Although Christmas was celebrated very differently in Tudor times, if anything the celebrations were even bigger. All work stopped on Christmas Eve for 12 days of revelry and feasting. While Peter and Tom decorate the farmhouse with holly and ivy, Ruth prepares grand banquets for the farmworkers. The Christmas Day feast was particularly special and featured a pig’s head rather than a turkey as its centrepiece.
Most farmers could not afford to feast every day but the monasteries held a special mass and banquet on each of the 12 days of Christmas. The fifth day, the Feast of Thomas Becket, was particularly important. Red meat was thought to stimulate virility, so monks ate poultry such as swan and game. Tom and Ruth learn the art of falconry – the main way of catching game birds. The team also indulge in archery, the most popular sport of the era, whilst Tom learns how to make bagpipes, the most widely played instrument of the day.
The culmination of Christmas was marked by a frenzy of music, food and alcohol. The main treat was Twelfth Night Cake. A dried pea was hidden in the cake – the precursor to the sixpence in a Christmas pudding – and whoever found it would be appointed the ‘Lord of Misrule’ for the night, leading the celebrations. Tudor life was hierarchical and strictly organised but, at Christmas, the rules were relaxed and the roles reversed.
Finally the revellers head out ‘wassailing’ – an early version of carol singing which originated many songs still sung today such as ‘We wish you a Merry Christmas’ and ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’.