In the Bleak Midwinter- Origins of a Christmas Carol, Guest Post by Andrew Rothe

An empty field in the middle of the countryside. Kneeling before a freshly-dug grave with a gun to his head, notorious Birmingham gangster Tommy Shelby, leader of the Peaky Blinders, closes his eyes and utters what he thinks will be his final few words before death. In that incredibly tense, heart-stopping moment, what does this infamous criminal choose to say?

“In the Bleak Midwinter.”

Yes, the title of a Christmas carol. [1]

But why? More importantly, what’s the history behind this much-loved festive tune?

Christina Rossetti’s poem as it appears in Scribner’s Monthly (1871)

Part 1: Christina Rossetti

To examine the history of the carol, we first have to look at the poem it was based on. A poem that will be celebrating its 150th birthday in January 2022.

It was in late 1871 that Scribner’s Monthly (or to give its full name; Scribner’s Monthly: An Illustrated Magazine for the People), a relatively new American literary publication founded in 1870, approached famous British poet Christina Rossetti asking for a contribution for their winter 1871/1872 edition. Rossetti herself was experiencing increased periods of illness at this time, something that had plagued her for much of her life and would continue to do so till her final days, but still wrote back with an offering for publication. Simply titled ‘A Christmas Carol’, the poem featured on page 278 with an illustration of the nativity above it. [2]

Frontispiece of Scribner’s Monthly

After this initial appearance in Scribner, it took another 3 years before the poem was first released as part of a book of Rossetti’s assorted poetry in 1875, published, as with much of her work, by the now-iconic Macmillan’s of London [3]. At this point, it was simply one of many poems in her back catalogue and it would take several more years before the evolution into musical hymn and rise to household status would begin.

Part 2: Gustav Holst

In Edwardian England around the years 1904 to 1905, composer Gustav Holst, in his mid-30’s and happily married to wife Isobel since 1901, was approached by his close friend and colleague Ralph Vaughan Williams to contribute to a new project he was working on.

In 1904, Vaughan Williams was himself approached by clergyman Percy Dearmer, tasked with helping to assemble a new Church of England hymnbook. There was already a hymnbook in wide circulation throughout the Church of England at this time, Hymns Ancient & Modern, first published in 1863, but its latest edition in 1904 had been met with much criticism. Hymn numbers were jumbled around, wording had been altered and some much-loved hymns of the time had been left out altogether. Dearmer and several other discontented voices within his parish had decided that they would commission something new to take its place.

Initially named English Hymns and written simply for local use, this idea quickly grew in scale with the involvement of Oxford University Press and became The English Hymnal, intended for widespread publication throughout the nation. Being a clergyman and not a composer, Dearmer reached out to Vaughan Williams to assist him with the musical side of editing the final publication. Dearmer, having heard of Vaughan Williams and his musical prowess from English folk song collector Cecil Sharp (who was also a friend and collaborator of Holst), was confident that the 32-year-old composer would hopefully accomplish this task in just 2 months; it actually ended up taking 2 years! [5]

As well as In the Bleak Midwinter, Gustav Holst would go on to submit two other hymns for The English Hymnal; From Glory to Glory Advancing and Holy Ghost, but In the Bleak Midwinter has definitely become the more well-known to contemporary and secular audiences. It is highly likely that Holst first came upon Rossetti’s words thanks to a publication of her collected works released in 1904. The tune he wrote to accompany them is known as ‘Cranham’, named for the Gloucestershire village where Holst spent many years of his life. (4). The exact time and place where ‘Cranham’ was created remains unclear, although it’s perhaps unsurprising that many residents of Cranham village like to stake a claim that the tune was composed in the very place from which it takes its name! [6][7]

The English Hymnal (1906) by Oxford University Press, edited by Percy Dearmer and Ralph Vaughan Williams, Wikimedia Commons

After years of work, The English Hymnal was finally published in 1906; the words/lyrics edition appearing in May of that year, followed by the tunes/sheet music edition some weeks later. The end product that Dearmer and Vaughan Williams had delivered radically divided opinions within the Church of England.  The book’s more Catholic undertones, especially regarding the Virgin Mary and the Intercession of Saints, drew the ire of several Bishops and members of the clergy.

