Many of our modern-day Christmas customs and traditions originated during the Victorian era. However, Christmas had been actively celebrated in England for centuries until it was banned by the Puritans in the mid-17th century. With the restoration of Charles II, Christmas was reinstated and the festivities associated with the season were gradually rekindled.
By the beginning of the 18th century, Christmas had once again re-established itself and it was enthusiastically celebrated by the Georgians. As the French traveller Henri Misson declared, a Georgian Christmas was a ‘time for rejoicing; a mixture of devotion and pleasure: they wish one another happiness; they give treats, and make it their whole business to drive away melancholy’.
The Georgian Christmas season was a lengthy affair and ran from 6 December to (Twelfth Night or Epiphany). Throughout this period the Georgians practised their own set of unique customs and traditions.
Christmas decorations made from greenery were traditionally put up on Christmas Eve. ‘On this festival day,’ observed the Frenchman César de Saussure in a letter to his family, ‘churches, the entrances of houses, rooms, kitchens and halls are decked with laurels, rosemary and other greenery.’ Kissing boughs could also be found hanging from ceilings and above doors. These decorations consisted of crossed hoops of holly, ivy and mistletoe and were adorned with coloured ribbons, apples, oranges and candles.
A roaring fire was an essential component of a Georgian Christmas. Originally a pagan custom, yule logs, decorated with ribbons, would be lit on Christmas Eve alongside a fragment from the log that had been used the previous year. The yule log was supposed to burn in the fireplace until Twelfth Night and it was said to bring bad luck if it went out before then.
Special Christmas candles were also lit to mark the holiday season. ‘I lighted my large wax-candle being Christmas Day,’ reported the Reverend Woodforde in his diary, ‘during tea-time this afternoon for about an hour.’
Christmas trees were introduced to the nation during the Georgian era by Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III. In 1800, Queen Charlotte revealed a decorated Christmas tree to assembled guests at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor. ‘In the middle of the room,’ explained one guest, ‘stood an immense tub with a yew tree placed in it, from the branches of which hung bunches of sweetmeats, almonds and raisins in papers, fruits and toys, most tastefully arranged, and the whole illuminated by small wax candles.’ However, it wasn’t until the Christmas edition of the Illustrated London News published a picture of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children beside a Christmas tree in 1848 that they became a traditional fixture in the nation’s homes.
Christmas was also the season of goodwill. On 21 December (St Thomas’s Day) poor women would go ‘thomasing’ around their local parish hoping to receive money or food from the better off members of society. The Reverend Woodforde readily gave donations to those who visited his home seeking charity. ‘This being St Thomas’s,’ Reverend Woodforde noted in his diary that he had, ‘a great many poor People of the Parish to visit me, I gave to each of them that came, sixpence.’
Throughout the Christmas period it was customary to go from door to door ‘wassailing’ the local populace. Groups of poor men and women would roam around their local neighbourhood singing traditional songs and carols, as well as offering their audience a drink from the wassail bowl in exchange for gifts such as food, drink or money. On Christmas Eve in 1764, the Reverend Woodforde recorded one such visit: ‘They sung a Christmas song a Christmas Carol and an Anthem,’ and the Reverend was happy to give ‘cyder as usual and 0.2.0 in return’.
It was commonplace for landowners to provide for their needy neighbours and tenants at Christmas time. Other public spirited individuals would often invite those requiring charity into their homes. In 1799, for instance, the Reverend William Holland recorded in his diary that ‘The kitchen was tolerably well lined with my poor neighbours, workmen, etc’. Similarly, the Reverend Woodforde would typically invite six or seven of the oldest men in his parish to a Christmas dinner of ‘surloin of Beef rosted’ and ‘plumb Puddings’.
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Servants, apprentices and tradesmen expected to receive a ‘Christmas box’, usually containing money, tools or old clothing, from their customers and clients on St Stephen’s Day (26 December). This is why St Stephen’s Day is now more popularly known as Boxing Day. However, this custom was not universally popular. In 1710, the author Jonathan Swift complained, ‘I shall be undone here with Christmas boxes. The rogues of the coffeehouse have raised their tax, every one giving a crown, and I gave mine in shame, besides a great many half crowns to great men’s porters etc.’
Gift-giving between friends and family was also a regular feature of the festive period. However, presents were not necessarily exchanged on Christmas Day. St Nicholas Day, New Year’s Day and Twelfth Night were all days when gifts were commonly exchanged.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, food and drink played a pivotal role in a Georgian Christmas. Indeed, in 1754 the London Magazine claimed that Christmas was a festival ‘held sacred by good eating and drinking’.
The Georgians enjoyed a range of traditional Christmas dishes. Christmas porridge was, according to César de Saussure, made from ‘raisins, plums, and spices in broth’, to which ‘rich people add wine and others beer’. It was a ‘dish few foreigners find to their taste’, recalled De Saussure, but it was considered a ‘great treat for English people’. Christmas pies containing both sweet and savoury ingredients were also hugely popular. A Christmas pie was described by Henri Misson as a pasty made from a ‘mixture of neats-tongues, chicken, eggs, sugar, raisins, lemon and orange peel, various kinds of spicery’.
Christmas Day involved a visit to church in the morning and this was followed by Christmas dinner. Turkey had not yet become the universal favourite for the main meal that it is today. ‘Probably there is not a single table spread on Christmas day,’ remarked the French diplomat Count De Soligny, ‘that is not furnished with roast beef and plum-pudding.’
Family and friends would finish the day by participating in a variety of games together. Perennial favourites such as blind man’s buff, cards and dice were played, as well as some games that are now unfamiliar to us such as Snap Dragon, Puss in the Corner and Hoop and Hide.
The Christmas festivities finally came to a close on 6 January and culminated with a Twelfth Night party. This traditionally involved dancing, games, eating and drinking. However, it was an elaborately decorated rich fruit cake, known as a Twelfth Cake, that provided the focal point of the party. It was customary for a dried bean and pea to be inserted inside the cake. Each guest would receive a slice and the man whose piece contained the bean was the king for the evening, and the woman who found the pea would be the queen.
As we have seen, the Victorians were not solely responsible for the invention of Christmas as we know it. The Georgians enjoyed celebrating the Christmas season and helped to keep the nation’s traditional Christmas customs alive after the puritans had previously abolished all festivities. The Victorians subsequently adapted and expanded many of these customs and traditions into a form that we recognise even today.
The Diary of a Country Parson 1758-1802, James Woodforde (Oxford University Press, 1984)
Christmas: A Biography, Judith Flanders (Picador, 2017)
Christmas: A Social History, Mark Connelly (IB Taurus, 1999)