From Elizabeth to you… what traditions do you keep?

LUZBG00ZIn researching an Elizabethan Christmas, I encountered several Elizabethan traditions that still have somewhat of a place in our very modern homes… and some we no longer honor (and we are the poorer for it, in some cases!). They are listed below with updates for what I’ve seen/experienced in these oh-so-modern times…

What we still do…

1. The Holly and the Ivy

Greenery was a cheap decorating accessory — and one that was in plentiful supply! Elizabethans would crop branches and sprigs and use it to decorate their homes. Today, you’ll often find the same “effect” but with a very contemporary twist: pre-lit garlands made of plastic greenery.

2. Twelfth Night

Although we don’t practice all of the customs of Twelfth Night, we do celebrate the arrival of the Three Kings in many holiday traditions–both in song and in feasting. Twelve days after Christmas (or on the Feast of the Epiphany), a “Kings’ cake” is still shared in many households, which is baked with a small trinket (in Elizabethan times, a bean) hidden in the batter. Then the cake is cut and shared. Whoever finds the trinket is pronounced king, and is considered lucky. William Shakespeare’s play of the same name features the revelry and festivities that had become a major part of this event by Elizabethan times.

What we don’t…

1. The Lord of Misrule

Elizabethans were very fond of their entertainment, and The Lord of Misrule — a commoner put in charge of organizing the entertainment and revelry for the Twelve Days of Christmas, will DEFINITELY be finding a home in a future MAIDS OF HONOR book! Can’t wait! For those intrigued by this character, a bit more information from Wikipedia:

While mostly known as a British holiday custom, the appointment of a Lord of Misrule comes from antiquity. In ancient Rome, from the 17th to the 23rd of December, a Lord of Misrule was appointed for the feast of Saturnalia, in the guise of the good god Saturn. During this time the ordinary rules of life were subverted as masters served their slaves, and the offices of state were held by slaves. The Lord of Misrule presided over all of this, and had the power to command anyone to do anything during the holiday period. This holiday seems to be the precursor to the more modern holiday, and it carried over into the Christian era.

So, while we don’t appoint a Lord of Misrule in today’s holiday season, perhaps we should!

2. Mummer’s Plays with music and dancing

Mummer’s Plays (also known as mumming) are seasonal folk plays performed by troupes of actors known as mummers or guisers. These plays were either performed in the streets, or (more often) in public houses or private homes. The idea was folks traveling and entertaining from house to house in disguise. I can see that my Christmas-set MAIDS book will be including this as well.

We don’t perform Mummer’s Plays in the U.S. to my knowledge, but there are parallels to our traveling carolers. Caroling was also an Elizabethan custom, with folks singing on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, for the “reward” of money, food or drink. I know we still have commercials featuring caroling neighbors, and there are Christmas pageants aplenty, but… does anyone really carol door-to-door anymore?

3. The Yule Log

Okay, the only yule logs you’re likely to see these days are made of chocolate and sugar. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) But the Yule Log of Elizabethan times was an extremely hard log that could last throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas. For added luck, you actually used the remains of the previous year’s Yule Log to light the fire of the current year. That’s one sturdy piece of wood!

4. Wassail

The Elizabethans were fond of their ale, and as part of the caroling process, there would also be a traditional sharing of spiced ale. This involved the carolers offering an empty bowl, and the landowner filling the bowl with ale and singing back to the carolers–which is where the lyrics from the song originate:

“Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you
a Happy New Year”

We still sing the song, but don’t hand out the bowl for filling… at least, not as often!

And there you go! What are some of your treasured holiday traditions… and do you think they’ll stand the test of time?

MaidofSecretsJennifer McGowan’s Maid of Secrets debuts May 7, 2013, from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. She is currently at work on book 2 in the series, Maid of Deception.

You can visit her online at, or via Twitter at @Jenn_McGowan


6 thoughts on “From Elizabeth to you… what traditions do you keep?

  1. hannahkarena says:

    There are still mummers. Philadelphia is known for its mummers, the Mummer’s Parade, and the Mummer’s museum. Less prestigious groups–not THE Philadelphia Mummers, but still mummers with the full costume get up and performances–are still featured in all of our local parades, no matter the season. See more about them here:

    Also, though I haven’t seen caroling door to door in neighborhoods, caroling is a very popular season activity near me in hospitals, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities; crowds go ward to ward and apartment to apartment singing holiday songs. I think it brings cheer to people who most need it…also it’s a lot closer quarters and easier than walking long distances between houses. I would think caroling was originally popular in cities where it was similarly easy to go door to door.

  2. Jenn McGowan says:

    oooo… Thank you so much for sharing this! I love your link regarding the Mummers, and would agree that caroling is still holding strong in places where folks can’t get out and circulate as much. With your comment i realized the last time I attended a caroling event was in my grandmother’s nursing home. So duly noted!

    Thank you for posting!!

  3. I totally just pictured the March sisters and Laurie singing the Wassailing song. Loved this.

  4. J says:

    Oh, I miss the Philly Mummers! And I’m all for bringing back Misrule.

  5. Jenn McGowan says:

    Thank you Leigh and J for stopping by! I am also for bringing back the Lord of Misrule. What an excellent concept…

  6. Lords of the Misrule should rule! Love that idea. A bit of wassailing couldn’t hurt either.

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