Trees, turkey, wrapped presents, and crackers—most of today’s holiday traditions actually stem from the Victorian period (Prince Albert brought the tradition of a decorated Christmas tree over from Germany when he married Victoria, and together they made it popular). Curious about how Christmas was celebrated at the court of Henry VIII? There’s some great info to be found here and here. Amongst the tidbits:
Those lucky Tudors got to party for 12 days (hence the 12 Days of Christmas). Their celebrations went on straight through to January 5, the day before the Feast of the Epiphany. During those 12 days, commoners and nobles alike would take some time off, visit friends, and share minced pies, which typically included 13 ingredients to represent Christ and his apostles. A little chopped mutton would be thrown in to remember the shepherds.
On Christmas Eve, a giant log would be selected in the forest, decorated with ribbons, dragged home, and lighted. This Yule Log would be kept burning through the 12 days of Christmas. It was considered lucky to keep some of the remains to use as kindling the following year.
Think you overindulge during the holidays? A traditional Christmas pie was an insane calorie shocker: it consisted of a turkey stuffed with a goose stuffed with a chicken stuffed with a partridge stuffed with a pigeon (Turgoosicpargeon?). This was baked in a pastry case cheerily known as a coffin and served with hare, small game birds, and wild fowl. Revelers washed it down with Wassail, a punch made of hot ale, sugar, spices, and apples.
Carols and dancing were a big part of the Tudor Christmas festivities, and they remained popular until Cromwell came along and made joy illegal. The carols made a comeback, but the dancing didn’t, unless you count the slightly awkward gyrations that drunk guy at your office party was doing.