Christmas has always been a special occasion in England, and not least among its royal families. Although it has decreased in the size and scope of celebration among royalty as well as among the public, it still occupies a place of great importance as a favorite Royal holiday period and as a time of good cheer.
Although a good Christmas dinner, possibly for a large group, may be in order these days, it is not likely to surpass in pantry quantities the Christmas feast of King John in 1213. Administrative records from the period show that the royal Christmas of 1213 required 24 hogshead of wine and 1000 hens, as well as 50 pounds of pepper. There were also ordered two pounds of saffron, 100 pounds of almonds, and 10,000 salt eels that were to be sent from Canterbury. Other items, including 200 head of pork, were also required. Despite no guest list surviving, we may conclude that the King was far from dining alone over the holiday.
At this time, and for at least another century, the English court participated in the then-common Western European fun of choosing “boy bishops” at Christmas; this was usually done for December 28, during the Christmas season, in celebration of the Feast of the Holy Innocents (a festival celebrating the young boys martyred by King Herod). Boys would be elected as bishops in schools and churches, would be dressed in clerical vestments, and permitted to preach before going out in a procession at which they would be presented with food and with gifts. King Edward I had a boy bishop say vespers before him in 1299, and Edward II, in 1316, awarded a boy bishop ten shillings for his work.
Henry IV was a great celebrator of Christmas festivities, and an invitation to come for Christmas meant far more than visiting for dinner. The Chester Herald was dispatched to deliver invitations to guests’ homes; once the invitation was received, complicated packing and head counting would begin for a journey to Eltham Palace, if one had not anticipated the invitation already. Arriving before Christmas itself, the nobles invited, accompanied by their personal servants, were expected to help decorate the Palace with greenery that would remain in place until February 2. Many guests might well feel that they were staying until nearly February 2, for a Christmas invitation invariably meant staying “through the holidays” until Twelfth Night on January 6 at the earliest. Guests would go on fishing trips to the carp ponds by the castle moat, helping to catch fish for the Christmas dinner and other meals, and go on hunting trips to bring in venison for the Christmas table as well as other dinners through the holidays.
Christmas at Eltham Palace was a joyous but not an irreligious time. Guests were expected to participate in Mass at midnight on Christmas Eve, again at the Shepherds’ Mass at dawn, and then at Divine Liturgy later in the day. The Christmas dinner, featuring the fish and game hunted as sport during the visit, would also include such delicacies as spiced nuts, stuffed fowl, and Vyand Ryalle, a savory concoction of wine, honey, mixed spices, and rice. Each course would be served with wine and small beer, and at the end of each course, “subtleties” would be presented, made by the King’s pastry chefs. These were spun sugar amusements and marzipan sculptures, which were often huge and elaborate. One such creation was a peacock with spread tail, while another was a crowned leopard breathing fire.
As for royal dinner entertainment, King Henry and Queen Joanna were known as skilled lutists and singers, and so would entertain their guests themselves for a bit as well as providing other musicians and minstrels. After dinner was settled, there were “carol dances” involving the singing of carols back and forth while dancing, with words not necessarily found in the hymnal; this was usually a rollicking, riotous, and occasionally somewhat lewd event. If dancing were not to a guest’s taste, the card games and dice games for various stakes might be entertaining instead, or, if a quieter evening were desired, music and chess were also available for the evening’s amusement.
Though other days at Eltham might be less riotous than Christmas, there was much entertainment through Twelfth Night. Hunting parties would continue, as did chess, gaming with cards and dice, and other games such as Nine Men’s Morris. If it were sufficiently cold, ice skating was also to be had on frozen ponds; if not, there was, again, the chance to fish. And the King was partial to tournaments as well, made up of guests at the Palace. Blunted lances, as well as swords and archery equipment, were made available for the occasion. Winners and losers alike would celebrate at the costume parties in the evenings; had costumes been forgotten, the King opened the closets of Eltham to his guests to accommodate them.
Twelfth Night was Henry’s preferred time for the exchanging of gifts, in emulation of the Wise Men bringing gifts to the infant Jesus. While the King was prone to handing out jewels, livery chains, and silk fabrics as gifts, he was easily satisfied with a barrel of ale or a cask of wine as gifts to him.
Another Henry, Henry VIII, followed in the suit of Henry IV as a prodigious host for the two weeks of Christmas entertaining; he normally preferred Greenwich Palace as his holiday home, but occasionally did stay at and entertain at Hampton Court instead. It is recorded that he would feed as many as a thousand people at the holidays, and that his Christmas dinners were as large as his guest list; an Italian visitor once recorded the King’s Christmas dinner as lasting seven hours at table. This time was not spent entirely in gargantuan eating, for the court’s manners were refined; however, on one notable occasion, the King became bored during dinner and subjected his guests to his tossing of sugar plums at every one he could reach. Henry is believed to be the first monarch to feat on a Christmas turkey. He also enjoyed, throughout the twelve days, dishes of “minced pie,” then made with diced lamb, saffron, vinegar, and prunes.
