Tuesday, October 8, 2019
I - Tudor Christmas (and Food)
As someone who collects Victorian and Edwardian era sterling silver, I have always found those eras fascinating. Growing up, my impression of the Victorian era was one of uncomfortable sofas and stifling social norms. But the more I learned while collecting sterling flatware, the more I realized it wasn't so. Instead, for most people, it was one of manners, elegance, and the emergence of women as a force to deal with. Of course Downton Abbey, which appeared several years into my hobby, just confirmed those ideals.
But I digress.
I started thinking about the celebration of Christmas, how did it begin? No, not just with the birth of Christ, but with the secular celebrations of the times. How did our forefathers celebrate this holiday?
I am starting with the Tudor era (1485 to 1603), just past the Middle Ages. This includes the Elizabethan Era (1558–1603) The name of this era brings to mind the House of Tudor (mainly Henry VII, Henry VIII, and Elizabeth I). But the Tudor period referred to more than just the monarchy, it was an era, a period of time with its own unique social norms. The affluent upper class as well as the peasants had one thing in common - they went all out for the holiday. Not just for 1 day but for 12. The purpose of the Tudor Christmas was that the holiday acted as a type of pressure-release valve in the very strict Tudor society.
The 12 days were a time when everything changed – things were turned ‘on their head’ – a lot of the traditions involved a role reversal. The first Monday after the Christmas feast finished was known as ‘Plough Monday’ - when farming work would all begin again. But before that day, fun was had by all, no matter your social class.
Advent in the Tudor Era was the four weeks leading up to Christmas. During this time they were not allowed to eat eggs, cheese, or meat. They put this time to good use - preparing for the 12 day Christmas celebration, which given the amount of sumptuous food, drink, decorations, and celebration, took some time.
Like most celebrations, food played a major role. The feast included fowl, pork, and Christmas pudding, to name a few items that could be found on the table. This was the time when exotic and rare dried fruits and spices were used. These were expensive because most came from the Mediterranean. They included clove, mace, black pepper, cinnamon, saffron, and ginger root to name a few. Fruits included raisins, currents, and prunes.
A traditional dish was Shred pie or pye (Sheppard's pie), a recipe of spices and meats.
The mince pies had far more significance than today in that they had 13 ingredients to represent Jesus and the apostles. The pie contained fruit (raisins, currants, prunes) and spices (nutmeg, cloves, mace, black pepper, saffron). The traditional meat of lamb represented the shepherds.
After the introduction of turkeys, there was one interesting dish consisted of a pigeon inside a partridge inside a chicken inside a goose inside a turkey, which was then put in a pastry case, called a 'Coffin' - perhaps the original 'Turduckin'.
The meals were immense and rich. The main meat was pork. Since throughout the year, they did not enjoy as much of this rich and heavy dish, it could be hard on the digestive system. Therefore soup and pie were served first to line the stomach and prevent digestive illnesses. These were followed by the meat, hence the modern tradition of the salad/soup course prior to main course of meat.
At the beginning of the era, since turkey was not yet a popular choice, the center piece of the Christmas table was the head of a hog, stuffed and pickled.
Beverages included Lambswool, a drink made from roasted apples, beer, nutmeg, ginger, and sugar. The rich froth on the top of the drink gave this beverage its name.
Perhaps the most well known holiday beverage of this time was Wassail. It was a beverage of hot mulled cider. Besides enjoying the drink and comradery, the ritual of Wassailing supposedly ensured a good cider apple harvest the following year.
These were some of the foods and beverages on the tables of the peasants. However, at the monasteries, seen as much more affluent, they used more fowl than beef and pork since red meat was thought to increase virility. This was an issue with celibate monks and nuns.
The swan was the main delicacy. It was one of the most expensive dishes of the times. The center piece of most of the aristocratic tables was that of a large swan. After the meat was removed from the bird, the carcass (including feathers) was stuffed and placed on top of the pie, creating a most impressive site.