Whilst the grey, cold days of January have us yearning for spring there are a few plants braving the cold, some of which have some interesting folklore associated with them.
Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)
Their cheerful yellow flowers provide a welcome splash of colour early in year, as well as being a valuable source of nectar. They are not a native of Britain, originating from southern Europe, and were introduced in 1596.
The common name, winter aconite, is a reference to the leaf shape, a characteristic by which plants were classified in the 16th century. Winter aconite has similar foliage to true members of the aconite family such as monkshood and wolfsbane. Gerard’s herbal called this plant ‘Winter woolfes-bane’. Gerard also claimed that the winter aconite could be used to treat the sting of a scorpion. Hopefully this is not a first aid treatment which we will need to put to the test at Cressing any time soon!
Read more about Winter Aconites here:
Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis)
Perhaps the first sign that spring is just around the corner is the snowdrop poking its way through the frosted soil. Snowdrops are not native to Britain; they were introduced in the 16th century. Another name for the snowdrop is ‘Candlemas bells’. A glass of snowdrops could only be brought into the house on Candlemas Day (2nd February) as they were considered unlucky on any other day.
Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum)
There are many superstitions regarding the root of the mandrake, which resembles a carrot or parsnip. It was supposed to look like the human form as the roots sometimes fork like legs.
It was believed to be fatal to dig up the root, which would scream upon being dug up. None might hear its terrible groans and live. Thus, anyone who wanted a plant of mandrake should tie a dog to it in order to pull it up!
It was used as an anaesthetic to deaden pain. But was also considered an aphrodisiac and fertility aid. The Mandrake was so highly valued that substitutes were soon sought to keep up with demand – black and white Bryony (British natives) were the plants herbalists came up with, their roots resembling those of Mandrake and also possessing narcotic properties.
Cyclamen (Cyclamen coum)
These dainty looking flowers are actually very tough and are a welcome sight from January to March. They look very similar to the autumn flowering cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium), the main difference being in their leaf shape: C. coum has a rounded leaf, whilst C. hederifolium has a leaf similar in shape to ivy. Both types of cyclamen have the common name ‘sowbread’ due to the tuberous roots often being eaten by wild pigs.
Nicholas Culpeper wrote: ‘Sow bread, it is so dangerous a purge that I dare not take it myself, therefore would I not advise others. Outwardly in ointments it takes away freckles, sunburning and marks that Small Pox leaves behind; dangerous for women with child, yea so dangerous that both Dioscorides and Pliny say that it will make a woman miscarry if she do just stride over it.’
You may be familiar with wassailing as a forerunner of carol singing, but there is also a long tradition of wassailing ceremonies in orchards. The purpose of these orchard-based ceremonies was to make your dormant apple trees fruitful, drive away malevolent spirits and awaken new growth and good health.
Wassailing ceremonies varied from region to region, but might include:
A procession down to the orchard, possibly led by a wassail King or Queen.
Once gathered around the oldest tree pieces of toast would be dipped into the wassail bowl, and placed on the branches of the tree to attract good spirits.
The cider from the wassail bowl would be poured over the roots of the tree, while pots and pans were clattered to ward off evil spirits and wake the trees from their winter slumber.
The crowd would serenade the tree with traditional songs and chants, often followed by Morris dancing.
Maybe we should be holding a ‘Cressing Temple Wassail’ to improve our apple harvest?!
Christmas 2020 is unlikely to be the Christmas we had planned or hoped for, but we hope you are still able to enjoy the festive season. In 2019 we had a lovely display in the well house all about the Tudor Christmas, put together by some of our hard working and creative volunteers. This year Paula has been hard at work ‘dressing’ the well house, court hall and bake house to create Christmas scenes (using some wonderful props created by Lisa). So, why not take this opportunity to escape into ‘Christmas past’?
There was no partying before Christmas: people fasted until Christmas Eve
For the Tudors, the 40 days before Christmas – sometimes known as ‘Advent’ – was a season of atonement, in which good Christians prepared themselves spiritually for the coming of Christ. The devout were supposed to do penance and fast – avoiding meat, cheese and eggs. The feasting would begin on Christmas Day, for which great preparations had been ongoing throughout the fast, and would have been doubly appreciated after the restricted fare of Advent.
The most popular food eaten at Christmas was brawn, or boar’s head
For Christmas dinner, all social classes enjoyed the seasonal favourite, brawn (a dish made from the head of a pig or cow). In wealthy households, the first course was traditionally a boar’s head that had been boned and stuffed with forcemeat (a mixture of ground, lean meat); smeared with mustard; dressed in herbs and fruits (with a roasted apple in its mouth); and garnished with gilded rosemary, bay leaves, spices, fruits, or a sprig of yew whitened with egg or flour to make it look as though it had been dusted with snow. The dish would be ceremonially carried in – resplendent on its platter – by the steward or the head of the household. The custom continued at court until the reign of Queen Victoria.
Turkey had become a popular Christmas dish by the end of the Tudor period
There is a record of the first turkeys arriving in England from the New World in 1526, and it was soon prized for its flavour. Turkey had been added to the repertoire of popular Christmas dishes by the end of the Tudor period, sometimes served instead of peacock or swan, although it would be centuries before it fully ousted them, or the traditional meats.
Mince pies were huge, and contained meat as well as fruit and spices
Known as ‘Christmas pies’ or ‘Minced pyes’, mince pies were made with shredded leftover meats – preferably mutton, in commemoration of the shepherds that visited the baby Jesus – to which suet, sugar, dried fruits and spices were added. There were supposed to be 13 ingredients in total, in honour of Christ and his apostles. These pies were huge, quite unlike the small ones we eat today, and they were cut with spoons, since it was believed to be unlucky to cut them with knives. The spices and gilding harked back to the gifts of the Magi [three wise men] – and proclaimed the status of the host. Some pies were even gilded.