Desserts in Henry’s day were as copious as the rest of the Christmas feast, with twenty or more cold jellies displayed to show off the cooks’ work. Molds of castles and of animals were common for the jellies, as well as any other extravagant object of which a mold could be created. Frumenty, which later developed into the modern Christmas pudding, was also a regular Christmas dish. At the time, it was commonly made by boiling wheat in milk and adding fruit.
The Court was full during Henry’s Christmases, in no small part because the public was invited to see the “mummeries” which included theatrics, dancing and caroling. As in previous reigns, celebrations ran through Twelfth Night. In Henry’s court, the usual Christmas Eve spectacular involved the acting out of the legend of Saint George and the dragon. Presents, however, were exchanged on New Year’s Day, and were perhaps the most dramatic of all events, as Henry accepted or rejected gifts according to the esteem in which he held the giver. In 1532, this led to his public acceptance of gifts from Anne Boleyn, but rejection of those from the Queen, Catherine of Aragon.
The custom of wassail was celebrated on Twelfth Night, as was the custom of King’s Cake. An object, usually a dried pea or bean, was baked into a large cake; whoever was given the piece containing the bean was King or Queen of Twelfth Night, and was the leader of all dancing, caroling, and games for the rest of the night.
Henry VIII, however, despite his elaborate festivities, banned the practice of the Boy Bishop at court. He felt it was mockery of the Church, and as he had made himself head of England’s Church, it was therefore a mockery of him. The practice was still retained at many churches, however, including the Cathedrals of Hereford and Salisbury.
Elizabeth I kept Christmas in much the same fashion as her father, including the acceptance and rejection of gifts. In 1571 she rejected a jewel sent to her from the Duke of Norfolk. Of course, at the time, he was in the Tower of London for his involvement in a revolt against the Crown. She followed her sister, Mary, though, in abolishing the Tudor Christmas practice of appointing a Lord of Misrule for the court to lead festivities. The practice was done outside of court as well, and Elizabeth felt that it promoted public disorder.
King James I, though raised Calvinist in Scotland, took to English royal Christmas endeavors with gusto. Fond of masques and theatrics, he had his predecessor Elizabeth’s wardrobe, containing over 500 robes, rifled to provide costuming. Hampton Court was his preferred Christmas location; the rooms were larger than elsewhere, allowing machines built by Inigo Jones and others to change scenery. His wife, Princess Anne of Denmark, enjoyed performing in the Christmas theatrics, and despite the extensive costume selection she had, was noted for taking many roles that were considered to be quite scantily clad. The Hampton Court theatrics proved so popular that it could not hold all of the attendees; ultimately, the performances were moved to tents on the grounds to accommodate all of the visitors. In 1603, Hampton Court saw multiple productions of Shakespeare’s works and a great Christmas mass at the Chapel Royal prior to the start of the Hampton Court Conference of 1604 that saw the beginning of the work on the Authorized Version of the Bible.
After the Restoration, the glories of royal Christmases diminished, despite efforts to recapture them. Samuel Pepys records that Charles II visited Lincoln’s Inn to see the revels in 1661; there were, meanwhile, disappointments among the nobility that the King was not interested in restoring the court traditions. He was more interested in enjoying Christmas horse racing at Newmarket.
William and Mary did little to restore royal Christmas traditions, and Mary’s death on December 28, 1694 did nothing to help this. Queen Anne made no elaborate Christmases, although she did entertain the King of Spain at Windsor in 1703, without the lavish festivities of the Tudor past. However, there was entertainment for the King for three days, during which time he presented the Queen with a magnificent diamond ring at a dinner. The next year, the Queen had a more public Christmas rejoicing, as the Duke of Marlborough arrived home from the Continental wars at that time.
Although the Christmas pantomime began in the reign of George I, the King himself was not interested; he was noted for a lack of Christmas celebration, believed to be caused by his missing Hanover at the holidays. George II, alternatively, is believed to be the person who originated standing during the “Hallelujah” chorus of Handel’s Messiah – however, it seems that he never attended the production, and the tales of his leaping to his feet during the chorus were first reported 37 years later.
When the royal Christmas did return, albeit with no Lord of Misrule or other misdoings, it was to be over a century later, at the hands of Queen Victoria, the monarch who created the modern Christmas.
