Today’s Christmas traditions may seem to have been with us for ever, but they are, in fact, cobbled together from numerous centuries and countries. Some rituals have survived for millennia, but others, such as the instructions for peacock served in its plumage, dating from 1430, have fallen from vogue. – i.e:
‘Take a peacock, break its neck and cut its throat,” the recipe begins. Then “flay him”, being careful to “keep the skin and feathers whole together”, the better to reclothe the peacock’s flesh once cooked. For maximum effect, you should gild the beak.
The wreath on your front door is a remnant of the ancient practice of bringing evergreen foliage into the home, symbolising everlasting life and renewal at the darkest time of the year. The early Christians cleverly re-appropriated the existing Pagan mid-winter festival, deciding that it should instead celebrate Jesus’s birthday, and making it the occasion for a special “mass for Christ” as well as a party.
Medieval Christmas lasted for 12 days, and New Year’s Day and Twelfth Night were just as important as December 25. However, Christmas Day was the first day of feasting, made doubly enjoyable because Christmas Eve was a fast. Masques and entertainments whiled away the holiday in grand households. Edward III even staged a Christmas tournament in 1344, in which “the fierce hacklings of men and horses, gallantly armed, were a delightful terror to the female beholders”.
A Christmas banquet for Henry V included dates, carp, eels roasted with lamprey, and a leach (boiled milk jelly, a bit like Turkish delight). This 15th-century feast concluded with “subtleties”, edible sugar sculptures depicting figures such as St Katherine, or a tiger. Medieval bellies were not used to refined sugar, a rare and expensive food, so smashing up and eating a subtlety must have provided a sugar rush that felt rather like being drunk.
The 12-day holiday sometimes saw the normal social hierarchy reversed, not unlike the Roman feast of Saturnalia, where the masters waited on the slaves. The “Lord of Misrule”, a lowly servant, might be crowned master of ceremonies and japes. The tradition survives today in our wearing of the paper crowns, with which the Lord of Misrule was identified.
Then, what do you think happened in the 16th century; – along came the Puritans to spoil the fun. These extreme Protestants “protested” against the ossified, superstitious rituals of the Catholic Church. To the Puritan mind, these included the degenerate celebrations at Christmas.
An early example of Father Christmas in literature appears in Ben Jonson’s play of 1616, Christmas, His Masque, which was really a diatribe against the killjoys. In comes a bearded old man, old because he personifies the ancient feast of Christmas. “Ha!” Father Christmas says, “would you have kept me out?” Introducing his sons and daughters, Carol, Misrule, Gambol, Minced-Pie and Baby-Cake, they all celebrate “a right Christmas, as of old it was”. Father Christmas comes down the chimney because this, rather than the door, is the traditional entrance to the house for Pagan trespassers such as witches or evil spirits.
Also – nowadays, clever and compassionate adults never say silly things like “Santa doesn’t exist” because (a) they know deep down that he does – sort of , (b) they know that life would be just too prosaic if he didn’t, and (c) they know that kids know that adults would say that because they can’t be bothered to leave a glass of whisky and a mince pie out for him on Christmas Eve. Grown-ups are so….ooo lazy!
However, the Puritans did have the last laugh. Swept to power in the Civil War, their zealot governments of the 1640s and 1650s forced shops to stay open on Christmas Day and punished anyone caught celebrating. In Oxford, in 1647, this led to “a world of skull-breaking”; in 1657, John Evelyn was taken prisoner by soldiers for taking the Holy Sacrament at Christmas. Some people still celebrated in secret and when Oliver Cromwell died and King Charles II was restored to the throne, Christmas returned. But it remained a lower-key, domestic affair throughout the 18th century. “Much harried by the Poor of the Parish who come for Christmas Gifts,” wrote the miserable Reverend William Holland, a real-life Georgian Scrooge. Someone once wrote, “Apparently not the most charming man–but honest in his political and social views, and detailed about his daily life.”
