It's an irony of history that the man who ultimately trashed the English Catholic Church began as one of its more passionate defenders -- and Christmas was one of the victims of his search for an heir.
(SPOILER ALERT: The 12 Days of Christmas continue until Jan 6!)
The Glory Days Before the Wrecking of English Catholicism
Before Henry VIII gave up on producing a son with his Spanish Catholic wife, Catherine of Aragon, and decided to break with Rome to marry the ultimately doomed Protestant Anne Boleyn, he was an ardent Catholic. And the nation he reigned over was ardently Catholic -- as were its Christmases.
To legitimize his marriage to Anne, Henry essentially made himself a pope of the Church of England. He began with sacking the nation's monasteries (thereby filling his own coffers), which had for centuries been integral to rural English life.
His successors (with the brief exception of his daughter Mary) were set on destroying the English Catholic Church.
Along the way, the so-called Reformation -- especially the Puritans -- downplayed or eradicated centuries of tradition. This included many annual celebrations marked on the Catholic liturgical calendar ... particularly the raucous Tudor version of Christmas.
In time, Christmas itself was downgraded in England to the status of a minor holiday, especially in some strict, non-Anglican sects.
In some ways, Charles Dickens' 1843 novella A Christmas Carol (read it all here) began a revival of the holiday in the public imagination (as fictionalized in the charming 2017 film The Man Who Invented Christmas).
(Also, Queen Victoria's German Lutheran husband Prince Albert and other royals did their part.)
Today, in terms of saints' days in America, most people are only really aware of St. Patrick's Day and St. Valentine's Day, which have also morphed into vulgar secular celebrations.
But, in pre-Reformation Days in England, religious holidays, including the feast days of saints, were major touchpoints during the year.
Tudor Christmas Fun With Lucy Worsley
If an American wants to know what Christmas was like in pre-Protestant times in an English-speaking land, a great place to start is Lucy Worsley's 12 Days of Tudor Christmas, a one-hour special from the elfin British historian and TV presenter.
In it, the delightful Worsley -- who likes dressing up in period costume and really likes honey mead -- reminds us that, in pre-Reformation England, Advent was an actual penitential season, with abstinence and fasting, etc.
It ended on Christmas, which then continued in earnest for the full 12 days, until Epiphany.
Non-essential work stopped, people feasted and partied, and a general good time was had by all (within the limits of the contemporary culture, that is).
But, religious observances, including Mass, were also a major part of the celebration, along with all the various folk customs. This shows how, in the mind of English Catholics at the time, their faith was fully integrated into almost all aspects of their daily lives.
The full documentary airs annually on various PBS stations (check local listings), and is also available for PBS Passport members, and for digital purchase or rental on Amazon Prime, YouTube and Apple TV (and maybe other platforms).
The Dark Heart of Christmas
The special also reminds us that the lovely Coventry Carol was composed for the Feast of the Holy Innocents. It's the Fourth Day of Christmas, which I've always thought of as the dark heart of the otherwise joyful season.
It's a lullaby for those lost children that King Herod had murdered while trying to eliminate the Baby Jesus.
The Deeply Catholic World of a Tudor Monastery Farm
One of my other favorite British shows on this topic is Tudor Monastery Farm.
Available on Amazon Prime Video and YouTube, it follows historian Ruth Goodman and archaeologists Tom Pinfold and Peter Ginn, as they live for a year on a recreation of a Tudor-era, pre-Reformation farm owned by Benedictine monks.
Throughout, the show illustrates how the liturgical calendar is utterly intertwined with the lives of the farmers. It's also rather kinder and more empathetic to the people's beliefs and to the role of the monks than most British shows.
One historian even talks about the positive aspects of this deeply Catholic world and laments that it was destroyed.
Most notable are the episodes devoted to Easter and Christmas, where the serious observations of Lent and Advent lead to a burst of feasting and joy on the holiday and for days afterward.
Here's the Christmas episode:
Christmas Comes Without Trees (and Santa)
This is Christmas with food and music and greenery, but before the Victorian-era popularization of such German customs as decorated Christmas trees.
It also predates Father Christmas and later Santa Claus, whose ruddy visage and jiggling belly have eclipsed the Christ Child in most modern media and entertainment.
In pluralistic America, we have incorporated many Christmas customs from around the world. But, because English settlers came here after the Reformation, many English Catholic customs never found their way to our shores.
While I'm not sure that the boned and stuffed boar's head will be making a reappearance on Christmas tables, these shows can remind modern Catholics of many traditions that they can weave into their own celebrations.
Reprinted with permission from Kate O'Hare's Pax Culturati
Image: Lucy Worsley in ‘Lucy’s Worsley’s 12 Days of Tudor Christmas’/BBC/PBS
Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Content Manager at Family Theater Productions.
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