The Bishop of Bristol, George Forrest Browne, banned the book in his Diocese, stating “I cannot reconcile it to my conscience, or to my historical sense, to do less than prohibit a book which would impress upon the Church of England tendencies so dangerous.”. This caused further outrage in the press, and eventually the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, got involved by censuring The English Hymnal. [8]

Throughout this discourse, Dearmer remained steadfast and defended his creation. Oxford University Press, worried that the drama may cause sales to dip, eventually agreed a compromise with Dearmer and released an ‘abridged’ version of The English Hymnal in 1907, with the ‘controversial elements’ removed. This seemed to satisfy the critics, yet the revised version quietly seemed to fade into obscurity over the following years, not seeing any further reprints following the initial production run. In fact the only major revision to The English Hymnal after this was in 1933, when Vaughan Williams made some changes to the Tunes edition (no changes were made to the original lyrical/word edition). This 1933 version is the one that has remained in circulation through to the present day. [5]

Part 3: Harold Darke

From its initial release in 1906, Holst’s ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ has become a firm favourite with carol singers and choirs around the world. The tune, although labelled as ‘dreary’ by some, has become as iconic as Rossetti’s words, and can be regularly heard in a smorgasbord of places during the Christmas season. But Gustav Holst was not the only one inspired to combine the words of Christina Rossetti’s poem with music to create a festive hymn. Just 5 years later than Holst, another composer would add his own unique take on this Christmas classic.

In 1911, 23-year-old Harold Darke was a student at the Royal College of Music and also the resident organist at Emmanuel Church in West Hampstead. The exact circumstances surrounding the conception of his tune are hard to fathom, but it was in that year that London-based publishers Stainer and Bell first printed the music for his creation. [9][10]

It’s a distinctive melody, quite different from Holst’s tune. Performances naturally vary between different choirs and carol singers, but in many performances of Darke’s tune the first verse is usually performed by a soprano as a solo, Rossetti’s fourth stanza is omitted altogether, and the final line is often repeated.

This version, noted for its higher degree of complexity, has become the more popular with professional choirs around the world. Fittingly reflecting Harold Darke’s tenure as organist of King’s College, Cambridge, during the Second World War, this version is still a firm favourite with the King’s College Choir and still regularly appears in their famous Christmas Eve ‘Nine Lessons and Carols’ service, enjoyed by radio listeners and television viewers around the globe. (11)

The appeal of this tune remains strong well into the 21st century; A 2008 BBC poll to find the ‘best’ Christmas carol was conducted with 51 directors of music across the UK and US, and they voted Darke’s version of In the Bleak Midwinter into the top slot at number 1. (12)

Part 4: Midwinter’s Legacy

Sadly, Christina Rossetti and Gustav Holst were plagued by severe health complications throughout their life, and both would die relatively young, never truly seeing the scale of the legacy of their work.

Rossetti died in 1894 at the age of 64 after a bout of breast cancer, over a decade before Holst’s adaption of her words. One can only wonder what she’d have made of a Christmas carol being created out of her poetry.

Holst himself died in 1934 at the age of 59 owing to heart failure, in part caused by an unsuccessful operation to treat an ulcer. He lived to see the release of The English Hymnal, but sadly not to observe the lasting popularity of his work throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Fittingly, Ralph Vaughan Williams conducted the music at his memorial service.

Harold Darke had a far longer life, finally passing away at the age of 88 in 1976. However, his lasting views on In the Bleak Midwinter were less than positive; despite bearing witness to the success of his creation, he allegedly grew to dislike it, becoming irritated that he wasn’t better known or recognised for his other pieces of work.

So, what of Tommy Shelby, leader of the Peaky Blinders? Why do the main characters of Stephen Knight’s highly successful period crime-drama series seem so obsessed with a Christmas carol?

Shelby himself explains in one episode that the family’s shared love for the carol goes back to their time serving in the First World War, and a particularly gruelling winter’s night when they all widely believed, and accepted, that they were to be rushed and killed by enemy forces. The group’s Padre, Jeremiah (played by poet Benjamin Zephaniah) suggested that they all sing the carol in that moment. When they survived the night and the enemy forces never came, they concluded that they had been spared by an act of divine mercy, and that everything in their lives from that moment until their actual deaths would be considered ‘extra’. [13] The carol goes on to appear multiple times throughout the show’s story, popping up in multiple episodes, often in the moments when various characters think that their death is imminent.