Christmas dinner, served at home, was usually beef, venison or goose with plum pudding. The turkey, although introduced into England in Tudor times, did not catch on as a Christmas essential until the late 19th century. The killing of a deer might induce a generous nobleman to give the offal or “umbles” to his dependants, who would encase them in pastry to make an “umble” or “humble pie”. On the same plate as your meat, you might have enjoyed plum porridge or plum pudding. This boiled mixture of suet, flour and fruit was the origin of Christmas pudding, but palates still relished sweet and savoury mixed together. Samuel Pepys loved “a messe of brave plum-porridge”, and also mentions giving tradesmen the “boxes” containing gifts of money, explaining the name of Boxing Day.
Pepys also enjoyed mince pies, and his 17th-century “mincemeat” really did contain meat. Mixed with fruit and alcohol, the shredded flesh of beasts slaughtered in the autumn could thus be preserved in stone jars for the Christmas feast. Ann Blencowe’s 1694 recipe recommended a boiled calf’s tongue, chopped up and mixed with beef suet, “raisins of ye sun”, lemon rind and spices. Other food sounds half-familiar, too: Diana Asty, in 1701, celebrated with the recognisably modern “ham & chicken, & sprouts”, and “out landish sweets” (French bonbons).
Georgian houses were still “decked with laurels, rosemary and other greenery”, and the later 18th century saw the German Christmas tree imported by the Hanoverian royal family. Teutonic trees had been decorated with apples, nuts and paper flowers since the 16th century. While the German-born Prince Albert didn’t import the idea of the tree (as often claimed), he did indeed popularise it, setting up trees for his own children in an attempt to recreate the magical Christmases of his youth.
It was a single but influential engraving, published in the Illustrated London News of 1848, that made the tree central to British Christmas culture. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria and their children are shown gathered around their decorated tree at Windsor Castle. Attended by just one maid, they present a paradigm of a normal, respectable family, and the nation rushed to emulate them. Albert’s trees were furnished with fruits, gilded nuts and gingerbread, but over time, these perishable items were replaced with glass or, eventually, plastic. Crackers, too, evolved from the simple twists of paper that originally protected sugared almonds. But the pleasures of Victorian Christmas weren’t for everyone. Hannah Cullwick, an overworked cook, was frightened that the tree set up in the kitchen by one of her fellow servants would be “too much for Missis, who won’t allow us 6d worth of holly”.
The Christmas card was another Victorian innovation. Henry Cole, the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, is usually given credit for “inventing” the mass-produced card. So popular did these become that, by 1880, the Post Office advised people to “Post Early for Christmas”. However, this merely meant the morning, rather than the afternoon, of Christmas Eve.
The 1880s saw a curious trend for cards depicting dead robins. Helpless birds, killed by the December cold, appealed to the sentimental Victorians, who had also revived the charitable side of Christmas. Charles Dickens, of course, did more than anyone else to spread the good cheer with A Christmas Carol (1843). The Penny Illustrated Paper began to run Christmas charity campaigns in aid of the unemployed Lancashire mill operatives; one reader sent them a thousand plum puddings. But Christmas was fast developing a consumerist side as well. “10,000 Penny Toys” shouted an advert for a shop in Oxford Street in 1863. Rocking horses and “walking dolls” were promised to those who braved the crowds.
Christmas 1939 was the last for five years to be celebrated with butter and bacon, as food rationing began. The card game of Blackout was launched, and a popular gift was the Take Coverlet, a sleeping bag and coat combined, to wear on your way to the bomb shelter. The Ministry of Food implausibly claimed that nobody needed tropical fruit at Christmas because “vegetables have such jolly colours. The cheerful glow of carrots, the rich crimson of beetroot… looks as delightful as it tastes.”
Dead robins, decorative beetroot, eels and offal in your mince pies are festive traditions safely buried, but even today you may still encounter the odd Puritan or Scrooge. Don’t let them spoil your Christmas!
Photo (Header): www.whitegloveconsultancy.com/history-christmas-dinner/