In the lead up to Christmas, we all have our own traditions and practices that we follow every year, perhaps without giving too much thought to where they came from. You may be surprised to learn that many of our festive traditions date back to the Tudor times, where Christmas was an extravagant celebration centred around food and feasting.

Our Founder, Archbishop John Whitgift, and others like him in Tudor England had their own Christmas traditions, some of which we still practice today, and others that are quite different!

Here are six traditions that helped form the perfect Tudor Christmas:

Fasting on Christmas Eve

Although food was a major part of any Tudor Christmas celebration, during the weeks leading up to Christmas (Advent), Tudors would observe periods of fasting. They were particularly strict on Christmas Eve, avoiding meat, cheese and eggs.

Singing Christmas Carols

This Christmas tradition was used to celebrate and communicate the story of the Nativity. Tudor carols were mostly religious in nature and would include dancing as well as singing. Many of the Christmas carols popular in Tudor times are still sung today, including ‘Good King Wenceslaus’, ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ and ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’.

Turkeys trekked to London on foot

The traditional Christmas turkey was a fashionable meat in the Tudor court, made popular by Henry VIII following its arrival from America in the 1520s. In fact, demand for turkeys was so high the birds were walked to the capital in flocks from as far afield as Norfolk and Suffolk!

Turkey wasn’t the only meat enjoyed at Tudor Christmas banquets – royal households would also feast on swan, peacock, woodcock and wild boar.

Mince pies once contained meat

The sweet treat we know and love today was very different in Tudor times. More than just a festive snack, Tudor mince pies contained 13 different ingredients to symbolise Jesus and the apostles, including fruit, spices and minced mutton to represent the shepherds.

Burning a Yule Log

Although this is thought to have originated from the Vikings, the burning of a Yule Log was a tradition upheld by many Tudor families.

Ordinary logs gathered from the woods would be adorned with decorations such as ribbons, before being set alight on Christmas Eve and left to smoulder throughout the 12 Days of Christmas. Keeping some of the log’s burnt remains was considered good luck and could be used as kindling for next year’s fire.

Exchanging Gifts on New Year’s Day

Unlike today, where most families exchange presents on Christmas Day, the Tudors traditionally gave their gifts to mark the first day of a new year.

Important people in society were expected to give generous gifts to the Monarch and would receive one in return. Royals were known to refuse gifts as a way of showing disapproval or conveying a hidden meaning to the gift bearer.


Discover the history of John Whitgift Foundation

As a charity that has been part of Croydon since 1596, we are proud of our rich heritage and Croydon’s history. With this in mind, we have set up a dedicated Instagram account sharing interesting historical facts and stories, vintage photographs, content from our archives and much more.

If you’re interested in learning more about local Croydon history and heritage, you can follow us on @johnwhitgiftheritage.