Help yourself to a roasted owl, come and sit by this mighty fire and welcome to Christmas in 18th century style.
It’s Christmas Eve, with the snow glistening, the log crackling in the fireplace, and the most magical night of the year as bright as the starlight outside.
At the post house down the street, the menu features a 47-pound turtle, reindeer tongues, roasted curlew and pig’s heads, boar’s brains, and 470 pies.
The recent auction of this menu, at the Bush Inn, Bristol, in 1790, gives a sudden glimpse of a lively and bubbling time of past Christmas. And, as the 1800 menu (pictured below) shows, things hadn’t changed much by the turn of the 19th century.
Historical delights: Elizabeth Taylor (second from left) stars in period drama Beau Brummell
The houses are decorated, but no trees. Tradition has a big influence on the season, but there are no cards, no Santa Claus – they’re coming, with the Victorian reinvention of Christmas.
However, this typical 18th century Christmas is full of gifts, songs and food.
Banned by Parliament in 1647 and restored by Charles II in 1660, a century later, Christmas is again the great celebration of the year, its traditions established, its cheerfulness inscribed in lines of generosity, fraternity, madness and of community that date back to in the mists and frosts of time.
Although the British population who worked the land declined over the course of the century, the traditions and practices of this 18th century agricultural year prevail outside the towns. The Christmas period begins on December 6, St. Nicholas Day, when friends exchange gifts.
Most field work stops during the Twelve Days of Christmas and will not resume until Plowing Monday, the first Monday after the twelfth night on January 6, so at present many farm workers are without pay. .
Effectively put on leave, they count on their stores and on the generosity of the landowners. Renters and workers can expect gifts, food, and money from their landlords and employers, so the exchanges that begin with the season bind entire communities, as well as groups of friends, together. As we open the presents tomorrow, it is in part this custom that we honor.
The description of ice cream, like the excess on the Bush Inn menu – 52 barrels of oysters and 121 larks, anyone? – invoke a world of rising natural abundance
And today, Christmas Eve, the whole country is in a merry decoration uproar. It’s not lucky to bring greenery into the house until December 24th, so that’s when our 18th century ancestors come in and out, adorning the hallways with grasses, ivy, holly and branches embracing ribbons, candles and spices.
The evergreens are a tribute to the turning point of the season at the winter solstice three days ago, to the endurance of life through the darkness and the world’s return journey to the light. Bringing them together and arranging them is a moment of solidarity. No house is so powerful or so humble that it does not light up with the dark green glow of the decoration laid out in the name of Christ.
In the huge fireplace, the log is wrapped in ribbons and hazel twigs and set on fire. Whole trees, gathered with drama and gaiety in the villages of the country, are cut in these logs which burn throughout the celebrations until January 5.
A coin will be used next year to ignite his successor. The ashes of the Yule log can be kept in the house or stable all year round to protect its inhabitants from witches. In Norfolk, the best cider has come out, but only while the Yule log is burning.
Of course, the heart of the celebration is family, friends, food and drink. In and out of the pages of Jane Austen’s novels, Christmas rings with balls and parties.
Family members travel to stay together and the dances last until 4 a.m. Games and sports are popular: Writing to his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge on Christmas Eve 1799, William Wordsworth reports: âRydell is covered in ice, as transparent as polished steel. I bought a pair of skates. Tomorrow, I intend to give my body to the wind, not without reasonable precautions.
The description of ice cream, like the excess on the Bush Inn menu – 52 barrels of oysters and 121 larks, anyone? – invoke a world of rising natural abundance. Fields, woods and shores teem with birds, animals and fish.
Shooting, netting, trapping, and fishing have furnished tables and shops for chock-full of fresh (and organic) food this Christmas. And there was plenty to drink.
Besides beers, ciders, wines and spirits, Christmas since the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century has gone through the Wassail bowl. From friend to neighbor, wassailing has become the symbol of all the celebrations linked to dancing and drinking. De Waes-hael, meaning to be whole, healthy, the bowl is full of hot beer, brandy or sweet wine flavored with apples, spices and sugar.
Will you have a mince pie? These are plump and stuffed with 13 ingredients, representing Christ and the apostles. Ground beef or mutton (also representing shepherds), tallow, cinnamon, sugar, nutmeg, orange zest, raisins, prunes, currants, cloves, salt, ginger and any fruit desired by the cook: the taste is deep and lingering, and the smell in every kitchen and house delectable.
They are sweeter than before because of the cheap sugar from the slave plantations of the West Indies, and soon the meat will be completely phased out. They also look strange, like burst bellies. It’s not a reference to your waistline – it’s a cradle shape. Georgians do not see anything strange about eating a cot in homage to the king of kings.
Indeed, Georgians don’t see anything strange about eating just about anything. A famous 1792 breakfast, eaten by a certain Joseph Budworth in Grasmere in the Lake District, included stuffed roast pike, boiled chicken, veal cutlets, ham, beans and bacon, cabbage, peas and potatoes, anchovy sauce, parsley and butter, cheese, oatmeal cakes, three cups of gooseberries and a bowl of heavy cream.
For Christmas, the gentry has a soft spot for game, although goose and beef are popular. The turkey eaten by Henry VIII in 1523 was the first of millions: in the 18th century birds were taken in droves to London markets along the roads of East Anglia.
While part of the song of the season is the crackle of cooking fires and the clatter of pots and pans, homes and churches echo with songs.
Many of the most glorious Christmas carols are now written including Oh Come All Ye Faithful, While Shepherds Watched, Joy To The World, and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing – like many, the latter has been revamped.
Written as a Dark Melody in 1739, it has come down to us in its present form via a tune written by Felix Mendelssohn (to commemorate Guttenberg’s invention of printing), lyrics by Charles Wesley, and an adaptation by the 19th century musician William H. Cummings. In such a sinuous way, like song threads, our Christmases are sewn together through time.
As the Yule log burns on our 18th century Christmas Eve and candle lights and shadows dance, we look forward to the next day, church, party, board games, carols and the unfolding of the twelve days of Christmas. We are focusing on the entire Christmas season.
Just as exciting as Christmas Day is Twelfth Night, another powerful celebration, where large, richly decorated plum cakes will be eaten and resounding parties held.
James Boswell says he walked the streets of London in 1762 stuffing himself with cakes from every stall he passed. Christmas Eve and Kings Night were matched in games, including the jump for apples and snapdragon, in which a bowl of brandy containing raisins is set on fire.
Dr. Johnson’s dictionary describes Snapdragon as: “A room in which they grab raisins in scorching brandy and, putting them out by shutting their mouths, eating them,” which sounds at least as fun as Monopoly.
Looking back through the centuries to capture the smells, music, food, laughter, and camaraderie of the 18th century, it is striking that during all the time, what matters about Christmas has not exchange.
All we really want is to be together, to eat well, to exchange a gift, to play a game, to sing and to give thanks, be it to God, to luck or to each other. We know, as our ancestors knew 300 years ago, that caring and companionship makes the darkest days the brightest time of year.