The holidays at the royal households around the world are full of age-old ritual; royal holiday traditions of the British royals are famously off-beat, as are those of the Swedish royals, who eat special jellied fish dishes, or the Danes, who attend a royal hunting parade. Compared to their historical forebears, however, royal holidays these days are pretty muted affairs. Nobody is slaughtering 2,000 oxen, building entire canopies out of gold cloth for days of jousting tournaments, or showering a monarch in jewels in hopes of getting out of a death sentence. It’s all very, well, tame.
The holidays in European monarchies have often been times to show off. Power and pageantry peaked at the end of the year, when courtiers flocked to the royal palaces to partake in extravagant merriment, swear complicated vows of loyalty on dead birds, and compete for attention with elaborate gifts. The holiday season meant lavish parties, huge expenditure and very weird traditions, from giant logs to gift-wrapped pelicans and rigged gambling. It was also a time for diplomacy and important negotiation; the people you spent the holidays with, and accepted gifts from, were the ones currently in favor, while the rejected ones were shut out. Here's how to do the holidays like old-fashioned royalty.
1. They Used Gifts As A Way To Show Favor — Or Lack Of It
Historians Alison Weir and Siobhan Clarke explain in A Tudor Christmas that English monarchs used gifts at Christmas and New Year as something far more intense than just merriment; they were also political tools. Henry VIII pointedly refused the gifts of Catherine of Aragon once he’d started up with Ann Boleyn, they write, “commanding her not to send any in future, for he was not her lawful husband, as she should have known.” However, courtiers could also use the gift-giving ritual to curry favor (or lose it); while Sir Philip Sidney managed to excuse a gaffe that incensed Queen Elizabeth I by giving her a “jewelled [sic] whip” for Christmas, the Duke of Norfolk wasn’t so lucky. While imprisoned in the Tower in 1571, he “sent Queen Elizabeth I a very lavish jewel as a New Year’s gift. It was rejected, and the Duke was later executed.”
They also used gifts to impress; in 1254, historian Nancy Goldstone says, Louis IX of France and Henry III of England descended together on Paris for Christmas with their huge retinues and, conspicuously, “trunks heaped with fine silks and ornaments of gold and silver, to be dispensed as Christmas gifts at the royal banquet”. It was a game of one-upmanship between the most powerful men alive.
2. They Received Extremely Strange Presents From Their People
The presents of courtiers were one thing, but the things given to kings and queens throughout the ages by subjects for Christmas and New Year have been, well, interesting. In 1392, the official Royal Household records, the people of London gave Richard II “a one-humped camel and a pelican.” Pelicans were a symbol of self-sacrifice in medieval Christianity, and Elizabeth I would later adopt them as one of her key images, but the camel was likely just because, well, camels were exotic and the king had a menagerie at the Tower of London to put it in.
3. They Had Elaborate “Lusty” Pageants
Pageantry and display have often been part of holiday celebrations in royal courts — and they’ve often gotten extremely weird. Weir and Clarke record that in 1512, the English court had a huge, extremely expensive “pageant” on New Year’s Eve, featuring a to-scale dungeon, fake artillery, and women of the court in special golden costumes.
The king and his knights then “besieged” the dungeon, and “the ladies, ‘seeing them so lusty and courageous’, readily yielded, and came down to dance with them.” Henry VIII was particularly fond of pageants, and had entire tents and artificial gardens built for Christmas jousting and dancing.
4. They Made Vows On Peacocks
The Christmas and New Year feasts of monarchs in the past are legendary; it was the time of year for kings and queens to show generosity and wealth, and they fulfilled the brief. Henry II supplied cranes and herons to his guests, and one Christmas would famously put on a feast involving 2,000 oxen. The end of the New Year feast in particular, though, would fascinate modern watchers, because it was apparently the time when the royal knights reaffirmed their commitment to the court — using a peacock.
Historian Karen Maitland explains that the peacock itself was “skinned, roasted whole and then redressed in its magnificent feathers to look as if it was still alive. Its beak was gilded with gold leaf and a piece of cloth soaked in spirits was inserted into the beak and set alight.” Knights would then place their hands on the peacocks and make vows for improbable deeds and great promises.
It became so famous as an idea that Charles Dickens wrote about it, declaring that “The most celebrated of all the vows of chivalry were those that were called 'The Vow of the Peacock,' or of 'The Pheasant.' These noble birds — for so they qualified them — perfectly represented, by the splendour [sic] and variety of their colours [sic], the majesty of kings during the middle ages”. And yes, they’d then eat the peacock.
5. They Had Giant Christmas Logs
The idea of the “yule log” has existed for many centuries, and records of lavish Christmases in Renaissance Italy show that it was one of the centrepieces of royal Italy. In the city-state of Milan in the 1460s, Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza was the royal in charge, and historian Gregory Lubkin explains that he had some elaborate ideas about Christmas procedure. On the 24th, in front of hundreds of courtiers, he held a ceremony called the Ciocco.
“This ceremony was the Milanese equivalent of the Yule Log,” explains Lubkin. “The log itself was garnished with fruits and foliage, among which juniper and laurel were particularly prominent. It was brought in at sunset, put in the fireplace, and set aflame to the jubilation of all. A banquet followed this ancient ritual of fire and renewal, which was repeated on 31 December.”
Unfortunately, the Duke’s insistence on having everybody around for Christmas would be his undoing; he was stabbed on December 26 in 1476 while attending a mass.
6. They Did A Lot Of Gambling — Which The Royals Always Won
Monopoly pales in comparison to the gambling celebrations of New Year among the royals. The Duke of Sforza liked gambling at New Year so much that he actually commanded all his courtiers to join him, though apparently he also gave them money to match the high stakes he was throwing around.
However, other celebrations were a bit less generous. Mumchance, a game of dice from the medieval period, was popular in royal courts, and often played by mummers, or actors, who visited the royal family to entertain them. When a group of mummers visited the court of Richard II in the Christmas period, dressed as popes and Magi, they played it with the king, says historian Ruth A Johnston — but with one notable rule. The game was played, she explains, “with loaded dice as an excuse to give their gifts to the king as he won them”.
If you want to party like royals of old, you'll need a lot of money, a strong stomach and the ability to take even the oddest gifts with grace. One-humped camels? Just what you always wanted!