The Victorian Christmas

The Victorian Christmas

by Anna Selby

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The author of Food Through the Ages presents a festive overview of Dickens-era Christmas traditions—from decorations and songs to games and recipes.
Anna Selby discusses how the Victorians invented many of the Christmas traditions we enjoy today from Christmas trees and cards to carols and Father Christmas himself. Dickens and Prince Albert shaped how many people view the British Christmas, an idea explored in the opening chapter.
There is an emphasis on Victorian food, including authentic wassailing recipes and an easy introduction to planning traditional Christmas foods and traditional decorations. It offers readers a chance to enjoy a traditional Christmas, one centered around the home, family, and simple decorations made from nature, a far cry from the materialistic Christmases we have today.
This lovely book reminds us all just how enjoyable Christmas really is and shows us how to recreate our favorite traditions and recapture the magic of Christmas.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783408535
Publisher: Pen & Sword Books Limited
Publication date: 11/24/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 263,625
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

Anna Selby is a best-selling author of over 20 books, whose Miracle Foods sold over 100,000 copies.

Read an Excerpt


Stir-up Sunday

Stir-up Sunday was the day that traditionally saw the cook – and indeed the whole Victorian family – in the kitchen making the pudding and cakes for Christmas. It was considered good luck for everyone to give the mixture and stir and make a wish of their own while doing so. So it would be logical to assume that is where the name 'stir-up Sunday' derives. In fact, it comes from the collect of the day that the Victorian family would have heard that morning in church: 'Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people, that they plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works may of thee be plenteously rewarded.' This would sometimes be parodied by the naughtier boy choristers to 'Stir up, we beseech thee, the pudding in the pot. And when we do get home tonight we'll eat it up hot.' The precise date of Stir-up Sunday changes year by year as it always falls on the last Sunday before Advent. Advent is based on Easter, which is the Church's principal movable feast, and an exact date is difficult for the layman to predict, but Stir-up Sunday has to fall some time during the second half of November. Christmas cakes and, especially Christmas or plum puddings, need at least six weeks to mature and yield their full flavour. And, in fact, many people would make two Christmas puddings at a time and leave one till the following year when it was thought to be much richer and more delicious.

Charms and trinkets-box

Making the Christmas pudding was not a purely culinary affair. It was hedged around with traditions and superstitions. The mixture would be stirred by everyone in the house, eyes closed while they made a wish. The stirring had to go in a clockwise direction or the wish would not be granted. During the stirring, the cook would add the charms that would be found in someone's piece of the pudding on Christmas Day. The usual trinkets included a ring, a coin (usually a silver farthing) and a thimble. When the diners ate their pudding, the one who found a ring could expect a wedding, the coin symbolised the gaining of wealth and the thimble meant – depending on the interpretation – either a life of blessedness or spinsterhood.

There is some debate over where the tradition of trinkets in the pudding began. The Victorians were certainly the first people to use them in the spherical Christmas pudding – as they invented it. However, the custom of hiding a charm in a cake is a pagan one and goes back to Twelfth Night Cake. The charm in Twelfth Night Cake was a bean and the lucky finder became the king of Twelfth Night – whereby hangs another tale to be told later in this book.

The Christmas Pudding

The Victorians invented, among so many other things, the muslin cloth. While this may seem small fry in comparison to the railways and the telephone, the muslin cloth nevertheless transformed nineteenth century cooking in the spherical shape of the pudding. While this could be sweet, in the modern sense of pudding, it could also be savoury – whatever the ingredients, the muslin cloth held the round pudding together while it steamed. But in both sweet and savoury puddings, suet was the vital ingredient and a particularly useful one for filling the hungry bellies of the poor.

In the less wealthy household, where meat was scarce, it was usual to have something filling before you reached the meat course. This was often a suet pudding or a Yorkshire pudding and it would take the edge off the appetite so that less meat would be needed. Mrs Gaskell's Mr Holbrook gave this view of domestic economy in her novel Cranford.