Author’s own image

Conclusion

Christina Rossetti’s beautiful poem turns 150 years old this winter and it’s a tribute to her skill as a writer that her words, be it sung or spoken, remain so popular with so many people over 100 years after her passing.

I could have written a blog post about the history of any number of fascinating Christmas carols, as they each have their own amazing stories. From the inspired last-minute improvisation behind the creation of ‘Silent Night’ through to the violent end of the life of Wenceslas I of Bohemia (‘Good King Wenceslas’), itself easily worthy of starring in an episode of Horrible Histories.

But I have a big soft spot for In the Bleak Midwinter. It’s a poignant carol. It’s delicate, melancholy and yet simultaneously comforting at the same time. It remains my favourite carol and I have no doubt that it will remain a regular fixture of carol concerts and church services for many years to come.

Thank you for reading! A big thank you to Danie for giving me this spot in her wonderful blog! She’s absolutely brilliant, please do go back through her older posts and give them a look. It was lovely to write this piece and research an area of history I don’t normally delve into.

It only remains to say that I hope you all had a safe, peaceful Christmas and I wish you all a prosperous, trouble-free New Year.

Andrew, a MA Museum & Heritage Development graduate from Nottingham Trent University

Sources and images

  1. https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b04nyw0f/peaky-blinders-series-2-episode-6?seriesId=b04kkm8q
  2. https://archive.org/details/scribnersmonthly03newy/page/n5/mode/1up?view=theater
  3. https://www.panmacmillan.com/about-pan-macmillan
  4. http://landofllostcontent.blogspot.com/2009/12/gustav-holst-in-bleak-mid-winter.html
  5. https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-music/articles/vaughan-williams-and-the-english-hymnal
  6. https://www.bbc.co.uk/gloucestershire/content/articles/2008/12/18/midwinter_feature.shtml
  7. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52218436
  8. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3634586/Sacred-mysteries.html
  9. https://www.allmusic.com/artist/harold-darke-mn0001261167/biography?1640147639153
  10. https://stainer.co.uk/about/
  11. https://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/in_the_bleak_midwinter.htm
  12. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/arts_and_culture/7752029.stm
  13. https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b09gvn5j/peaky-blinders-series-4-2-heathens

The History of Christmas Cake

Whilst writing this, I’m listening to Bing Crosby Christmas songs, with the Christmas lights switched on. An unusual choice for a 26-year-old, you may think, but for me this has a personal connection. A running joke in my family was that my beloved grandad looked like the Crooner, so I always like to listen to him as it feels grandad is still here, despite him no longer being with us. Just in case you haven’t get it yet, I love Christmas, but I don’t like the tradition Christmas cake, Christmas pudding or mince pies. Whilst I don’t, everyone else in my family does. Our kitchen has smelt very Christmassy for the last month whilst my mum has been busy baking Christmas cakes for our family and friends. I’m sure lots of your houses will be filled with the treat too, whether homemade or store brought. It got me wondering of how Christmas cake has become a tradition at Christmas time.

Samuel Collings, Christmas in the Country (1791), Private Collection/Bridgeman Images

Up until the Industrial Revolution, Christmas was celebrated between 6th December and 6th January as the cold weather meant little work could be done in the fields. Presents were given, but usually to mark the beginning, St Nicholas’ Day and the end, Twelfth Night, also known as Epiphany. Boxing Day was usually the day presents were given to servants.[1] As the present giving was spread out, food was one of the largest part of the celebrations. Food that could be made ahead of time and served cold were popular as they could keep for season.[2] Food with fruit in was one of the flavours most preferred, as these usually kept longer.

