Christmas as an event has been around for a long long time, admittedly in various guises. There is a consensus that the pagan midwinter festivals such as Yule, or the Winter Solstice, were amalgamated with Christmas as the Church imposed liturgical days in the calendar. The word Christmas comes directly from Christ’s mass, and actually existed as Christenmass in Middle English, until the “en” syllable was lost.
There is little doubt that Christmas as we know it today is largely down to the Victorians, who began to treat Christmas as a family celebration feast with time off work. Increased prosperity allowed the middle classes to include special cuisine, present giving and decorations in their homes during the holiday period. You can find more info on how the Victorians influenced our modern day Christmas festivities here.
Christmas is synoymous with food. Abundant food, and the possibility of indigestion, to say the least. The pagan celebrations were indulgent feasts to brighten the darkest days of winter. Renamed Christmas, it became an amalgamation of the old customs and a religious event – although days off work and Christmas cards and trees were still to become a part of the holiday.
Rowdy behaviour has always been a part of Christmas too. In the 1600’s, Oliver Cromwell, as head of the Puritan government, banned the celebration of Christmas in England as a frivolous event which produced frowned-upon excesses. Although the ban was policed, it was not entirely successful and Christmas not only survived, but was reinstated in 1660 at the end of the Puritan reign. If we fast forward to the end of the Victorian period, Christmas had become a family and culinary event which has highly influenced the way we celebrate it today.
As you would expect, Queen Victoria and her family had a sumptuous Christmas menu, seen above in the example from 1899, with a wide variety of culinary offerings.
Starters and Appetisers
Consommé, sole fillets á la Vassant (answers on a postcard if anyone knows what à la Vassant means) fried whitebait, chicken cutlets
Turkey with chipolatas, roast beef, spare pork ribs
Asparagus, Hollandaise sauce (interestingly, the Victorians sometimes ate salad ingredients after the main course ) mince pies, plum pudding, orange jelly
Beef joint, boar’s head, game pie, Woodcock pie, roast fowl, brawn and tongue. The Victorians were of course, much less squeamish than we are nowadays about animal heads and offal.
So the rich lacked for nothing, no surprise there.
The Middle Classes
The middle class grew enormously in the Victorian era due to an array of new industries, improved transport and better wages. The domestic goddess of the age was Mrs Beeton, who with her Book of Household Management guided middle class housewives towards success in culinary delights and entertaininment of visitors at home.
Roast turkey was first documented in 1541 in Britain (as a meal for the clergy, no less) but it was not until Queen Victoria’s reign that turkey became the meat of choice at Christmas dinner. Traditionally, before this point, roast meat for those who could afford it at Christmas would have been roast goose, beef or pheasant. But Mrs Beeton famously commented:
” A noble dish is a turkey, roast or boiled. A Christmas dinner with the middle classes of this empire, would scarcely be a Christmas dinner without its turkey “
Turkey also had the advantage of being a large bird, meaning more people could be invited to the Christmas dinner. In the illustration above we can see other poultry dishes which may have been offered in place of, or as well as turkey or beef in line with household income.
The less well-off
Of course, there were many families who were struggling financially, just like today. The poor may have celebrated Christmas but in a much more frugal fashion. They might have been able to save something from their meagre wages for a festive treat, such as rabbit, but for those on the lowest pay scale, for example, agricultural workers, it generally would have been impossible to save anything.
With this in mind, Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol , published in 1843. It told the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, who reformed his miserly behaviour and became a kind, generous soul, giving presents and treating other people well at Christmas. Dickens’ tale was popular and did in fact encourage the richer Victorians to donate money and gifts to servants, workers and the needy at Christmas.
This tradition of helping those less well off had always existed at Christmas, but was popularised and cemented during this time. These gifts were usually money and were given in boxes on, yes, you guessed it, Boxing Day, which was a day on which people were not required to work. The newly invented railways also offered cheap fares during Christmas, which allowed workers to see their families more easily during this family- oriented season.
Those in the workhouse, who were desperately poor, were generally given some type of Christmas dinner, despite the fact that the Poor Laws had ruled against this. It would seem that the guardians of the workhouse were more humane than the government (parallels with today anyone ?)
These Christmas dinners contained contain some type of meat, which was a treat in itself for the inmates, and some of the workhouses even managed to provide Christmas pudding, (known then as plum pudding) as a dessert.
So many of the elements of our modern day Christmas celebrations have been handed down to us from the Victorian generation – the idea that is a family gathering, the turkey, the lavish food on offer, Boxing Day….
Sadly, there are also plenty of reminders that others are not so fortunate.