The New Year in Elizabethan Times by Peg Herring

Posted by on Jan 8, 2016 in 16th Century England, Historical Tidbits | 1 comment

At the court of Elizabeth I, gifts were given at the New Year, not Christmas. The legal year began in March, but most people still celebrated the old midwinter holiday when days began getting longer as the start of a new year. It was part of the Twelve Days of Christmas festivities. Feasting was prevalent, with all classes of society setting out the best they could manage for family and friends.

Elizabeth loved gifts, and her courtiers vied to give her something impressive, such as gold coins sewn into decorative bags; sophisticated garments like partlets or ruffs; scented, embroidered pillows; beautiful fans; looking glasses (mirrors); or jewelry.

Members of the royal household might give the queen gifts related to their offices: a marzipan chessboard and chessmen from the Master Cook, a pot of green ginger from the doctor, a fancy meat knife from the Cutler, a gilded quince pie from the Sergeant of the Pastry, and so on.

Of course the queen gave gifts in return. A courtier might receive a silver cup, and its weight would be scaled to befit his status. These gifts were often delivered by messengers, but they might also be picked up at a designated place using a voucher.

For the nobility, the day might begin with minstrels singing or a trumpet fanfare to wake the lord and his family. Gifts would be exchanged, beginning with the highest and ending with the lowest in the household. Noon meant a feast (the usual time for the day’s largest meal) begun with a procession into the great hall of the house. When the meal was over there was usually entertainment, such as a play or a pageant.

Among the lower classes, the gifts exchanged were less impressive but still well-meant, perhaps oranges, spices, brooches, or wine. Those who could afford it sent gifts, perhaps a fowl or rabbit, to the mayor, who probably used them to provide a feast for the town.

HerHighness185x280Boys at schools such as Eton were allowed to play games at which they might win prizes. They exchanged verses they wrote as gifts to their friends or their masters.

Once the Twelve Days were over, things settled down until February 2nd, considered the first day of spring. That was the time to burn all the Christmas decorations, purify one’s home and one’s soul, and look forward with hope to a prosperous growing season.


Peg Herring, author of the Simon and Elizabeth Mysteries, January 1, 2016

(Apologies from M. Louisa Locke, this post was supposed to come out January 1, but due to a combination of the flue and forgetfulness was delayed until today.)

One Comment

  1. I enjoyed reading this post by Peg Herring. Presents are always fun!