When I was a young man, we used to keep strictly to my father's rule, 'No broth, no ball; no ball, no beef' and always began dinner with broth. Then we had suet puddings, boiled in the broth with the beef: and then we had the meat itself. If we did not sup our broth, we had no ball, which we liked a deal better; and the beef came last of all, and only those had it who had done justice to the broth and the ball.

By far the most long-lasting ball pudding of the Victorians was, though, the Christmas pudding which has retained its popularity to this day. They took older recipes – originally, it was a sloppy, porridgey dish – and made a solid pudding. They also took out one of the most important original ingredients – beef. Mincemeat and minced meat were in earlier times the same thing. Only during the nineteenth century did mincemeat come to refer to the dried fruit and spices that are the principal ingredient in mince pies. Early plum puddings used minced beef and mixed it with sugar, spices and dried fruit. The Victorians did, of course, keep the suet (as do most puddings today) as a binding ingredient. Suet is the raw animal fat that is usually found around the kidneys and so they did, in effect, keep some meat content in the recipe.

Or, rather, recipes. There are so many Victorian recipes for Christmas pudding from the great cookery writers of the day to every family's personal 'receipt'. Eliza Acton, possibly the greatest of the Victorian cookery writers, gave plenty of advice on 'boiled puddings'.

All the ingredients for puddings should be fresh and of good quality. It is a false economy to use for them such as have been too long stored, as the slightest degree of mustiness or taint in any one of the articles of which they are composed will spoil all that are combined with it. Eggs should always be broken separately into a cup before they are thrown together in the same basin, as a single very bad one will occasion the loss of many when this precaution is neglected. They should also be cleared from the specks with scrupulous attention, either with the point of a small three-pronged fork while they are in the cup, or by straining the whole through a fine hair-sieve after they are beaten. The perfect sweetness of suet and milk should be especially attended to before they are mixed into a pudding, as nothing can be more offensive than the first when it is over-kept, nor worse in its effect than the curdling of the milk, which is the certain result of its being ever so slightly soured.

Currants should be cleaned, and raisins stoned with exceeding care; almonds and spices very finely pounded, and the rinds oforanges or lemons rasped or grated lightly off, that the bitter part of the skin may be avoided when they are used for this, or for any other class of dishes; if pared, they should be cut as thin as possible.

Plum-puddings, which it is customary to boil in moulds, are both lighter and less dry, when closely tied in stout cloths well buttered and floured, especially when they are made in part with bread; but when this is done, care should be taken not to allow them to burn to the bottom of the pan in which they are cooked; and it is a good plan to lay a plate or dish under them, by way of precaution against this mischance; it will not then so much matter whether they be kept floating or not. It is thought better to mix these entirely (except the liquid portion of them) the day before they are boiled, and it is perhaps an advantage when they are of large size to do so, but it is not really necessary for small or common ones.

A very little salt improves all sweet puddings, by taking off the insipidity, and bringing out the full flavour of the other ingredients, but its presence should not be in the slightest degree perceptible. When brandy, wine or lemon-juice is added to them it should be stirred in briskly, and by degrees, quite at last, as it would be likely otherwise to curdle the milk or eggs.

The author's (Eliza Acton's) Christmas pudding

To three ounces of flour, and the same weight of fine, lightly grated bread-crumbs, add six of beef kidney-suet, chopped small, six of raisins weighed after they are stoned, six of well-cleaned currants, four ounces of minced apples, five of sugar, two of candied orange-rind, half a teaspoonful of nutmeg mixed with pounded mace, a very little salt, a small glass of brandy, and three whole eggs. Mix and beat these ingredients well together, tie them tightly in a thickly-floured cloth, and boil them for three hours and a half. We can recommend this as a remarkably light small rich pudding.

From Modern Cookery for Private Families by Eliza Acton, 1845

Christmas cake

While the Christmas pudding was based on a recipe that went back at least to medieval times, the Christmas cake was a Victorian invention in its entirety. Many of the ingredients are similar to those in plum pudding but without the alcohol – making it more suitable for a family tea – and solidified into cake form. Mrs Beeton has two Christmas cake recipes in her Family Cookery (a shorter version of the original Household Management of 1861). The first is the more familiar and not dissimilar to a modern-day recipe.

