12 Days of Christmas

November 30 2023 | Castle History

The famous Boleyn family, whose daughter Anne notably became Henry VIII’s second queen, most likely spent many Christmases at their Kentish manor of Hever Castle.

Like today, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day would have been central to the Christmas festivities.

However, it was 12 days of Christmas back then, spanning from Christmas Eve through to Epiphany (Twelfth Night).

Some of the traditions practiced by the Boleyn family at Christmas would be familiar to us today, whilst others have morphed or fallen out of practice over the centuries.

What seems to transcend time, however, is the centrality of family, feasting, and festivities during this important, celebratory period.

As Alison Sim wrote, 12 days of Christmas was like a safety valve being released – a time to celebrate the passing of midwinter, to be merry and to bring good cheer to friends, family and loved ones. Much like today

12 days of Christmas: Decorating a Tudor Home

Before Christmas Eve, the Boleyn family would have undertaken strict sober period of abstinence from food, or fasting, for the four weeks leading up to Christmas.

During the period of advent, there would be no meat or dairy served. This allowed the Boleyns to prepare themselves spiritually for what they understood to be the coming of Christ.

On Christmas Eve, however, was the beginning of the Christmas festivities, and although the fasting continued into that day, the Boleyns would have begun to dress Hever Castle with their version of Christmas decorations.

It is easy to imagine Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn taking their five children out from the comfort of their home, across the drawbridge, and into the thickly wooded Kentish weald, for this is where they would have gathered the foliage to decorate the castle.

The greenery that the Boleyn women would gave gathered on Christmas Eve would have been holly, ivy, yew, box, laurel, bay, rosemary, and mistletoe: some of which still feature in today’s Christmas decorations.

Holly was symbolic of the crown of thorns worn by Christ, with the red berries evoking Christ’s blood, while the ivy symbolised the support that Christ gave to those who followed him: ivy relying on the support of trees to thrive.

This decking of Hever’s halls was also about bringing evergreen life into the house at midwinter to cheer the manor up and to hasten on spring.

The holly and ivy would also been used to decorate objects such as the spinning wheels and the ploughs. These decorations were placed on these objects of labour on Christmas Eve to prevent their use over the twelve days of Christmas, for this was a time to down tools and to have much merriment.

The Boleyns would also have taken the evergreens into nearby Hever Church to decorate there too.

One of the objects that the Boleyn women may have made for Hever is a kissing bough – a sphere-like precursor to the wreath that we know today, made from the holly and the Ivy.

At the bottom of the sphere would have been Mistletoe, which visitors would have kissed under before plucking off a berry. When all the berries had gone, there were no more kisses to be had.

12 days of Christmas: The Yule Log

Today when we think about a Yule Log, we would almost certainly imagine a rather chocolatey treat fashioned in the shape of a log.

But in the Tudor era, you would be looking for heat, rather than nourishment, from your Yule Log.

While the women folk were gathering the holly and the ivy to decorate Hever, Thomas Boleyn would have taken several of the men in his household and his three sons, Thomas Henry, and George, to fell one of the large oak trees on his estate. From this green tree would come the Yule Log. The vast log would have been tied with rope and dragged by the men back to the castle, across the drawbridge and taken into the Great Hall.

The Yule Log would then have been dressed by the Boleyn women with Holly and Ivy, and they also would have decorated it with wetted ribbons.

These decorative elements were all about slowing down the burning process, for the Boleyn family would burn this Yule Log for the entirety of the twelve days of Christmas. It certainly would have provided a good amount of warmth for the servants who would have bedded down here in the Great Hall at night.

There was a rather endearing part of the tradition lighting of the Log: the charred remains of last year’s log would be kept so that the new log could be lit from it. It is easy to imagine one of the Boleyn children dashing to collect the old, charred piece of wood and another having the privilege of lighting the new one.

Great Halls, such as the medieval example at Hever, soon became unfashionable in wealthy households, where more modest dining rooms would appear. These had far less room for a log big enough to burn for 12 days and nights, which is why it has morphed into the modern chocolaty delicacy we know today.

12 Days of Christmas: Carols

Through his position as a trusted diplomat and ambassador to King Henry VIII, Thomas Boleyn was able to secure coveted positions for his daughter, Anne Boleyn, firstly at the Court of Margaret of Austria in the Low Countries (now the Netherlands) and then at the Court of France. At these cultured courts, Anne finished the education that began at Hever Castle, and a core part of that education would have been learning to sing, play instruments and dance.

