Sunday, December 18, 2016

Tudor Christmas Gifts

by Deborah Swift

In Shakespeare's Day it was more usual to give gifts at New Year, but if you were lucky you might receive one at Christmas. Christmas gifts were known as Christmas Boxes and were usually given by a master to his servants, or an employer to his apprentices or workmen. They were a mark of appreciation for work done over the previous year.

New Year's gifts were a more equal exchange between friends or relations.

So what might you expect in a Tudor christmas stocking?

Maria Hubert in her book "Christmas in Shakespeare's England" suggests that Shakespeare might have enjoyed receiving paper as it was very expensive, a new quill pen, or a knife with which to sharpen it.

Well in Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale" a pedlar is selling:

Lawn as white as driven snow,
Cyprus black as e'er was crow,
Gloves as sweet as damask roses;
Masks for faces and for noses,
Bugle bracelet, necklace amber,
Perfume for a lady's chamber;
Golden quoifs and stomachers
For my lads to give their dears."

Elizabeth herself had a liking for candies and sugar fruits. The Sergeant of the Pastry (what a great title!) gave her a christmas 'pye of quynses and wardyns guilt'. In other words a gilded pie of quince and plums.

Everyone in her household was expected to give her a gift for the New Year, the more lavish the better, as your gift indicated your status. The gifts are well documented and include a gift even from her dustman, who gave her 'two bolts of camerick' (cambric) in 1577 . In the same year Sir Philip Sidney gave her 'a smock of camerick, wrought with black silk in the collor and sleves, the square and ruffs wrought with venice golde'. It seems the dustman's gift was somewhat outclassed!

Other gifts she received were 'eighteen larkes in a cage' in 1578, and a fan of white and red feathers which included her portrait, from Sir Francis Drake in 1589.

You can see that she is wearing an amber necklace like the one described in Shakespeare's verse, and carrying embroidered gloves and a feather fan in this portrait. Were any of them Christmas gifts I wonder?

For the artisan and lower classes it was the custom to send foodstuffs to your lord or master who owned the land you tenanted. Typical gifts included pigs, fowl, eggs, dried apples, cheeses or nuts and spices such as nutmegs and almonds.

But what about the man in your life? Well, socks of course. Or hose to be more precise. On the left you can see a pair of embroidered hose made for a small boy. Thanks to for this picture.


Deborah Swift's book "The Lady's Slipper" is available in the UK and in the US.
'Highly recommended.' The Historical Novels Review
'Top Pick!' RT Book Reviews
'Women's Fiction at its best' History and Women
'Brilliant saga' Romance Reviews today
''Rich and haunting' Reading the Past
'Riveting narrative' For the Love of Books


  1. i should imagine buying a gift for Elizabeth was worse than choosing one for my mother. what do you buy the woman who has everything? :D :D

    Very interesting post Deborah. i would recommend 'The Lady's Slipper' to anyone who loves historical fiction.

  2. I love learning these things. Man, the Queen made out like a bandit. Richest woman in the world and she's the one receiving gifts from everyone.
    Gift giving really hasn't changed much over the centuries- food, jewelry and clothing are still popular.

    Thanks for the posting.

  3. Thanks for that lovely comment Judith.

    And yes, I bet Elizabeth I had everything. Still, storage was no problem, she had plenty of palaces to put it all in!

  4. Delightful post! I especially like Drake's present. So clear he had given it time and thought. So poignant, given his later history.

  5. Hello Katherine and Sophia, thanks for stopping by. Some of the other things she received were amazing jewellery - "a flowre of golde, garnished with sparcks of diamonds, rubyes and ophales, with an agathe of her Majestie's phisnamy, and a perle pendant with devices painted in it". These were apparently given by eight maskers in Chrismas week. Wow, looks like actors were paid a lot more then than now! Don't suppose I'll be getting either of those in my stocking!

  6. This brings up the topic of the changes in language, also, as I read through and see so much difference in even spelling. Why would the spelling change over the years- no need for that. But it is another interesting topic for study. Which will not happen for me any time soon.

  7. The poor dustman! Those 'two bolts of camerick' sound very expensive for his income level.

  8. Brilliant post! What a beautiful portrait of Bess the Queen, I have never seen it before! If you have more info about it, artist, year, where it can be found, etc, I'd appreciate very, very much if you could share it. Thanks so much!

  9. interesting blog. It would be great if you can provide more details about it. Thanks you

    Christmas Gifts to Chennai

  10. Oh, yes, Elizabeth loved her suckets! That's what ruined her teeth. ;-) Goodness, those were expensive gifts. But you couldn't give cheap stuff to a queen, could you?

  11. It would seem that . . . nothing changes.

  12. I too had not seen this portrait and was intrigued by the peacock blue colour of the cloak.
    Very interesting compilation of gifts, I wonder what she gave and to who?

  13. This is an interesting post. Thanks for sharing. :) --- Suzanne


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.