Christmas cake

½a lb of butter, ½ a lb of castor sugar, ½ a lb of sultanas, ½ a lb of currants, 6 oz of mixed candied peel, 1 lb of flour, ¼ oz baking-powder, 4 eggs, milk.

METHOD – Sieve the baking-powder 2 or 3 times with the flour on to a sheet of paper to mix well. Put the butter and the sugar into a clean pan and stand in front of the fire to soften. Weigh the fruit on to the flour, having carefully cleaned and picked them free from stalks and stones. Cut up the peel into thin shreds, and lay it with the fruit and flour. Break the eggs into a clean basin. Now proceed to beat up the butter and sugar into a cream with your hand, add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition of egg. When all are in, add the flour and fruit, moisten to the usual cake batter consistency with milk, and bake in round or square well-papered and greased tins. This will make nearly 4 lb of cake, and can be baked in one or more cakes as desired.

TIME – From 3 to 4 hours to bake.

Mrs Beeton's second cake has some extra – and somewhat unexpected – ingredients, such as cream, treacle and vinegar. At first, the cake was simply decorated with holly but later it would be iced and decorated. Mrs Beeton offers various recipes, such as almond and sugar icing.

Sugar Icing for Cakes

INGREDIENTS – To every lb of loaf sugar allow the whites of 4 eggs and about 1 oz of fine starch.

METHOD – Beat the eggs to a stiff froth, and gradually sift in the sugar, which should be reduced to the finest possible powder, and gradually add the starch, also finely powdered. Beat the mixture well until the starch is smooth; then with a spoon or broad knife lay the icing equally over the cakes. These should then be placed in a very cool oven and the icing allowed to dry and harden, but not to colour. The icing may be coloured with strawberry or currant juice, or with prepared cochineal. If it be put on the cakes as soon as they are withdrawn from the oven the icing will become firm and hard by the time the cakes are cold. On very rich cakes, such as wedding, christening cakes, etc., a layer of almond icing is usually spread over the top, and over that the white icing as described. All iced cakes should be kept in a very dry place.

Take an ordinary grocer's bag, place one of the piping funnels at the bottom, pour the prepared sugar into the bag and tear the paper off the point of it. Hold the bag in the right hand, and with the fingers of the left, squeeze the sugar through the funnel. The piping tubes have teeth, and patterns of piping vary according to the 'outlet'.

Generally, these cakes would be served simply from the cake stand with perhaps a sprig of holly for decoration. After Mrs Beeton's death, however, decoration became more commercialised. From the 1870s onwards, specially made decorations, such as china Father Christmases, would be placed on the cake.


The Feast of St Nicholas

The 6 December is the Feast of St Nicholas, a saint whose real history – the little that is known of it – would seem to make him unlikely material for one of the best loved of all Christian saints. He was born in the city of Patara in Lycia in Asia Minor, a province of the Roman Empire in the Fourth Century. According to the inimitable Chambers' Book of Days (1869): 'So strong were his devotional tendencies, even from infancy, that we are gravely informed that he refused to suck on Wednesdays and Fridays, the fast-days appointed by the church!' He became a monk, an abbot and eventually the archbishop of Myra and, though persecuted for his faith, was not actually martyred. He also became the patron saint of an extraordinarily diverse number of people including the Russian nation, virgins, children, Aberdeen, parish clerks, pawnbrokers, boatmen, fishermen, dockers, coopers, brewers, scholars, travellers, pilgrims, those who had unjustly lost lawsuits and even thieves.