Victoria’s favorite Christmas home was at Osborne, on the Isle of Wight, although, like Queen Anne, she also kept Christmases at Windsor. Prince Albert, always a great influence on his wife, impressed her with the German custom of the Christmas tree; the Yule log, on the other hand, pre-dated the Tudors. It was in fact Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, who first brought the custom of the tree to England, but it was Albert and Victoria who made them popular. Christmas with the Queen often required a dozen or more trees. There was a giant tree for the public rooms of her Christmas home, where she would often stay until February; there was a household tree, and there were smaller trees, decorated by the servants, which would have toffees and other sweets tied to them, such trees being great favorites of Victoria’s children. These trees were under the management of the Queen’s confectionery chef. One tree was appointed to each of Victoria’s children as the place to put their particular gifts, which helped manage exchanging presents in her large family.
The Queen was a strong public figure but also a believer in the home and in domestic tranquility; it was a portrait of her, Prince Albert, and their children around the Christmas tree at Windsor in 1848 that sparked the imaginations of the British as to what Christmas now meant, how it would be celebrated. Victoria transformed the royal Christmas from a massive, nearly public celebration for the nobility into a public glimpse into a private holiday, a welcome respite for the public from over a century of little to no royal notice of the holiday.
The Queen’s schedule for Christmas Eve and Christmas was fixed. It was also busy, in keeping with Lancastrian and Tudor ideas of activity, although celebrated for only a few days rather than twelve. Christmas Eve began in the afternoon with tea with her employees – the servants. For this, the Queen visited the downstairs, where the servants’ hall was filled with servants, their families, and massive quantities of pastries, tea, ale, and other delights. The Queen presented gifts to all. There were practical gifts for adults – bolts of fabric, joints of meat, meat pies, entire crocks of plum puddings. Children received toys, clothing, books, and gingerbread men; the Queen delighted in handing out these gifts to the servants’ children nearly as much as she enjoyed presenting gifts to her own children. After handing out the gifts, the Queen would be treated to carol singing.
After the tea, the Queen would head back upstairs to the public rooms, where there was another gifting ceremony to be held, this one involving the gifts to the Royal Household. These gifts, out of necessity, were a lavish affair: men received silver cigarette cases, jeweled cuff links, and watches; women received jewelry and furs. There were more practical gifts, as well: silk dressing gowns, silver picture frames, silver teapots, silver trays. Once these more public gift affairs were over, it was time to exchange family presents.
At Osborne, the Christmas Day schedule involved a morning religious service, luncheon at one o’clock, and tea at five o’clock. It was later that evening that the Queen’s famous Christmas dinner would be served. Her chef de cuisine would start requesting foodstuffs from Windsor a month in advance. Orders included hundreds of pounds of lamb, a 140-pound baron of beef from the Queen’s own cattle, fifty turkeys, and more. The Christmas mincemeat required 330 pounds of sugar, 82 pounds of raisins, 2 pounds of cinnamon, 60 pounds of orange and lemon peel, and 24 bottles of brandy. The plum puddings were so infamously large that pieces of them were boxed and shipped to her relatives across the Continent; in later years the first slice of the pudding would be shipped to her grandson-in-law Tsar Nicholas II in time for Russian Orthodox Christmas on January 7.
All of these were turned into Christmas dinners, most of which are recorded, that define the image of the modern Christmas feast. In 1894, her sideboard alone contained more than enough different dishes for most people: that baron of beef, woodcock, a stuffed wild boar’s head sent by the Emperor of Germany, and pheasant. But these were indeed sides, not the main menu. That entailed, in order, a calf’s head consommé with truffles and cock’s comb and a second carrot soup; salmon steaks with hollandaise sauce and breaded fried sole; a mold of truffled pheasant with Milanese sauce; roast beef with Yorkshire pudding; turkey with pearl onions, chestnuts, and sausages; and chine of pork. Asparagus was served on the side. Desserts included mince pies, plum pudding, and jellied orange custards. Before midnight, there would be a performance by a guest singer or musician, a greatly reduced affair from Lancastrian times but nonetheless a pleasant entertainment.
We recognize from this even today the idea of a Christmas turkey or a Christmas roast, asparagus, chestnuts, plum pudding, and sweet mince pie as key Christmas dinner menu items. Although London confectioner Tom Smith had invented the Christmas cracker in 1860, it is not recorded as having been an item at the royal dinner table, and one can only imagine the Queen’s reaction to finding one there.
Victoria’s eldest son was also a great celebrator of Christmas. As Prince of Wales he found himself on HMS Serapis, docked in India, at Christmas, 1875 and managed a Christmas dinner on board to rival one of his mother’s dinners, including spring vegetable consommé, mutton cutlets, chicken breasts in creamed watercress, galantine of turkey, grouse pastries, ham, pickled beef tongue, lobster salad, champagne jellies, plum pudding, and mince pies.
