In England, Christmas as a time of feasting had been celebrated from at least medieval times as an interval of cheer in the midst of winter. Oliver Cromwell, however, put a stop to the festivities in 1644 and for the poorer sections of society it became just another working day. Christmas as it is known today was developed by the Victorians, but the Georgians had already, with their flair for excess, reinstated many of the old traditions and customs.
Preparations began for the Christmas season, which extended in Georgian times from St. Nicholas Day (6th December) to Twelfth Night (6th January), with the country households of the gentry and aristocracy gathering winter greenery with which to ‘deck the halls’. Preparations also included stocking up the larder, cleaning the guest rooms and polishing the best tableware. The lady of the house would have ordered her gowns for the festive season months before, the more wealthy travelling to London to visit a fashionable modiste. Each gown could easily have cost her husband as much as £4000 in modern terms and been delivered well in advance, perhaps as early as the previous summer
The Georgians loved any excuse to party and Christmas was no exception. It was considered a time for games and feasting, for lively house parties, masquerades, balls, visiting and play acting. The rich salved their consciences at such blatant overindulgence by gifts of charity to the less fortunate. On many estates, servants were rewarded with a feast, although they usually partook of their own Christmas meal in the middle of the morning to enable them to wait on their employers and ensure the family’s festivities were perfect.
A Regency Christmas was mostly an adult affair, with children ‘out of sight, out of mind’ in the nursery. Any gifts tended to be given on St. Nicholas Day, while they might be expected to attend church twice on Christmas Day. The holiday became more geared towards family and children in the Victorian era.
Guests from nearby estates and sometimes farther afield would begin arriving soon after this, signalling the beginning of balls, parties and other entertainments. New arrivals would be welcomed with a warming glass of wine mulled with cloves, cinnamon and other spices, or a tumbler of rum punch. The gentlemen would indulge in hunting, shooting, billiards, political discussions and other manly pursuits, while the ladies would take the opportunity to gossip, exchange patterns and recipes, enjoy poetry, reading and music. Christmas Eve was the start of twelve days of religious reflection, for the Georgians were devout – outwardly at least – and it was traditional for an enormous Yule Log to be lit. It had to be large enough to keep burning for all twelve days, since it was considered unlucky for it to go out. The Georgians had not abandoned the long-held belief that the pagan plants still used today to decorate homes – holly, ivy and mistletoe – warded off evil spirits. The Yule Log also had its customs, in that it was thought bad luck for it to be touched by a barefooted woman or a visitor with flat feet!
Amidst the decorative garlands of fruit and foliage which festooned the house on every available prominence (with an eye for beauty and elegance, of course), there would be, except in the primmest of establishments, a ‘kissing bough’. This was a ball of greenery (including the wicked mistletoe!), which was suspended from the ceiling. It was constructed around a basket, then ornamented with ribbon and sometimes candles. Each time a kiss was claimed beneath it, a berry had to be removed, the kisses then supposed to cease once all the berries had gone. Most houses would not yet have had a Christmas tree, but although Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, popularised its use after a picture appeared in The Illustrated London News in 1848 of the tree he had installed at Windsor Castle, he was not, as is often thought to be the case, responsible for its introduction to Britain. That honour falls to George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte, who brought the tradition from her native Hanover at the turn of the nineteenth century.
Dinner was a grand affair right through the season, not just on Christmas Day itself. Composed of up to twenty dishes – and by the Regency partaken of between six and seven o’clock in the evening – the formally and symmetrically arranged pattern of dishes à la francaise was gradually giving way to the system à la russe. This latter, possibly brought from the continent by the Prince Regent’s famous French chef de cuisine, Marie-Antoine Caréme, consisted of dishes arriving at table in sequence, more as we would today. Thus soup, fish, meat and dessert courses would be defined as such and follow each other.
Regency Christmas fare included brawn, made from a pig’s head which had been boiled for five or six hours, the flesh and fat then pressed into a mould; Jerusalem artichokes, a cod’s head, asparagus soup, turtle soup, spices, fruit, blancmange, Madeira jelly, chocolate drops and a great deal of wine and spirits. It was a golden opportunity for the gentry to display their affluence and a chance for less well-favoured guests and family to enjoy the hospitality of their wealthier neighbours or relatives. Goose was the most traditional choice of main course, along with beef. Turkey had come from America in the sixteenth century, the birds fitted with boots and walked to London from Norfolk by drovers, but it did not become popular until Victorian times.