Anne was reputed by courtier at the French court to sing like a siren, accompanying herself with both the lute, harp, and flute.

Remarkably, Anne’s own songbook survives in collection of the Royal College of Music. It almost certainly pre-dates her short reign as Henry VIII’s second Queen Consort, being signed ‘Mistress Anne Boleyn’ and accompanied with the Boleyn family Motto – Now Thus.

With such a colourful and accomplished background, it is easy to imagine Hever Castle full of music during the Christmas period, for Christmas Carols were an integral part of the Christmas celebrations during the Tudor era.

One of the earliest collections of Christmas Carols is dated from 1521, around the time that Anne Boleyn was returning to England from the French court.

Carols are commonly sung in Churches today, but in the Tudor era they would have been sung in the household and would have been accompanied with a dance.

Most Carols centralised on the coming of Christ and were religious in nature, however there are also examples of Carols which covers themes such a hunting, feasting and nature.

A good example of these secular carols would be the Boars Head Carol, which would be performed with the delivery of the Boars head, served as the centrepiece of the Christmas feast.

Some Tudor Carols are still sung today, such as The Coventry Carol: Our first known record of it being made in 1534, during Anne Boleyn’s reign.

It is extremely easy to imagine the Boleyn family, with all their musical acumen, enjoying Carols around the fireside at Christmas here at Hever Castle.

12 Days of Christmas: Wassailing

You may have heard of the tradition of Wassailing through the 19th Century Carol “Here we come a Wassailing” which is still commonly sung at Christmas time.

The tradition has much deeper roots, however, and the word is an Anglo-Saxon one, roughly meaning “Your good health.”

Here at Hever in the time of the Boleyn’s, wassailing was an altogether boozier affair.

If you went Wassailing in the Tudor era, you would have needed a wooden bowl – a Wassail Bowl – and inside would have been a potent mixture of hot ale, sugar, and spiced.

The sugars and spices would have been extremely expensive additions to the ale, giving a sweet and exotic flavour.

At Court, the Wassail Bowl would have been paraded into the grouping of courtiers by the Steward, and upon crying “Wassail”, the courtiers would have replied with a song before sharing the boozy contents of the bowl amongst the courtiers.

Here at Hever, the tradition would probably have been a less formal affair, with Thomas Boleyn’s Steward, Robert Cranwell, presenting the Wassail Bowl to the Boleyn family and their guests in the Great Hall.

At the bottom of the bowl would be a crust of bread, which when the contents of the bowl were finished, would have been presented to the highest ranking and most senior person of the household.

There was another tradition associated with Wassailing that the Boleyn family may well have indulged in at Christmas.

It is known that families would venture out into their orchards to drink from the Wassail Bowl to the future fruit that they hoped would emerge in the spring.

At its heart, wassailing was about wishing family, friends and even fruit good health. I think we can all drink to that.

12 Days of Christmas: Food at Christmas

A Tudor Christmases for wealthy people such as the Boleyn Family here at Hever Castle would have been a time for serious feasting.

At the Boleyn’s table would have been a vast amount of meat to eat. Chiefly this would have consisted of venison and boar, hunted down by the family here in the Kentish Weald.

You may also have found at Christmas pie at the Boleyn’s table. This pie consisted of a pastry case called a coffin, and inside was a pigeon stuffed into a partridge, inside a chicken, inside a goose, inside a turkey.

On 26th December, the feast of Stephen, the Boleyn’s would have welcomed their tenants from their vast Hever estate into the Great Hall and presented them with gifts of foods and ales.

Turkeys were first introduced into Henry VIII’s court in 1523 and soon became a firm favourite of the King. Each year, they would be walked down to London from Norfolk, treading in the footsteps of the Boleyns, who were also Norfolkians.

At Henry VIII’s court, you could also expect to find peacock – skinned, roasted, and then displayed back in its skin at the table. You may also have found a swan or two.

Paraded into the Great Hall and accompanied by trumpets and carol singers, would have been the Boar’s head – the centrepiece of the Court Christmas feast. This elaborate ceremony is still practiced today at Queen’s College, Oxford.

You may also find a mince pie at a Tudor Christmas table, although there were far more ingredients than found in those served today. Indeed, there were 13 ingredients in a Tudor mince pie to represent Jesus and his apostles.

As well as fruit and spices, you would have found minced mutton – a nod to the shepherds who paid homage to the baby Jesus.

On 12th Night, a great Twelfth Night Cake would be served – a vast rich fruitcake which contained an item such as a coin.

