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Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Georgian Christmas

A Middle Class Holiday?

The celebration of Christmas appears to have tapered off slightly in the 18th century. Armstrong explains this by noting that a disproportionate number of families in trade were Protestant Nonconformists. Baptists and Quakers especially rejected the significance of Christmas (for reasons we outlined while talking about the Interregnum). “Before the Victorian period, social commentators agreed that the true spirit of Christmas was to be found amongst the middling sort of people” (47). Certainly a study of middle class families between 1780 and 1850 found Christmas was a period of family gathering and the pledging of loyalties. Nevertheless, enough partying must have been going on to prompt William Romaine in a 1757 sermon on Christmas Day to criticize the gentry for going to balls, masquerades, assemblies, card-tables, operas, plays, and dancing and singing, while the lower class was “rioting” and indulging in “excess.”

It was not a suitable time for administering the Sacrament, thought northern parson Thomas Brockbank in 1709, “people either being abroad or taken up with visitants.” Manuel Gonzales (probably Daniel Defoe under a pseudonym) said “these were days of entertainment among friends and relations.” However, the religious aspect was of course taken very seriously. A Methodist minister, Joseph Benson, who died in 1821, said that for 50 years he had preached at least once, sometimes as many as three times, on Christmas Day. In colonial Williamsburg, where most of the settlers were from Anglican backgrounds, Christmas was spent quietly at home in prayer and reflection, with a trip to church for communion.

Samuel Bamford (1788-1872) recalled from his childhood in Middleton, Lancashire, that the holidays commenced on the first Monday after New Year’s Day, and were memorable for sharing ale and currant loaf between weavers’ and colliers’ families, the watch-night of the Methodists, and the freedom for the children to play outdoors. In 1782, people in Yorkshire were still feasting into Candelmas. Late 18th century wealthy landowners boxed up leftover food from Christmas Day, sometimes adding other gifts as well, and distributed them on Christmas Day. The Boxing Day fox hunt became a well-known tradition until hunting with dogs was banned in England and Wales in 2005.

In colonial Williamsburg, slaves and indentured servants provided the labor for such busy holidays as the 12 Days of Christmas. Household servants and slaves might receive time off later during the year in return for working extra time at Christmas. Similarly, field hands were given extra time off because it was a quiet season for farming (see December 3). Virginians decorated their houses with the same evergreens as their ancestors had in Britain, as the Virginia woods were full of these plants. The Yule log is not mentioned at all in 18th century Virginian records, but “colonial boys followed the custom of ‘shooting in the Christmas’ or firing their guns on Christmas Eve and morning. This practice extended into the 20th century and survives today as Christmas holiday fireworks” (“Traditional Christmas in Williamsburg, 18th Century Christmas Holiday Traditions”). Preparation in the American South for Christmas, at least on 18th century plantations, began early. Slaves had to butcher hogs, render lard, shuck corn, smoke hams, make mincemeat, bring in and arrange firewood. Alcohol, game and sweets had to be procured from somewhere. Philadelphia, despite having a large popular of Quakers, tended to celebrate Christmas in the Anglican way.

Another 18th century custom was kissing under the mistletoe. Alluding back to Celtic Britain, throwing away mistletoe was regarded as unlucky. There was also apparently a limit to the number of kisses a particular bit of mistletoe could yield:

Pick a berry off the mistletoe
For ev’ry kiss that’s given
When the berries have all gone
There’s an end to the kissing.

In 1717, John Rich, manager of Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, transformed the tradition of the harlequinade into what we would now recognize as pantomime. Children would complete handwriting samples and then bring them home during the Christmas holidays to their parents. Known as “Christmas pieces,” examples survive from 7-year-old John Stainton in 1779.