A particularly favourite way of showing prosperity was to have on the table a traditional Christmas pie. This was made from whatever birds were available on the estate and comprised a three to five bird roast which was then encased in pastry. A common combination was chicken, pheasant and pigeon, all of which were boned and then stuffed inside each other. Particularly in Yorkshire, this was often given as a gift.
A more elaborate version of this dish caused the great bustard to be driven to extinction in Britain by the 1840s. Great bustards were prized for their flavour and cost about two guineas each in the first years of the nineteenth century. French chef Grimod de la Reyniere included in his book of that time, L’Almanach des Gourmands, a now famous recipe incorporating the bustard. It began with an olive stuffed with capers and anchovies, which was pushed into a garden warbler. This was then put into an ortolan, followed by a lark, a thrush, a quail, a larded lapwing, a plover, a red-legged partridge, a woodcock, a teal, a guinea fowl, a duck, a fattened pullet, a pheasant, a turkey and finally the bustard, each time the whole being placed into the larger bird. The stuffed bustard was then cooked in a sealed pot with ham, carrots, onions, celery, herbs, spices and lard for twenty-four hours. It was the kind of dish which would have graced one of the Prince Regent’s grand banquets.
Two other dishes to appear on the groaning Regency Christmas table are more familiar to a modern eye. Christmas porridge was the traditional pudding, known from the fifteenth century, but was not the sweet affair we enjoy nowadays. It was made from chopped mutton or beef and mixed with breadcrumbs, onion, dried fruit, herbs, spices and wine, a savoury accompaniment to the other meat dishes, with the fruit added for depth of flavour. It was eaten all winter. However, the plum pudding was gaining in favour and eventually replaced the traditional version. Parson Woodforde, the celebrated diarist, recorded a grand dinner of 3rd December 1776, when he gave his guests ‘…surloin of Beef roasted, a Leg of Mutton boiled and plumb Puddings in plenty…’
Mince pies were also a far cry from their modern equivalent. They contained minced meat – beef being the preference for the affluent – and fruit. Both Christmas pudding and mince pies contained less sugar than present day varieties.
So much food was required for a country house party, the cook and her staff were kept busy for days preparing as much as they could in advance. Black butter was mentioned by Jane Austen in one of her ‘Letters to Cassandra’, a ‘simple, uncostly and delightful conserve’ made from apples. Parts of a pig, such as the ears and feet, or those of another animal, were pickled – ‘soused’ – for use in cold dishes. Hot meals were augmented with cuts of cold beef, mutton, hare and venison. Sweet dishes included gingerbread, which has no religious connection, but was cooked by monks for spiritual festivals; cakes, jellies and puddings. Jane Austen mentions rice pudding and apple dumplings.
Twelfth Night, the feast of the Epiphany, was an excuse for revelry and games. Celebrations included masquerades and the drawing of characters to be played for the evening. Among other entertainments were card games and the popular ‘Snapdragon’ – snatching raisins from a bowl of flaming brandy. This was the forerunner of setting the Christmas pudding alight. The centuries-old ‘Blind Man’s Buff’ often took the evening into the early hours in a somewhat disorderly fashion.
The main dish of the evening was Twelfth Cake, a rich and expensive confection of icing sugar and fruit cake – Christmas Cake. The staff were invited to join in the fun, most of the guests having left by then and if they got a pea or a bean in their slice of cake, they were made king or queen for the night.
Carols have their origins in songs associated with round dances to celebrate anything from a birth to a wedding and singing at Christmas dates as early as the fifteenth century, when the ‘wassail’ was a salutation to good health. The wassail could have been sung about any celebration, even to a good apple harvest or cattle; ‘wassailing’ was the action of carousing, or going from house to house singing songs of good cheer and collecting gifts. Such carousals date from 1602, the carols or songs from 1650 and the Twelfth Night and New Year’s Eve drinking of healths from 1661, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Many of the best-loved carols – for example ‘God Rest You Merry Gentlemen‘, ‘The First Noel’ and ‘I Saw Three Ships‘– date from at least the sixteenth century, while others, like ‘Good King Wenceslas‘, have more contemporary words set to traditional melodies. Many of these evolved in the Victorian era. ‘Oh Come All You Faithful’ was composed by John Francis Wade in the 1740s and ‘Hark The Herald Angels Sing’ by Mendelssohn (1809-47).
So while you are enjoying your mince pies, chocolate yule log, Christmas cake and mulled wine, sit back by the fire and think of times of yore...
A Very Happy Christmas to you all! Seasons Greetings, Heather.