As King, Edward VII preferred his holidays at Sandringham, and limited to the royal family without guests. Family members purchased gifts in London before leaving the city, or had them delivered to Sandringham before they arrived. The King was noted for celebrating traditionally, with “mighty feasting, the sports and merriment…,” but he also followed his mother’s tradition of distributing gifts on Christmas Eve to the servants and those living on the Sandringham Estate. Like her, he handed out clothing, joints of beef, and other useful presents, as well as toys for the children of the estate. Christmas morning was ushered in by a bagpiper, and the relatives exchanged gifts at breakfast. After breakfast, the family would walk across the park to church services, once again allowing a public glimpse into the royal festivities.
Edward’s Christmas afternoons at Sandringham included the children’s luncheon and adult activities – riding, ice skating, driving, or visiting the kennels. After that came tea, and after tea came games with the children. When the children retired, everyone else prepared for the evening’s party and dinner. In the ballroom, Edward and Alexandra would present gifts to courtiers, Sandringham tenants, and servants. The King gave books and jewelry, while the Queen tended to give art pottery, needlework, and, for women upper servants, silk dresses. Edward enjoyed handing out both confections and Christmas crackers to the crowd. A formal dinner began at 8:45, at which baron of beef, cygnet, and roast turkey were featured before the usual plum puddings and mince pies. Edward allowed only an hour for dinner, because after coffee or port, the theatre-loving King might have requested a command performance of the season’s most popular play. Otherwise, or afterwards, came bridge, music, and parlor games.
Boxing Day brought the servants’ Christmas Dinner, which the King and Queen and select guests were invited to dine below stairs. The next few days, the King usually had shooting, with outdoor tents for luncheons of Irish stew and roast beef with Yorkshire puddings so that the shooting party would not have to head back to the house. But the festivities would conclude before New Year’s Day, because the King and Queen enjoyed spending the New Year with the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire at Chatsworth.
Queen Elizabeth II has also enjoyed her Christmases at Sandringham, although like many of her predecessors, she also has spent Christmas at Windsor Castle. It is a complicated affair even in terms of clothing, as the Queen traditionally changes clothes at Sandringham as many as five times on Christmas Day. On Christmas Eve, the younger members of the family arrive as early as 9:00 a.m., and the day is filled with activities. All of the royal family in attendance assist in decorating the Christmas tree, which tends toward 20 feet, and is frequently Norfolk pine or spruce. Queen Victoria’s glass angels still decorate the tree.
Afternoon tea is followed by gift exchanges, which among the current royal family tend toward the cheery and even silly. Princess Anne is recorded as having given the Prince of Wales a white leather toilet seat. The Queen is noted to enjoy practical gifts. Gone is the Victorian tradition of handing out silver cigarette cases and jewelry at the “official” gift exchange, although servants do still receive gifts from the Queen.
There is a formal dinner on Christmas Eve at which almost anything other than turkey might be served; turkey is reserved for Christmas Day. The Queen enjoys parlor games such as charades in the evening. This is an occasion on which male royals wear black tie and women wear evening gowns.
Christmas Day at Sandringham features a large breakfast, already laid out, for the family prior to church. Most of the family walks to St Mary Magdalene Church, although the Queen is usually driven. It is customary for well-wishers to wait outside to greet the royal family after church, as they did in the days of Edward VII. After church there is a formal Christmas luncheon, at which turkey is served. Queen Victoria’s traditional boar’s head on the sideboard, however, still appears, though it is no longer the annual gift of a foreign monarch. If the Christmas is at Windsor, the traditions are still observed in the same fashion.
After lunch the royals gather in a drawing room to watch the Queen’s Christmas Speech. Her grandfather, George V, gave the first Christmas Speech in 1932 on radio. The Queen herself tends not to participate, as she is already familiar with the speech, which is recorded in advance.
Above: Entrance to the very place where CHRIST WAS BORN, JERUSALEM, ISRAEL, 2018
The celebratory Christmas period is shorter than in the days of Edward VII, and is less formal, but still maintains the traditions of Christmas Eve gifts, a Christmas Eve dinner, and a church service which offers those outside the family the chance to see a glimpse of the royal holiday. There is still a Christmas meal, with the boar’s head. The royal Christmas traditions would be familiar to the King, including the Duke of Edinburgh’s customary Christmas shooting at Sandringham. Although the twentieth and twenty-first century Christmas activities of the royal family are pared down many times from the gargantuan celebrations of the late medieval royal families and the Tudors, both ceremony and festivity still remain alive during the royal Christmas celebrations.
~ Written by Malka Gittel Bas Reuven