Alison Weir is one of my absolute favourite non-fiction authors so when I was trawling for good Blogmas reads, A Tudor Christmas definitely stood out. Written in partnership with Siobhan Clarke, the book is divided into twelve sections, one representing each of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Together, Clarke and Weir describe how the common people and the nobility kept the festive period in the sixteenth century, charting the origins of certain traditions that still exist today and also how other practices have shifted over time. It’s a little book – an ideal stocking-filler – and one packed full of fascinating information.
A Tudor Christmas is an interesting topic for several reasons. Firstly, there is a popular belief that the Victorians invented Christmas as we know it today. The Christmas Tree, Father Christmas, Christmas cards, etc. However, this book emphasises that many of these traditions were already well-established when the Tudors sat on the throne. But what the authors also make clear is that Christmas in Tudor England was undergoing a transformation. With pagan traditions having been colonised and reappropriated by Christianity, the way it was celebrated had held firm through the medieval era and even the Wars of the Roses. However, the Reformation, incoming Scottish King and English Civil War would put all of that under threat.
Despite its short length, this is also one of those books which is packed with fascinating trivia. It’s thought-provoking to trace what remains of these now-lapsed religious festivities. The semesters at my university were traditionally referred to as ‘Martinmas’ and ‘Candlemas’ without me ever troubling to find out precisely why – now I know. There’s also the origin of ‘toasting’, a full rundown of the twelve days of Misrule and a whole host of lost carols. My personal favourite fact though was that after the Reformation, it became heresy to depict a painting of the infant Jesus having a bath. The notion was that he was born so pure that he would not have needed one.
There are other non-fiction books available on the traditions of Christmas and indeed I read and enjoyed Judith Flanders’ Christmas: A Biography only a couple of years ago. However, this book is one of the most friendly and accessible books on the topic that I have found thus far – there is a reason why Alison Weir is such a successful author of popular history. A Tudor Christmas puts Christmas in context as a festival which despite being largely pagan in origin, holds an important and deeply-felt place in our calendar. Not even Oliver Cromwell and company were able to displace the tradition. But I was particularly struck by how even the squires and landowners of the medieval era paused work to mark the holiday. If even they understood that it was important to set down the plough and rest, surely that is the most important part of Christmas? It made me think about how lost we can get in following tradition for the sake of it rather than just stopping and taking time with our closest kin.
With its lovely woodcut illustrations and evocative descriptions of food and drink, A Tudor Christmas is a lovely stocking-filler for any history geek. It made the sights and smells and songs of Tudor Britain come alive anew – it made me wish I could time travel back and experience it all for myself … but I could also see why they all needed to fast so often afterwards. An ideal addition to anyone’s festive book collection.
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Published by Random House on October 4th 2018
Genres: History, Europe, Great Britain, Tudor & Elizabethan Era (1485-1603), Biography & Autobiography, Royalty, Social History, Social Science, Customs & Traditions, General, Renaissance
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