Tudor rule England became a more peaceful and richer place. Towns grew larger and the mining of coal, tin and lead became very popular.


There were none of the comforts we have today. Water was collected from village pumps, wells or streams but was often polluted.

Tudor Toilets

Toilets were called 'Privies' and were not very private at all. They were often just a piece of wood over a bowl or a hole in the ground.

People would wipe their bottoms with leaves or moss and the wealthier people used soft lamb's wool.

In palaces and castles, which had a moat, the lords and ladies would retire to a toilet set into a cupboard in the wall called a garderobe. Here the waste would drop down a shaft into the moat below.


The Rich

Wealthy Tudors loved to show of their riches. The clothes they wore and the homes they lived in were all signs of their place in society.

Click here to read about the clothes people wore and the homes they lived

Food was another show of wealth. The rich could afford all kinds of meats and fish and expensive French wine. The best food was considered to be roast veal and venison.

People also ate robins, badgers, otters, tortoises and seagulls.

The types of sports or pastimes a person did was another sign of their rank or wealth. The rich had time for falconry, hunting, jousting, tennis and bowls.

The Poor

The poor had to work hard and struggled to survive. They worked six days a week and only had holy days and public holidays off work. They ate coarse grey bread made from rye and barley. Soups were made from vegetables and herbs. Meat was a luxury but poor people sometimes kept animals to provide milk, cheese and eggs.

Life for the poor in Tudor times was harsh. When the harvest failed it was tempting for poor people to steal food. When people did break the law, they risked public flogging or being hanged.

Further Information

Tudor Houses Facts & Worksheets

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Tudor houses were built during the Tudor era in England between 1485 – 1603 and they had a very distinctive black-and-white style appearance. The Tudor period is the time when the Tudor family came to the throne in England from 1485 – 1603. One of the most famous members of the Tudor family is King Henry VIII. There are still a large number of Tudor house in the UK and some of them are more than 500 years old.

See the fact file below for more information on Tudor Houses or alternatively download our comprehensive worksheet pack to utilise within the classroom or home environment.

What Do Tudor Houses Look Like?

The majority of homes in Tudor times were half timbered. This means that they had a wooden frame and the spaces between were filled with small stick and wet clay. This was called wattle and daub.

The most distinctive feature of Tudor houses was their ‘black-and-white’ effect. See the images below for examples of real Tudor houses.

Facts About Tudor Houses

  • The distinctive black and white look on most Tudor houses is because of the exposed wooden frame. Some of the Tudor homes in the UK are still privately owned and lived it, some are small museums that you can take a tour of, and some have been converted into hotels.
  • Most houses had the wooden frame, as well as a tall chimney, steep roof and an enclosed fireplace inside. The walls between the timber frame were made from wattle and daub – wood strips or sticks covered with clay – and the outer walls were most often whitewashed.
  • Many Tudor houses had thatched roofs. However, for those who were rich enough to afford it, a tiled roof was also available which was more weather-proof and durable than a thatched roof.
  • Tudor homes often had some kind of garden as well. For people with less money, a garden would be quite small and was a place where they could grow their own herbs and vegetables. People with more money would have a large garden and this might include more elaborate decoration. Mazes, fountains, or hesges shaped like animals were not uncommon.
  • Most Tudor houses did not have a toilet. A toilet in Tudor times was called a privy and despite its name it wasn’t as private as it is today. People in Tudor times would go to the toilet anywhere – in the streets, the corner of a room or even a bucket. Some castles and palaces did have toilets, but it was really just a hole in the floor above the moat.
  • When people moved house, they would take their windows with them. Glass was expensive during the late 15th century, and since only a few people could afford to buy it, they would take it with them when they moved.
  • Tudor furniture in the home was big, heavy, uncomfortable and usually made of oak. Instead of chairs, people would sit on wooden benches or stools.
  • Only rich people could afford carpets. It seems strange today, but those who could afford carpet actually hung it on the wall instead of placing it on the floor. Most houses had dirt floors that were impossible to clean so they would cover it with reeds or rushed to hide it.
  • Some Tudor houses had upper storeys bigger than the ground floor. This was called a jetty and it’s when the upper storeys would overhang. The origins of the jetty are not known but in a town it was very useful for enlarging floor space while getting maximum street width.
  • People used to throw their rubbish out of the window into the street. This was common in Tudor times for the streets to contain a lot of rubbish from the houses along the road.

Tudor Houses Worksheets

This bundle contains 11 ready-to-use Tudor Houses Worksheets that are perfect for students who want to learn more about architecture within the Tudor period which is the time when the Tudor family came to the throne in England from 1485 – 1603.

