Queen Elizabeth the First of England reigned from 1559 until her death in 1603. Under her leadership, England moved away from the bloodstained, religiously divided country of her sister Mary's reign to an enlightened, more tolerant nation. Holidays like Christmas, which had been swaddled in religious solemnity in the past, enjoyed a surge in gaiety and revelry during Elizabeth's reign as queen.
The Twelve Days of Christmas
Elizabethan Christmas celebration varied from year to year but usually the Christmas season was celebrated from Dec. 24 to Jan. 6. This signified the period between the birth of Jesus Christ to the arrival of the Three Wise Men in Bethlehem (called "Epiphany") 12 days later. Each town selected a "Lord of Misrule" who was charged with overseeing the community festivities for the 12 Christmas feast days. Traditionally, the Lord of Misrule reigned over each of the 12 days from sundown to sunrise and coordinated dances, music and other revels.
Music and Merrymaking
Elizabethans celebrated the Christmas season with songs, but they were not the traditional carols that people think of today. The term "carol" was used to describe any song that was arranged for a choir, and was not exclusively applied to Christmas music. Songs could be secular or religious, though England's thriving wool industry might explain the dominance of the shepherd's narrative in many Elizabethan Christmas songs. Music might be sung among families or performed by travelling minstrels hired by the Lord of Misrule to serenade the village. Cards, gambling games and dances were also popular Christmas entertainments.
Food and Dining
Feasting was an important part of an Elizabethan Christmas, and families usually allowed themselves luxuries that would be unheard of during the rest of the year. A Christmas poem by Thomas Tusser from 1573 lists several kinds of meat (baked whole or in pies), apples, nuts, pudding and cheeses as essential elements of an Elizabethan Christmas feast, paying particular attention to "brawn" (roasted pork) and "souse" (pickled cuts of pork). Goose was by far the most popular fowl served during the Christmas season. Sweets of all kinds were favoured by the Elizabethans for dessert, especially marzipan, called "marzipan," and gingerbread.
Unlike the contemporary tradition of giving gifts on Christmas Day, Elizabethan Englanders exchanged gifts on New Year's Day. Lower- and middle-class citizens might give small gifts like fruit, wine and small luxury items while the upper classes and aristocracy would give each other money, elaborate jewels and works of art. Elizabethan nobility were expected to give particularly elaborate gifts to their monarch and received gifts from her that were direct monetary reflections of their rank. Santa Claus and Father Christmas were not part of Elizabethan Christmas celebrations.
Christmas at the Court
The queen and namesake of the Elizabethan Era, Elizabeth spent the Christmas season enjoying many of the same festivities of her subjects. Christmas for the Elizabethan court was usually spent at Greenwich Palace. Christmas saw great revels and entertainments at Elizabeth's court, including the production of many new plays by her favourite playwright, William Shakespeare. Many of Shakespeare's works received their first staging during Christmas festivities, including "Love's Labors Lost" and "King Henry IV."