His transformation into Father Christmas – aka Santa Claus – was a gradual one. Because of his own generosity (see St Nicholas – munificence and miracles), he was very much associated with the giving of presents. So on the eve of his feast day, children would put out hay and carrots for his horse and, in return, they would receive a present from him the next morning. Present giving in the depths of winter was not just a Christian tradition. The Romans did the same thing during their Saturnalia festival and the Vikings' Woden would deliver presents in mid-winter, too. And, in Britain, there was the ancient character of Father Christmas, familiar from the mummers' plays. The Church pragmatically decided to continue the tradition but under the guardianship of a Christian saint. St Nicholas fitted the bill. In fact, there was nothing very saintly about the earlier Father Christmas who was a drinker, fighter and lover! But the Victorians reinvented him, spliced him together with St Nicholas, changed his robe from pagan green to cheery red and brought in the reindeer and sleigh. The timing for the delivery of presents changed, too. Requests for presents by children were 'sent' by chimney post on 6 December to be delivered on the night of Christmas Eve.

Christmas cards

The Victorians invented the Christmas card. It all began with Henry Cole, the first director of the newly founded Victoria and Albert Museum. He commissioned the artist John Horsley who produced a triptych, the main picture of the archetypal Victorian family enjoying their Christmas together and on either side smaller panels featuring 'Clothing the Naked' and 'Feeding the Hungry' to remind the fortunate family of their Christian duties. Although Cole noted in his diary that he commissioned the design in 1843, it was not until 1846 that the card – 1,000 lithographed copies, all coloured by hand – was put on sale at Felix Summerly's Treasure House in London's Bond Street, a shop in which Cole had an interest.

However, Cole has rivals for the crown of the inventor of the Christmas card. W. C. T. Dobson, a member of the Royal Academy, sent a Christmas sketch to a friend in 1844 and the following year lithographed it and sent it to all his friends. William Maw Egley produced a card in 1843 – or the unclear signature could have said 1848. And the Reverend Edward Bradley, a vicar from Newcastle, also made a card to send to his friends. None of these was for sale, however, so in terms of the first commercial Christmas card, that honour has to go to Henry Cole.

By the end of 1860s, cards had become immensely popular, especially after the invention of the chromolithographic process meant that they became much more affordable. Bells, cupids, Christmas puddings and lots of snow were recurrent themes – and, of course, the robin with its bright red breast became a particular symbol of Christmas, even though it was resident all year round. Because of their red uniforms, Victorian postmen were dubbed 'robin postmen'. They faced a mammoth task in the festive season. The postmaster-general issued a special halfpenny card stamp in 1870 but by 1880 was already begging the public to 'post early for Christmas'.


Wassail, Wassail

As Christmas approached, so did the festive spirit. This took many forms – some of which had little to do with Christianity itself but rather harked back to earlier pagan practices.

St Thomas's Day

St Thomas's Day falls on 21 December, the shortest day of the year and the winter solstice. St Thomas himself – better known as doubting Thomas – was one of the apostles and his festival was instituted in the Twelfth Century. He is the patron saint of architects and builders and was asked to construct a palace finer than anyone had ever seen for the 'King of the Indies', Gondoforus. The king gave him an abundance of gold and silver and then travelled for two years while his palace was being built. Instead, St Thomas gave the king's wealth to the poor and sick and the king, on his return, sent him to prison while he decided on the most hideous form of death for disobeying his orders. He changed his mind when his brother who had recently died came back to life to tell the king that Thomas was a servant of God and should be spared. Thomas told him: 'Knowest thou not that they who would possess heavenly things have little care for the goods of this world! There are in heaven rich palaces without number, which were prepared from the beginning of the world for those who purchase the possession thereof through faith and charity.'


Excerpted from "The Victorian Christmas"
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Copyright © 2008 Anna Selby.
Excerpted by permission of Pen and Sword Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Page,
Chapter 1 - Stir-up Sunday,
Chapter 2 - The Feast of St Nicholas,
Chapter 3 - Wassail, Wassail,
Chapter 4 - Deck the Halls,
Chapter 5 - The Boar's Head and Other Delicacies,
Chapter 7 - Pantos and Boxes,
Chapter 8 - Ring out the Old, Ring in the New,
Chapter 9 - Wise Men and Feasts of Fools,

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