New Year’s Day, Tudor Style

The Tudor era was a good time for holidays. For one thing, the Puritans hadn’t taken over England and killed all the “frivolous” joy of Christmas yet. That means that the people who lived under Henry, Mary, and Elizabeth Tudor all got their Twelve Days of Christmas, even if the court’s Lord of Misrule was dismissed under Bloody Mary and never revived under Good Queen Bess.

December 25 through January 6 were all times of relaxation from normal labors for many people, with the exception of basic things like cooking and caring for animals. Even among the common people, men did not work the land and women did not spin wool, and everyone tried to have some fun with family and friends. However, there were three days of the season that were particularly big deals. The first, unsurprisingly, was Christmas Day. If nothing else, it was when people could finally eat eggs and meat and milk again after advent. The second highlight was New Year’s Day. The third was when the Epiphany – symbolized by the arrival and adoration of the Magi — was celebrated on 6 January, or Twelfth Night.

Today, obviously, is New Year’s Day.

New Year’s Day actually began at sundown on Dec. 31st, because days were counted as starting then rather than at midnight back in then. That’s also why we still do our primary partying (at least when we are younger and stronger than my middle-aged butt is now) on New Year’s Eve rather than on New Year’s Day even in the present.

Not only was New Year’s a time for a major feast, it was also the primary gift giving day of Christmas Time. Gift giving was full of symbolism and coded social byplay. Those who were lower down the social totem pole were expected to give their master/lord/patron a gift to demonstrate their loyalty, respect, and sycophancy. In return the superior person would often give his followers/lessers a greater gift than he had received to show off his higher ranking/wealth.

The place the gift giving all came to a peak was the Court. The monarch would receive something from a courtier or servant which would be duly noted in the Gift Roll. This was most people’s best chance to impress the King or Queen, and hopefully win their favor. Since eras with feudal or semi-feudal systems were the ultimate “trickle down” economies, the right gift to the right person meant what trickled down to you had some gold mixed in with the crap.

Giving the best you could did not mean that the guy who shoveled out Henry’s stables were expected to fork over the same kind of loot for a gift as a Cardinal would, of course. For example, in 1520 the Princess Mary received yet another gold cup from Cardinal Wolsey, as well as silver flagons and fancy candle snuffers from other nobles, but she received a small purse of “tinsel satin” from her personal nurse, Mary Margaret. The nurse’s gift was smaller, but may have represented a larger outlay of her income, which Mary would have been well aware of. The Princess also got yummy nuts, fruits, and cakes from local admires farther down the social totem pole. Then there is the fact she got gifts from people because they loved her, even as much as they wanted her favor. She also got “rosemary bushes with gold-painted spangles” decorating them from someone only recorded as “a poor woman of Greenwich”. Mary probably gave her a gift in return, but there was surely some sentimental motivation in the woman’s gift giving.

Another popular form of personal gift were epigrams. An epigram is one or two lines of interesting, memorable, surprising, or satirical prose verses that are often read like a short poems or couplet. I think I am going to do that for my daughters and husband today, and try to make it a tradition in our home.

It seems an appropriate thing for a Tudorphile to do.

2 thoughts on “New Year’s Day, Tudor Style


    1. You know, I REALLY need to check this blog more often. That being said, the doggerel I wrote was too sappy for public consumption. Can we pretend it was witty, and go from there?

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