Download includes the following worksheets:

  • Facts
  • Timeline of British Rulers
  • The Tudor Family
  • Henry VIII
  • Types of Housing
  • Tudor Style Houses
  • Tudor Home Characteristics
  • Design Your Own
  • Compare and Contrast
  • Life in a Tudor House
  • Life in Tudor England

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Use With Any Curriculum

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The Chandos Portrait, one of several contested images of Shakespeare. Photograph: National Portrait Gallery/PA

This portrait of Shakespeare, one of several contested images, seems to capture the artist in his prime. Here is the “soul of the age”, the author of The Sonnets, Hamlet, As You Like It and Henry V, taking a break from the playhouse to practise something he rarely enjoyed: promoting his image. The writer described as “not a company keeper” was usually too busy with literary and theatre business to waste time on self-publicity. He understood that it was the work that mattered, not the hoopla that accompanied it. Unlike Ben Jonson, his competitor and contemporary, he seems to have showed virtually no interest in posterity.

8 Ways the Tudors Shaped Modern Christmas - HISTORY

In the Tudor times many people had to make their own entertainment. There were no computers, televisions and mp3 players and very few people could read.

Without electricity, often people got up early in the morning when it was light and went to bed when it was dark. They worked most of the day and week and so much entertainment was saved until Sundays. The one day of the week when most people didn't work.

Watching plays became very popular during the Tudor times. This popularity was helped by the rise of great playwrights such as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe as well as the building of the Globe theatre in London. By 1595, 15,000 people a week were watching plays in London.

It was during Elizabeth's reign that the first real theatres were built in England. Before theatres were built actors travelled from town to town and performed in the streets or outside inns.

Globe theatre in London

The Globe Theatre was built on the River Thames. It was circular and had seats around the walls which cost two pence or three pence if you had a cushion.

Most theatres had no roof.

The seats around the wall enabled people to watch the play and kept them out of the worst of the weather. Most theatres had no roof.

The cheapest places were in the so-called pit. This was the area in front of the stage. People would pay about a penny to see the play and they stood for the duration of the play.

© Copyright - please read
All the materials on these pages are free for homework and classroom use only. You may not redistribute, sell or place the content of this page on any other website or blog without written permission from the author Mandy Barrow.

Late Tudor Costume

The men’s fashion had not changed as much as the women’s. However, the square shape was replaced by a sleeker look. Men still wore doublet and hose, but the coat had been replaced by a short jacket. Men also wore ruffs around their necks.

The style of dress had changed considerably. the bodice was longer, and the skirt was worn over a farthingale (a circular frame) to give it its unique shape. the head-dress had been replaced by jewels in the hair and an elaborate ruff of lace was worn around the neck.

8 Ways the Tudors Shaped Modern Christmas - HISTORY

Tudor England is famous for its beautiful and ornate clothing, particularly during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Clothes were a means of displaying how wealthy a person was. Rich people could afford clothing made of fine wool, linen or silk. Their clothes were decorated with jewels and embroidered with gold thread.

No rich person felt properly dressed to impress unless he or she was wearing a ruff. Like so many Tudor clothes, it gave a strong signal about the wealth and importance of the person wearing it.

Rich ladies wore padded skirts held up with loops. Over these went bodices and colourful floor-length gowns.

Rich men wore white silk shirts, frilled at the neck and wrists. Over this they wore a doublet (a bit like a tight-fitting jacket), and close-fitting striped trousers (called hose).

Everyone wore their hair shoulder length.

Why did the Tudors wear ruffs and why did the ladies wear stomachers and have to cover themselves up?

It was all to do with fashion, a bit like ripped jeans are today. It was the in thing to wear ruffs and for ladies to make their stomachs as small as they could by wearing corsets and wide skirts.

What did the poor wear?

Poor people wore simple, loose-fitting clothes made from woollen cloth. Most men wore trousers made from wool and a tunic which came down to just above their knee. Women wore a dress of wool that went down to the ground. They often wore an apron over this and a cloth bonnet on their heads.

There are many paintings of Tudors especially the Tudor king and queens. By studying these paintings we can see what clothes were worn by the Tudors, especially rich Tudor people.

Why did Tudor mens clothes look like a square and ladies triangular?

Women's clothing gave them a triangular shape. Their corsets were tight fitting making their waists very thin, while their petticoats and gowns were very wide.

Men's clothes made them look square. They wore short jackets and the shoulders of their coat were cut wide.

What did rich Tudor children wear?

Click on the pictures to enlarge them.

Other websites

BBC Costume Game - a really good game where you fit the clothing item to the period mannequin

© Copyright - please read
All the materials on these pages are free for homework and classroom use only. You may not redistribute, sell or place the content of this page on any other website or blog without written permission from the author Mandy Barrow.

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