Sunday, December 9, 2018

Christmas in Georgian England: The Magic and the Myths

By Nancy Bilyeau



Some people cherish an image of Victorian Christmas as the peak of all celebrations. This was when the Christmas tree first found its way into English homes, thanks to Prince Albert, and when families gathered to "make merry" and give thanks for their good fortune, just as they did in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

Um, that's not quite right.

While there is a strong belief that Albert brought with him from Saxe-Coburg the tradition of a Christmas tree, the honors belong to Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. She was raised in Mecklenburg-Strelitz, and it was following her marriage to George in 1761 that the tree tradition found its way to England.



As for the bubbling warmth of a Dickens' Christmas, look closer. He actually wrote it in a fury to make a point over the government's callousness to hunger and poverty in England--"the Hungry Forties"--as well as to make some money quickly. Dickens himself was strapped for cash. Much of the original novella is a passionate argument for more compassion for the near-starving in England. (You can read more about it in my article about The Story Behind Dickens Writing 'A Christmas Carol')

No, I would argue that it's the people of the Georgian era, encompassing my beloved 18th century, that got Christmas off the ground, so to speak.

Queen Charlotte's Tree
 

The tradition of chopping a yew branch and bringing it inside for Christmas was quite popular in Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Samuel Coleridge, while visiting the Northern German duchy in the late 18th century, was impressed enough to write about it:

"On the evening before Christmas Day, one of the parlors is lighted up by the children, into which the parents must not go; a great yew bough is fastened on the table at a little distance from the wall, a multitude of little tapers are fixed in the bough ... and coloured paper etc. hangs and flutters from the twigs. Under this bough the children lay out the presents they mean for their parents, still concealing in their pockets what they intend for each other. Then the parents are introduced, and each presents his little gift; they then bring out the remainder one by one from their pockets, and present them with kisses and embraces."
Queen Charlotte

At first Queen Charlotte confined her importing of German Christmas traditions to mounting a decorated yew branch, but in 1800 she threw a memorable party at Windsor for the kingdom's leading families, showing off an entire tree. Dr John Watkins wrote with some awe of how "from the branches of which hung bunches of sweetmeats, almonds and raisins in papers, fruits and toys, most tastefully arranged; the whole illuminated by small wax candles." He said that "after the company had walked round and admired the tree, each child obtained a portion of the sweets it bore, together with a toy, and then all returned home quite delighted."

Before long, anybody who was anybody wanted a Christmas tree.


The Punch Bowl 

Who doesn't enjoy a dip into the punch bowl during the holiday season?

Any idea that the punch bowl belongs to the Victorians is wrong. This was not only a custom but an obsession for the Georgians. They did not do things by halves in the 18th century. Everyone drank. A lot. William Pitt the Younger, prime minister from 1783 to 1801, was said to have drunk a bottle of port before giving a speech before the House of Commons.

Punch was made using a mixture of rum or brandy, adding sugar, citrus fruit, spices – sometimes grated nutmeg – and adding water. The punch bowls could be ordinary, or splendid. Some were created to commemorate a victory or birth.

Gathering around a punch bowl was seen as the height of happiness. One man wrote:

"…we hope nothing will ever hinder a Man drinking a Bowl of Punch with his Friend, that’s one of the greatest pleasures we enjoy in the Country, after our labour."


It cannot be denied that imbibing punch, at Christmas and other times, sometimes went too far. William Hogarth captured that in his satirical print A Modern Midnight Conversation. Says the British Museum about Hogarth's creation, dated to 1733: "A drinking scene with eleven men in a panelled room around a table on which is a punch-bowl decorated with Chinese figures; wine bottles on the floor and mantelpiece and an overflowing chamber pot at lower left."

The oil painting of Hogarth's widely disseminated image was, interestingly, purchased by King Edward VII.




Hogarth's 'A Midnight Modern Conversation'


Plum Pudding

You can get into deep trouble claiming a century as the most important in the evolution of plum pudding, but I'm going to live dangerously by claiming the 18th. True, it was invented in medieval times but it was called "frumenty," made of beef and mutton with raisins, currants, prunes, wines and spices, and very watery. The Puritans banned it, who knows why, and when Charles II restored the monarchy, nobody particularly wanted to restore frumentary.

The story goes that George I, after tasting it, called for its return shortly after his accession in 1714, and it was served at royal feasts for Christmas. He was accordingly dubbed the "Pudding King." (By the way, this has been debunked by some as hokum invented during the 20th century reign of George V to bolster the image of the monarchy, though why the much-respected George V needed a boost from George I two centuries later is unexplained.)

In any event, plum pudding, as it was now called, tasted differently than frumenty. Recipes called for more dried fruit and sugar. There were rarely any plums but there were raisins. Samuel Johnson himself wrote that the definition of plum was "raisin; grape dried in the sun."

Plum pudding became more and more  popular, and was officially linked to Christmas in the 1830s, in the reign of William IV. He was quite fond of it, and even gave a feast for 3,000 people on his birthday in 1830, offering boiled and roasted beef and plum pudding.

The bowling ball we love: plum pudding


Some historians and food writers declare that plum pudding took its place as dessert for Christmas dinner in the Victorian era, during the time of William IV. It's been a staple since. One writer sighed over "the glossy, currant-speckled cannon-ball that appears on Victorian-style Christmas cards."

Only one problem with that: William IV, uncle of Victoria, was the last Georgian king. :)

Victorian family enjoying their Christmas dessert, one made possible by the Georgians




---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Now that you're in a proper mood to celebrate the 18th century, I'm giving away three signed copies of my new novel, The Blue. It's the story of a Huguenot artist who becomes caught up in a spy mission in a porcelain factory.





And in the novel, William Hogarth and punch bowls do appear :)

To enter the competition, leave a comment below. If it's appropriate, share with us in your comments your favorite Christmas tree tradition.

Thank you!

11 comments:

  1. I, too, love the eighteenth century. I've written of both a Cornish and a colonial America Christmases. Both used Christmas bushes, wooden hoops wrapped in pine boughs.
    Fun to research. Enjoyed your post.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Love a Victorian Christmas!!! Even though we celebrate both Chanukah and Christmas, I absolutely love the tradition of plum pudding for Christmas! We used to go to a traditional Victorian Christmas celebration with music and foods at historic home in New York!

    ReplyDelete
  3. That's a really fun article, in true Christmas spirit (or should that be spirits with the punch!)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Interesting how some ideas are so engrained that no one ever thinks to question them!

    ReplyDelete
  5. You didn't mention Pantomime which has its origins in the 18th Century in England based on the Commedia dell'Arte from Italy.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Oh, this is so fascinating! I write about George I, so I was tickled at that plum pudding anecdote, and the specific decorations on the tree are just lovely to know. Merry Christmas!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Nancy, Loved your post! I thought all of this came from Victorian England. So interesting!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Very interesting. I love learning about Christmas traditions.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Christmas is my favorite time of the year. Thank you for this very informative post. My favorite part of Christmas is decorating the tree with all of the ornaments we have collected through the years.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I'm glad you shared this post. I also would be throwing the chic party soon and going to use the vintage theme for this family gathering. I think that booking one of the rental venues in Los Angeles would be a good idea as I am not able to do any planning on a short notice.

    ReplyDelete