December 22, 2013

Twelve Days of Tudor Christmas: Gift Giving

Portrait of baby Edward, given
by Hans Holbein to Henry VIII
On this last day of our Twelve Days of Tudor Christmas, we will discuss the tradition of gift giving. If we had followed the original Twelve Days of Christmas, today would have been the first day of the Twelve Days, ending after New Year. But, breaking with tradition, I have it as our last. Gift Giving was a part of the Twelve Days of Christmas, but occurred on the seventh day of the Twelve Days, which we celebrate as New Years Day. All nobles would send or bring their monarch a gift. Each gift was carefully recorded on a Gift Roll. Some, like one from 1539, still survive today.

Some gifts had special meanings. For example, Elizabeth I received a jeweled whip from Sir Philip Sidney as an apology for suggesting she not marry. It represented his submission to her will.

Silk stockings belonging
to Elizabeth I
Some gifts were more practical. Robert Dudley gave Elizabeth a pair of silk stockings during her first New Years celebration as Queen. During his reign, Henry VIII often received shirts made and embroidered by the women of his court.

Even humble subjects gave their monarch gifts. Probably one of Henry VIII's favorite gifts was a portrait of his son, Edward, by Hans Holbein. One year, Elizabeth received a pair of cambric sleeves from a school master, and a gilded sweet pastry from her pastry chef.

The monarch was not the only one to receive gifts during the Christmas season. Peasants in Tudor times would give gifts too, though not as rich as at the royal court. Gifts of fruit (such as oranges, which were quite rare), nuts, and possibly a new piece of clothing or a handmade toy or two were common. Occasionally gifts were given on Christmas day. These gifts were known as "Christmas Boxes" and were usually given by a Lord to his servants, or an employer to his apprentices. They were a representation of appreciation for work done over the previous year. Though we now give gifts on Christmas day rather than New Years, we can easily imagine the excitement of the Tudors on New Years day as they received gifts.

Further Reading

  • Maria Hubert. Christmas in Shakespeare's England (1998).
  • State Papers Online—Part I, The Tudors, Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, 1509–1603: State Papers Domestic. URL.
  • Jane A. Lawson, ed. The Elizabethan New Year's Gift Exchanges, 1559-1603.
I must admit I am sad to finish my Twelve Days of Tudor Christmas. I hope all my readers have enjoyed it and have a very Happy Christmas!


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