Tudor Pie was a turkey stuffed with goose, stuffed with chicken, stuffed with partridge, stuffed with pigeon all put in a pastry case and served with jointed hare, small game birds and wild fowl!
Plum Pudding, originally plum porridge, the fore runner of our Christmas pudding, was eaten before the Christmas dinner. It consisted of meat, plums, spices, dried fruit, breadcrumbs and wine and was served as a broth.
The first documented instance of gingerbread men was at the court of Elizabeth 1. They were made in the shape of some of her important guests!!
Marchpane is an early version of what we call marzipan. Made from ground almonds, sugar and rose water, in Tudor times it was a dish all on its own. It was often elaborately decorated and served as a centrepiece on a feasting table.
The Wassail Bowl The word ‘wassail’ means ‘to be of good health’.
A large wooden bowl was filled with hot ale or cider, sugar, spices and apples to make a punch. A crust of bread was laid in the bottom and offered to the most important person in the room, a forerunner to the modern day ‘toast’.
The house was decorated on Christmas Eve – evergreens were believed to be invested with magical properties, giving the gift of eternal life. Druids believed that such greenery contained tree spirits.
The Yule Log. The word ‘yule’ has existed in the English language for many centuries as an alternative to Christmas. Traditionally a large log would be selected in the forest on Christmas Eve, decorated with ribbons, dragged home and laid on the hearth. After lighting it was kept burning throughout the 12 days of Christmas. It was considered lucky to keep some of the charred remains to kindle the log of the following year.
The holly and the ivy
Holly was a sacred plant to the Druids, the symbol of fertility & eternal life. Ivy was used to decorate churches and the outside of houses and was believed to protect against evil spirits. Holly & Ivy were the main decorations during the 15th Century but records also mention bay & rosemary as plants with the power of protection.
Mistletoe was banned in churches because of its pagan connections
The custom of hanging a ball of mistletoe from the ceiling and exchanging kisses under it as a sign of friendship is an ancient one. The Romans, for example, observed that the druids of the British Isles used mistletoe in winter solstice ceremonies and for healing. Despite there being a medieval belief that Christ’s cross had been formed from the wood of the mythical mistletoe tree, churches and abbeys have always banned mistletoe (and it is still banned today!) because of its pagan connections – with one exception: at York Minster, a bunch of mistletoe was laid on the altar every Christmas.
Most houses were decorated with a ‘kissing bough’ hung from the ceiling
Mistletoe was incorporated into the Kissing Bough, a popular decoration during Tudor times. The Kissing Bough was made of woven wooden hoops that were then hung with greenery. Kissing Boughs were placed by the doorway to the house, and entrants were embraced by the household when they entered through the door by the Kissing Bough.
It was bad luck to leave Christmas decorations up after Twelfth Night
Some thought it bad luck to leave Christmas decorations up after midnight on Twelfth Night, when the power of the Christ Child no longer held sway, for if the greenery was not put outside again, the tree spirits would ‘bring disaster’ to the household in the coming year. But in some places, right up until the 19th century, the decorations were not taken down until Candlemas, 2 February, when Jesus was presented in the Temple on the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary. Clergyman and poet Robert Herrick warned of what might happen if the decorations were not removed: “For look! How many leaves there be neglected there (Maids, trust to me), so many goblins you shall see.”
Ghost stories were once enjoyed at Christmas
In Tudor times, there was an established tradition of telling ghost stories by the fireside at Christmas, particularly on Christmas Eve. It was a thrilling way to while away the hours on dark winter evenings. For centuries, the belief had lingered that the veil between this world and the next was at its thinnest at the time of the winter solstice – the longest night of the year – and that spirits could walk the earth.
It became a tradition for entertainments and plays to be staged on Twelfth Night
At court, masques and pageants were frequently staged on Twelfth Night. These were magnificent occasions, with gorgeously dressed lords and ladies mingling with players in fantastic costumes in halls lit by torches and candles. Thanks to the popularity of the seasonal masque, and the patronage of companies of actors by Elizabethan noblemen, Twelfth Night became a traditional time for going to the theatre. The first playhouse opened in 1576 at Shoreditch, its design being based on a galleried inn, and by the end of the century around 15,000 Londoners were attending the theatres every week, with takings soaring over the Christmas period. Drama was hugely popular at court, where the productions could be spectacular, and the Queen’s Men, or William Shakespeare and his associates in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, were frequently summoned to perform.
In great households of the Tudor period, the 12 days of feasting, banqueting, pageantry and merrymaking were presided over by a person called the Lord of Misrule. A favourite character in Tudor folk plays was called ‘Father Christmas’. Clad in green, and wearing a grotesque mask and a wig, he would rampage about, shouting and brandishing a great club.
Made popular in Italy in the 13th Century and first recorded in English in 1426, Christmas carols involved dancing as well as singing. Secular themes such as feasting, hunting and general merry-making became more popular under the Tudors, although carols remained predominantly religious.
16th Century Christmas carols still sung – albeit with revision – today, include ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’, ‘The First Noel’ and ‘Good King Wenceslaus’.
The Boar’s Head Carol.
This is one of the earliest recorded carols, dating back to the early 16th century. It was sung as a boar’s head was carried in on a silver plate accompanied by trumpets and the sound of minstrels.
Even if your Christmas does not include trumpets, minstrels or boar’s heads we still wish you a happy and peaceful Christmas!