The holiday season, a time of joy, festivities, and traditions, has been celebrated in various ways throughout history. One intriguing aspect of Christmas is the tradition of the “12 Days of Christmas,” a period of merriment and revelry that dates back centuries. In this blog post, we’ll embark on a journey to the Elizabethan era and explore how the 12 Days of Christmas were celebrated during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Queen Elizabeth I’s reign saw the emergence of new traditions and customs, and Christmas was no exception. During this period, the celebration of Christmas extended well beyond a single day, encompassing the famous 12 Days of Christmas.

Day 1: Christmas Day – December 25th

In Elizabethan England, the 12 Days of Christmas kicked off with Christmas Day itself. While the religious significance of the day was widely acknowledged, the festivities were not limited to solemn church services. The Elizabethans were known for their love of revelry, and Christmas was a time to indulge in feasting, dancing, and various forms of entertainment.

A yule log being brought into the hall.

Homes were adorned with greenery, including holly and ivy, symbolizing fertility and everlasting life. The Yule log, a large log typically from an oak tree, was ceremoniously lit to bring warmth and protection to the household.  The log would also burn throughout the 12 days.    Because people were not meant to work over Christmas, on the 24th of December, women would decorate household items like spinning wheels, so that they would be unable to use them.  

Day 2: The Feast of St Stephen – December 26th:

The second day of Christmas in Tudor and Elizabethan England was the Feast of St. Stephen, whose name you may recognize in the song “Good King Wenceslas”.  

Good King Wenceslas looked out

On the Feast of Stephen

When the snow lay round about

Deep and crisp and even

King Wenceslas and his Servant

In the song, King Wenceslas and his servant go out into the village and deliver food and firewood to the poor.   While the lyrics were written during the Victorian era, the idea was the same – the day was used for charity and giving to those in need.  It was a time for almsgiving and acts of charity, as St. Stephen was considered the first Christian martyr.

Day 3: The Feast of St. John – December 27th:

The third day of Christmas was recognized as the memorial of St. John, who was said that while in Ephesus, was offered a glass of poisoned wine, but when he blessed the drink, the poison came out of the cup and formed a small green snake.   Because of this, people celebrated by drinking wine and ale, as well as a drink called ‘Lambs Wool’ or Wassail.  

Wassail, derived from the Old English phrase “waes hael,” meaning “be in good health,” was a communal ritual involving the sharing of a spiced, often alcoholic, drink. This beverage, also known as wassail, was typically made with hot ale or cider, mixed with spices like cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, with a crust of bread at the bottom. The custom of wassailing held both religious and social significance, as communities would gather to toast each other’s health and offer blessings for a bountiful harvest in the upcoming year. Orchards were a common focal point for wassailing, where revelers would sing traditional songs, make merry, and even pour a portion of the wassail onto the roots of fruit trees to ensure a fruitful harvest.    To make your own Wassail and learn more check out our previous blog post on it.  

Day 4: Childermas or the Feast of Holy Innocents – December 28th

The twelve days were not always for feasting and celebrating.   Childermas or the Feast of the Holy Innocents, was a day that some people recognized the children that were murdered in Bethlehem by King Herod.  This is recognized in the song “Coventry Carol”.  

Lully, lullah, thou little tiny child

Bye bye, lully, lully

O sisters too, how may we do

For to preserve this day?

This poor youngling for whom we do sing

“Bye bye, lully, lully”?

Herod the king, in his raging

Charged he hath this day

His men of might in his own sight

All young children to slay

That woe is me, poor child, for thee

And ever morn’ and day

For thy parting neither say nor sing

“Bye bye, lully, lully”

Lully, lullah, thou little tiny child

Bye bye, lully, lully

Day 5 and Day 6: Continued Celebrations – December 29th and December 30th

As the twelve days were a time for things that the working class did not generally have time for, celebrations would continue by the playing of games such as Tennis, Quiots and Bowls.   It also was a time that something called Mummers Plays would take place.  

These plays, rooted in ancient traditions and folklore, involved amateur actors known as mummers who would perform short, often humorous, and sometimes improvised plays. Typically enacted in public spaces or within households, mummers’ plays featured colorful costumes, masks, and exaggerated characters. This informal group of members would also go door to door and would only make a “mumm” sound until they were welcomed into the home, which is where we also get the phrase “Mums the word” word.  The plots often revolved around themes of combat, death, and resurrection, with a central character often killed and then magically revived. The performances were accompanied by music, dance, and lively banter, making them a spirited and interactive experience for the audience. Mummers’ plays were not only a source of amusement but also a means of social bonding and community engagement, bringing people together to celebrate the joyous spirit of the season during the Elizabethan era.

Day 7: New Year’s Eve – December 31st 

While New Years Eve is a big celebration for us in the modern day, it was less thrilling in Elizabethan England.  While it was still the seventh day of Christmas, and the Elizabethans bid farewell to the old year, New Year’s Eve was a time for reflection and anticipation, but there was no formal gathering .   The tradition of playing games and sports continued through New Years.  As the working class and poor worked incredibly hard throughout the year, Christmas was a chance to relax and enjoy some free time.   In fact, a law that was created by Henry VIII was still in effect, that working men could only play certain games at Christmas and that the only sport people could play on Christmas Day was archery.  It was believed that the events on New Year’s Eve would set the tone for the coming year, so people were eager to ensure a joyful and prosperous celebration.

Day 8: New Year’s Day – January 1st:

In Elizabethan England, the eighth day of Christmas or New Year’s Day was the traditional time to give gifts.  Evidence suggests that it was mostly upper and middle class people who gave gifts, and these included items of food, spices or money.   Examples could include oranges, bunches of rosemary, wine, marzipan or even cloth.  

Days 9-12: Twelfth Night to Epiphany – January 2nd to January 6th:

The culmination of the 12 Days of Christmas was the celebration of Twelfth Night on January 5th and Epiphany on January 6th. 

Twelfth Night marked the end of the Christmas season and was often celebrated with a grand feast. It was also a time for practical jokes and merrymaking.  At court, masques and massive banquets would occur.  In 1532, it is documented that a temporary court was set up on the grounds of Greenwich Palace, to help make the 200 dishes which were served to the guests.   

One part of the celebration and feast was a Twelfth Night cake.  It was a huge fruit cake, tasting of sweet bread and was baked with a bean inside of it.  If the bean was found in your piece, you became the king or queen of the night.   Additionally, if you found a clove, you were a villain; a twig you were a fool and a rag you were a “tart”.  

All of the elements from the previous days occurred on Twelfth Night, but were dialed up to create a night that would be one to remember (or forget).  Twelfth Night in Elizabethan England reflected the spirit of joy and festivity, blending religious observance with communal revelry as people bid farewell to the Christmas season.

The Elizabethan 12 Days of Christmas were a rich tapestry of religious observance, festive revelry, and cultural traditions. The period from Christmas Day to Epiphany offered a unique blend of solemnity and merriment, reflecting the diverse values of the time. As we unwrap the traditions of the Elizabethan era, we gain a deeper appreciation for the historical roots of the 12 Days of Christmas and the enduring spirit of celebration that has transcended centuries.