It probably goes without saying that Christmas dinner 500 years ago was quite a different experience to today. Cadbury's hadn't even been invented yet, let alone three gallon drums of Roses, and pouring perfectly good alcohol over a cake before setting it aflame could probably have you burned as a witch.
Rather than the conventional Christmas dinner we're used to today – turkey, potatoes, stuffing, parsnips, argument, sprouts and a snooze – Britons in the Tudor era enjoyed far more imaginative fare, especially those in society's upper echelons. We did some research to find out what Henry, Liz and chums were tucking into on Christmas Day in the 16th century. Here's what we found.
How the other half lived
Before diving into royalty and aristocracy, it's worth mentioning that the following obviously didn't apply to everyone. Normal people in Tudor England enjoyed what they could afford in a period which revolved around religion. From the 6th of December (St. Nicholas' Day) to the 6th of January (Epiphany), Tudor Britons fasted, worshipped and observed the traditions they were raised to observe.
Like a good vagrant whipping
After fasting on Christmas Eve (no meat, eggs or cheese, at least), a feast would follow on the 25th. While the wealthy dined on swans, geese and venison, most families were happy with some form of meat. Mince pies were on the menu, though they contained 13 recipes to honour Jesus and the Apostles, as well as mutton to acknowledge the shepherds. Christmas pudding, too, contained meat. Rather than the flavoursome dome we're used to today, Tudor Christmas pudding was a combination of spices, fruits and meat that would be formed into a sausage shape and served in slices.
Now, about those wealthy types.
Nothing was straightforward
We live in a period of kitchens stuffed with mod cons, ready and waiting to join us on our culinary adventures. In the high society homes of the 1500s, there were no such conveniences. In fact, there seemed to have been a concerted effort to make life as difficult as possible for those doing the graft.
The kitchen at Hampton Court Palace
Working as one of the teams of cooks in a Tudor home was back-breaking work. The days preceding Christmas would be spent preparing for the feast to be enjoyed by master and mistress on Christmas Day, and none of the process could be automated. Even the most simple of dishes required lengthy preparations. Take souse, for example. Souse is a dish of pickled pigs' feet in jelly. To make the jelly, cooks would have to boil trotters, then clarify the resultant broth. This required sieving and filtering over and over again until it was clear – a process taking more than one person a number of hours, just for a side dish.
Which probably looked like this
Similarly, many households enjoyed marchpane, a paste made from ground almonds and pounded sugar that we today call marzipan. This marchpane would be formed into elaborate shapes and served at the end of the meal, but the preparation alone would be done by hand, and pounding the almonds and sugar together could take hours and require immense stamina.
No really, nothing was straightforward
For the lords and ladies, Christmas dinner was the perfect opportunity for them to display their wealth and social standing. This meant that the dishes that were served had to be spectacular. If you didn't have a chicken and goose cut in half, what was the point in inviting anyone?
That isn't a joke. Introducing the cockenthrice, which surely came from the imagination of someone who hated both people and animals. The cockenthrice is the front half of a pig and the back half of a goose or other large bird, with the legs left on, making this possibly the most optimistic transplant operation in history.
Don't worry though, if you don't fancy eating something man shouldn't have created, there are alternatives. How do you feel about peacock? How about if that peacock was skinned, cooked, then dressed in its cured skin as if it had never been removed? Ok, then what about if its beak is filled with gunpowder and set on fire on its way to the table? These are all things that happened, the peacock being used as a centrepiece to the meal.
If you prefer your comestibles more understated, then perhaps the Tudor Christmas pie is for you. Far from the showiness of the previous two dishes, the Christmas pie was just a pigeon stuffed inside a partridge, which was stuffed inside a chicken which, in turn was stuffed inside a goose. In certain cases that unholy mess would then be stuffed into a turkey. This was then baked into a coffin shaped pie made of inedible pastry, presumably because shortcrust would be too unhealthy.
Reading the above, it's not hard to see why Tudor aristocrats were often malnourished, even going as far as to have scurvy despite living on land and with easy access to food – they ate far too much meat and far too few vegetables, like some sort of gout championship. These meals were often accompanied by salads in the shape of the family crest, and by things like peas potage, a kind of mushy pea dish, but in the face of the cockenthrice, they don't stand a chance. In fact, the Tudors would often enjoy meat in the shape of fruits, thus mocking their immune systems even further.
The poor benefitted from the rich
In a stunning, once-yearly turn of events, the wealthy landowners were considerate toward their tenants. Peasants were permitted to wait outside for the scraps from the table. One such treat from the tenants gave us a phrase we still use today. Venison was a prized meat for the Tudor elite, and once it had been hunted, skinned and butchered, the innards were left over. These innards were called 'umbles'. 'Umbles were given to the local peasantry, who baked them into 'umble' pie.
The Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser of Sat 22 December 1849 summed the situation up nicelyImage © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
So there you have it. Tudor Christmas was a bacchanalian festival of monstrous creations, back-breaking labour, humble pie and a partridge in a pear tree, which in turn is stuffed inside a goose in an oak etc and so forth.