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Christmas in the late Georgian and Regency period was very different from festivities today. 200 years ago the ‘Season’ began on 24th December and ran until 12th Night on 6th January. It would be unseemly to begin celebrations before the end of the sombre pre-Christmas period of Advent. Christmas in the Eighteenth century was a restrained affair – a time for elegant entertaining and extending hospitality to family, friends and neighbours. Children today might be dismayed to learn that pre-Victorian Christmas was considered an adult occasion.
Indeed, much of what we consider to be ancient Christmas traditions are Victorian inventions – such as widespread gift giving, the popularity of the Christmas tree, Christmas cards and many familiar carols.
The Regency family getting ready for Christmas would prepare special food and make simple decorations from natural materials -–perhaps a few sprigs of greenery or if having a party a more elaborate ‘kissing bough’ the forerunner of our mistletoe bunch. Kissing under mistletoe is a tradition peculiar to Britain. The origins are unknown but possibly date back to ancient fertility rites. Christmas trees were introduced through the German connections in the Royal Family. It is usually believed through Queen Victoria’s Consort, Prince Albert. In fact decorated trees appeared in royal palaces much earlier in the Regency period. Queen Caroline, the estranged wife of George IV set up a tree at Windsor Castle. “The tree was fixed onto a board”, an observer wrote, “its boughs bent under the weight of gilt oranges, almonds etc. and under it was a farmhouse surrounded by figures of animals. The forming of Christmas trees is, we believe, a common custom in Germany”.
Food was rich and spicy, alcohol sugar and spice used to preserve fruits and meat in the days before refrigeration. A favourite dish was plum porridge or Christmas porridge - a sort of thick spicy beef soup containing prunes and other dried fruit. Our familiar Christmas pudding evolved from this strange dish, as the ingredients were later thickened and boiled in cloth to form a pudding. Mincemeat pies, as the name suggests, contained real meat, usually beef but frequently tongue and heart as well. Also known as Christmas pies these delicacies varied from region to region but would not be without the addition of suet, sugar, raisins, lemons, spices, orange peel, eggs, apples, brandy and cider.
Everyone looked forward to the Twelfth Night celebrations, the high point of the festive season and a time for parties, cakes and games. For many it was also a time of boisterous revelry pranks and misrule. Eventually in 1870 Queen Victoria banned Twelfth Night as a feast day for this reason and the much-loved Twelfth Night cake was re-styled as the Christmas cake.
The commercial potential of Christmas started to be exploited by the Victorians. Regency families were more likely to restrict gift giving to Christmas Boxes for servants, apprentices and tradespeople. The gift would normally be money in the form of an annual gratuity for services and strictly for those lower in the social scale such as delivery boys, lamplighters and chimney sweeps. Christmas charities flourished throughout the 18th century. Even at a time of revelry and partying it was recognised that the virtues of goodwill, charity and hospitality were essential to the season. If you gave at all within the family gifts would most likely be a form of produce or homemade articles.
Christmas as a feast day took longer to develop in America where the Puritan tradition was strong and long lasting. The Puritans were members of a religious and social movement of the 1500’s and 1600’s that spread to America with the early settlers. Puritans believed in simplicity of ritual and associated Christmas celebrations with pagan belief and the encouragement of riotous behaviour. Christmas pies (or mincemeat pies, as we know them) were banned by the Puritans, not only for the alcohol content but for the custom of shaping the pies into the image of tiny cribs holding the Christ child. Such images were considered idolatrous or Roman Catholic in origin and therefore suspect and possibly Pagan. For a short period Christmas itself was banned as a religious festival. In some States Christmas was not fully revived until the beginning of the 20th century.
Paula Wrightson, Brighton & Hove Museums For information about all our museums and events www.virtualmuseum.info
Posted in History on Dec 01, 2007