A Georgian Feast

An 18th century Yorkshire Christmas pie was recorded, similar to the old medieval pies. A popular treat in Ireland was roasted butter, which was salted and dredged with fine oatmeal, as a Christmas meal. Lady Grisell Baillie’s Christmas Day menu for 1715 included a first course with “plum pottage with sago and a few fruit” (sago was made from the pith of the Malaysian palm tree). Christmas pudding as we know it first appeared in the reign of George III and is said to have been invented especially for him because of his inordinate love of English puddings. Here is a variation on Christmas pudding which seemed appropriate for this section:

Iced Berry Pudding
• 284 mL carton double cream
• 500g carton good-quality ready-made custard
• 100g / 4 oz golden caster sugar
• 100 mL / 3 ½ fl oz dark rum, plus 1 T extra
• 170g packet dried berries and cherries (or same weight mix of dried cranberries, cherries, blueberries and raisins)
• Sprigs of sugar-frosted bay leaves and little bunches of sugar-frosted red and green
grapes, to decorate
Softly whip the cream in a bowl, stir in the custard. Put in freezer for about 1 ½ hours, until it starts to freeze around the edge. Meanwhile, put the sugar in a pan with 100 mL/3 ½ fl oz rum. Heat slowly to dissolve the sugar, tip in the fruits, and simmer gently for 1 min. Pour into a wide bowl, and leave until cold (about an hour). Add the extra T of rum. Stir the cream and custard with a whisk to break it all up, then stir in the cooled fruit. Pour into a 2 pt pudding basin, cover and freeze overnight until firm (or for up to 1 month). To serve, dip the basin quickly into boiling water, loosen
the sides with a round-bladed knife, then turn the pudding out. Decorate with
frosted bay leaves and grapes.

When Rev. Henry Teonge spent Christmas on board a warship in 1675, officers and men had beef, plum puddings, and mince pies. The competition between goose and turkey as principal fare could be seen from the story of the two peers who for a wager organized a race between flocks of geese and turkeys from Norfolk to London for the Christmas market. The turkeys were faster, but the geese won because they ate as they walked and did not stop for the night.

Marzipan Mince Pies
• 100g / 4 oz plain flour
• 100g / 4 oz self-raising flour
• 100g / 4 oz butter, cut into cubes
• 1 T caster sugar
• Finely grated zest 1 lemon
• 85g / 3 oz marzipan, cut into 24 pieces
• 250g / 9 oz mincemeat (just over ½ jar)
• Icing sugar, for dusting
Makes 12
Preheat the oven to 200C. Process both flours and the butter until the mixture is like fine breadcrumbs. Pulse in the sugar and zest, then 3-4 T of cold water, until dough comes together into a ball.Roll the dough out thinly on a lightly floured surface. Stamp out into 3 ½ in rounds. (Reserve the excess pastry.) Line a 12-hole bun tin, and gather up the edges into folds.Put two pieces of marzipan in the bottom of each pastry case, spoon in a heaped teaspoon of mincemeat. Roll out the pastry trimmings, cut out star shapes and lay on top. Bake for 12-15 mins until crisp and golden. Cool in the tin then remove and cool on a wire rack. Dust with icing sugar.

When did plum pudding oust plum porridge? Some time in the 18th century, apparently. “I always spell plumb-pudding with a b., p-l-u-m-b,” Charles Lamb wrote in 1807, “I think it reads fatter and more suetty.” Twelfth Night cakes had grown very elaborate and were iced and surmounted by plaster figures.

Martha Lloyd, Austen family friend and cook, had a celebrated Black Butter. Here is a recipe for Black Apple Butter from the Pennsylvania Dutch, from 1734. It would have been eaten at Thanksgiving.

Take 4 pounds of full ripe apples, and peel and core them. Meanwhile put into a pan 2 pints of sweet cider, and boil until it reduces by half. Put the apples, chopped small, to the cider. Cook slowly stirring frequently, until the fruit is tender, as you can crush beneath the back of a spoon. Then work the apple through a sieve, and return to the pan adding 1 lb beaten (granulated) sugar and spices as following, 1 teaspoon clove well ground, 2 teaspoons cinnamon well ground, 1 saltspoon allspice well ground. Cook over low fire for about ¼ hour, stirring until mixture thickens and turns a rich brown. Pour the butter into small clean jars, and cover with clarified butter when cold. Seal and keep for three months before using. By this time the butter will have turned almost black, and have a most delicious flavor.
Colonial Williamsburg.
C. Anne Wilson.

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