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Museum News

Advent and the 12 days of Christmas

By 4 December 2023January 6th, 2024No Comments
Pendean Snow 1

The weeks preceding Christmas are collectively known as Advent, which begins four Sundays before Christmas and ends on December 24th.

In Tudor times, people fasted throughout Advent. This fast was not purely for religious reasons, it also had practical benefits, helping to support limited food stocks during the cold winter months. Fasting meant no meat, cheese or eggs and extended right up to Christmas Eve – which made Christmas lunch the following day all the more exciting!

Berries 2On Christmas Eve, people would have decorated their homes with greenery collected from their local area. This often included holly, ivy, mistletoe and other evergreens that are still popular Christmas décor options.
Work would cease for the Twelve Days of Christmas, also known as Twelvetide. The period, which starts on Christmas Day through to the 5th January, represents the birth day of Jesus Christ and the coming of the three wise men.

In Medieval and Tudor England, the Twelve Days of Christmas included a series of Catholic religious celebrations, feasting and entertainment.

The first day of Christmas, Christmas Day, began with Midnight Mass. Church bells rang, candles were lit, and at last people could feast, enjoying meat, pies, stuffing and frumenty (a type of Christmas Pudding).

The second day of Christmas in Tudor England was the Feast of St Stephen. This was a day for charity and giving to those in need. During the time of the Tudors, alms boxes in churches were opened, and the money was shared out to poor people. This day became a time to give gifts to the needy and the name Boxing Day developed from this tradition.

Feast editThe third day of Christmas was the Feast of St John, who was said to have miraculously drunk a glass of poisoned wine without becoming ill, so this was a day celebrated with drinking. Wine could be quite expensive, so most would drink ale, as well as a drink called Lambswool, which was made by adding spices and apples to beer.

Childermas, or the Feast of the Holy Innocents, was on the fourth day of Christmas. On this day, people remembered the children murdered in Bethlehem by King Herod, as he searched for the baby Jesus. Tudor children were often whipped in the morning to remind them of the suffering of the children in Bethlehem. However, for the rest of the day, the children took charge instead of their parents.

The fifth day of Christmas, honoured the martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket. The Archbishop of Canterbury was killed on 29th December 1170 for challenging King Henry II’s authority over the Church.

The sixth day of Christmas, remembered St Egwin of Worcester, who died on 30th December 717. He was known as the protector of orphans and the widowed.

New Year’s Eve, falls on the seventh day of Christmas. This was traditionally a day for playing games and sports. Although rich people hunted and played cards and dice at all times of the year, Christmas games were even livelier. Some parlour games that we still play today were also enjoyed by the Tudors, including Blind Man’s Buff and Hide-and-Seek.

For poor people who worked very hard during the rest of the year, Christmas was a chance to relax and have some free time. In fact, Henry VIII even made a law that working men could only play certain games (including football, tennis, dice and cards) at Christmas – so they had to make the most of the opportunity.

Feast 2 editThe eighth day of Christmas or New Year’s Day celebrated Mary the Mother o f Jesus, and was the traditional time to give gifts in Tudor England. Evidence suggests that it was mostly upper and middle class people who gave gifts, which included items of food, expensive spices or money.

Medieval people usually bestowed a gift on their lord on New Year’s Day. In a similar way, it was expected that everyone at the Tudor court would give a gift to the King or Queen. These gifts were presented to the monarch in a ceremony, and then each item was displayed on a sideboard for everyone to see.

The final few days of Christmas continued to honour notable people. The ninth day of Christmas celebrated the original Eastern Doctors of the Church: Saints Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen, the tenth day of Christmas, was the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus and the eleventh day of Christmas celebrates the Feast of St Simeon of Stylites, the first known stylite, or pillar hermit from the fifth century who spent 37 years atop a pillar in Aleppo.

Day twelve falls on 5th January and is known as Epiphany Eve or Twelfth Night. The twelfth day of Christmas marked the end of traditional Christmas celebrations.

So, until the 19th century, in many Christian churches, December 25th was only the beginning of the Christmas festivities.