If you were lucky enough to be served the slice with the coin within it, you would assume the honorary role of the King or Queen of the feast.

Food was at the very heart of a Tudor Christmas, just as it is today.

12 Days of Christmas: Games and Revelries

During a Tudor Christmas, games and revelries were commonplace activities, and the normally strict order of hierarchy was somewhat blurred and even turned on its head.

A ‘ministry of fun’ was appointed in the form of The Lord of Misrule, or the King of Christmas.

In the Boleyn’s household, a servant or commoner with a reputation of knowing how to have fun would have been elevated to a high-status position who determined the revelries of the Christmas Period.

At Court, the Lord of Misrule would have been accompanied by a jester and would even have performed mock executions to those who offended him.

The reversing of roles wasn’t confined to the household or court. During a Tudor Christmas, it was not uncommon for a boy to be elevated temporarily to the position of Honorary Bishop.

Henry VIII banned the practice later in his reign when he had assumed the role of Head of the Church.

The culmination of the Christmas revelries would have taken place on Twelfth Night, when a vast mock battle would proceed sumptuous feasts exotic pageants.

12 Days of Christmas: New Year’s Gifts

Although we commonly give gifts on Christmas Day, or Christmas Eve today, during the Tudor era, gifts would have been exchanged on New Year’s Day.

For the Nobles at Court, this was an important opportunity to ingratiate yourself to the King with lavish gifts. This made gift-giving of great political significance, and the ceremonial act of handing over presents was conducted very publicly at court. Careful note was made of what you had gifted the King in a document known as the New Year’s Gift List.

In 1532, Henry VIII lavished gifts on Anne Boleyn. He gave her matching hangings for her bedchamber and bed. These were made of richly embroidered crimson satin and cloth of silver and gold. Quite an intimate gift for a woman who was not yet his Queen.

When Anne was made Queen, she gifted her ladies richly crafted saddles for riding. Elizabeth Boleyn, Anne’s mother, gifted the King a velvet case embroidered with Henry’s arms, which contained six collars richly worked in silver and gold. Anne Boleyn had a flavour for the arts and for giving particularly lavish gifts.

In 1534, she commissioned a large silver table fountain for Henry VIII, which was designed by the famous court artist Hans Holbein. The fountain pumped rosewater into a silver basin so that Henry could clean his hands between eating different courses.

All members of the court were expected to present the King with a New Year’s gift – courtiers and servants alike. Money was often the most frequently presented gift. Henry would also give his courtiers and servants gifts on New Year’s Day, although he always managed to receive more than he gave. One of the perks of being a Tudor Monarch was making a healthy profit – even at Christmas.

12 Days of Christmas: An Exceptional Hever Christmas

Of the many Christmases that the Boleyn family spent here at Hever, one above all must surely have been the most exciting, the most extravagant and the most significant.

By 1526, the Boleyn’s were riding high at Court. Thomas Boleyn, one of Henry VIII’s most trusted diplomats, had been made Viscount Rochford, his son George had been appointed the Royal Cupbearer, and his daughter Anne Boleyn was waiting upon Queen Catherine.

With so many achievements under their belts, the Boleyns had much to celebrate during the Christmas of 1526, which they spent here at Hever Castle, their family headquarters, and it must have been a lavish affair.

However, greater opportunities were on the horizon, for King Henry VIII had turned his eye toward Anne Boleyn. Time and time again, the Boleyn’s would retreat to their family home of Hever when it was necessary to escape the glare of the Court. During this family gathering at Christmas, it is easy to imagine the Boleyn’s giving council to Anne about the opportunity that had presented itself.

For a New Year’s Gift, Anne sent Henry a small, bejewelled ship, with a droplet diamond and a maiden on board. This lavish little trinket was full of symbolism, and it would have sent shockwaves through the court when it was presented publicly to the King. This was Anne telling Henry that she (the damsel) was willing to jump aboard Henry’s boat to matrimony. She was telling him that she was prepared to weather the rough seas ahead and become his wife and Queen. Henry sent Anne a letter in reply, thanking her for her ‘étrenne’ (new year’s gift) and acknowledging its significance.

Henry and Anne had set sail on a voyage that would lead to a break with the Roman Church, the establishment of a Church of England, and all to place a crown upon Anne Boleyn’s head. That journey began here at Hever Castle when Anne decided to accept Henry VIII’s promise of marriage.

If you enjoyed this item on 12 days of Christmas, why not discover more about Tudor Tuesdays.