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Christmases past at Oxford Castle

Oxford Castle has witnessed many Christmases and with December 25th fast approaching, we’ve taken a look at what those Christmases might have been like. If you want to find out even more about this, come to one of our special Christmas at the Castle tours, running from November 26th to December 18th!


Medieval Period

  • William the Conqueror, for whom Oxford Castle was built, was crowned on Christmas Day.
  • Carols were forbidden in Church, giving rise to the tradition of singing from door to door.
  • Mince pies contained meat, along with cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon to represent the three kings.
  • The rich normally had goose or venison for dinner. The poor had whatever they could get; the rich might give them the offal, then called the ‘umbles’ which were mixed with other ingredients to make ‘umble pie’. We now say people ‘eat humble pie’ when they have been brought down a level.[1]
  • On the day after Christmas, Lords gave money to the poor in a clay pots or ‘boxes’ called ‘piggies’ which had a slit in the top. These had to be smashed to access the money. Our modern piggy banks and the name ‘Boxing Day’ are derived from this.
  • Alas, Christmas day was not all about charity and gift-giving; it was also a quarter day, which meant people had to pay their rent!



Georgian Period

  • The Christmas season ran from December 6th to January 6th. December 6th was St Nicholas’s Day, when gift-giving was traditional and the season ended with Epiphany and Twelfth Night.
  • Unlike the Normans, Georgians had access to turkeys, which were a popular choice for Christmas dinner. Christmas pudding followed, of which the main ingredient was plum.
  • Homes were decorated on Christmas Eve with greenery such as holly.
  • The Yule log was selected and burned on the fire for as long as possible during the season, ensuring a piece was retained to light the log the following year.
  • Similarly to the Norman period, the rich would give their servants ‘Christmas boxes’ as an act of charity.
  • Twelfth Night ended the Christmas season and was a day of revelry.


Victorian Period

  • The Industrial Revolution saw the Christmas season reduced to just 3 days.
  • Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert brought about many of our traditions such as the Christmas tree which was lit with candles and decorated with sweets and small gifts.
  • The Christmas card was introduced in 1843 by Henry Cole and the cracker invented by Tom Smith in 1848 sparking the commercialisation of Christmas.
  • As presents increasingly became shop bought and more elaborate they were placed under the tree instead of being hung from its branches.
  • Meat started to disappear from mince pies to suit more refined tastes.
  • A Christmas Carol was written by Charles Dickens in 1843.


[1] http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/A-Medieval-Christmas/