Originally the flavouring we now associate with Christmas cake came in the form of a plum porridge, which was made to line people’s stomachs at Christmas aver a time of religious fasting over Advent.[3] This porridge was added to over time to include other fruits and honey, so much so it resembled something closer to a Christmas pudding.[4] From the sixteenth century, the oats became replaced with flour and eggs, which meant it took on the consistency of a cake. Spices were also becoming more available at this time, which were meant to represent gifts offered to baby Jesus by the three wise men.[5] Richer families also began to add lots of decorations made from sugar and marzipan to the cake to show they could afford it.[6]

Whilst this does sound more like the Christmas cake we recognise today, it was still not quite the same. It was made from the leftovers of all the puddings eaten over the Christmas period and was elaborately decorated with icing and figurines.[7] As Twelfth Night was celebrated by whole households the cake the centrepiece of the feast. It was shared by everyone, including servants. Both a dried pea and dried bean were placed into the cake and whoever found them would be the King and Queen for the day, no matter what social standing they had normally.[8] This tradition had largely disappeared by the Georgian times, but Twelfth Night cake was still eaten.[9]

George Cruickshank, Frontispiece to a set of Twelfth-night characters, showing a Cossack and Napoleon in front of a Twelfth Night Cake (c. 1813), © The Trustees of the British Museum

By the time of the Industrial Revolution, Twelfth Night itself was mostly a bygone thing. Most people had moved to live in cities, with little time to celebrate Christmas for a whole month, has had gone before. Instead, Twelfth Night became Christmas Day, as that was the day most people had off work.[10] From this, the Twelfth Night cake became known as the Christmas cake. In the 1870s, Queen Victoria officially banned Twelfth Night as she feared any celebrations that did occur would become too out of control and potentially riotous.[11] Thus the Christmas cake would finally be cemented to Christmas.


[1] Johnson, B., ‘A Georgian Christmas’, Historic UK, https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/A-Georgian-Christmas/

[2] Ibid

[3] Great British Bake Off, History of the Christmas Cake, https://thegreatbritishbakeoff.co.uk/history-christmas-cake/

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Leach, H. M. and Inglis, R., ‘The Archaeology of Christmas Cakes’, Food and Foodways, 11.2-3 (2003), p. 146; ‘Christmas Cake’, https://www.whychristmas.com/customs/christmascake.shtml

[8] Johnson, B., ‘A Georgian Christmas’, Historic UK, https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/A-Georgian-Christmas/

[9] Ibid.

[10] ‘Christmas Cake’, https://www.whychristmas.com/customs/christmascake.shtml

[11] Jane Austen Centre, ‘A History of Twelfth Night Cake’, https://janeausten.co.uk/blogs/desserts/twelfth-night-cake

Gift Ideas for History Lovers: My Top 5 History Reads of 2021

It can be hard to know what to get the history lovers in your life when it comes to Christmas, especially if, like me, they’re interested in more than one period. If you need a bit of inspiration this year, then here’s a list of my top five history books that I’ve read this year. It’s a mixture of different periods and some fiction and non-fiction, so hopefully there’s something for everybody there.

Jane Austen Investigates: The Abbey Mystery, by Julia Golding

Whilst this is technically a children’s fiction book, it is well suited for Jane Austen fans of all ages. A teenage Jane Austen turns supersleuth when mysterious goings-on happen at Southmoor Abbey, where she has been sent to be a companion of Lady Cromwell for a week. It’s written in a very entertaining way and is a satirical version of a Gothic novel, full of many hints of the real Jane which will be recognised by hardened fans. It’s also a good way to introduce younger readers to the world of Jane Austen. This has definitely been one of my favourite books and I found it quite hard to put down! If you would like to know a bit more, I recently wrote a review for Love British History, which can be found here.

The Real Falstaff: Sir John Fastolf and the Hundred Years War by Stephen Cooper

This book places the Hundred Years War in the context of John Fastolf, the man Shakespeare used as inspiration for his Falstaff character. It successfully blends military history and social history with the personal life of John Fastolf. It gives you a great understanding of how Fastolf fit in and influenced the world around him until his death in the 1450s, including a focus on the homes he built for himself. All in all, a very interesting read and shows just why Fastolf isn’t recognised enough.

Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy by Ernie LaPointe

In this book, Ernie LaPointe, great-grandson of the legendary Chief Sitting Bull, tells the real story of his famous ancestor. This is a biography with a difference. It’s written in the traditional style of Lakota oral history. This makes it read very differently to other books, but feels true to the person of Sitting Bull. It also makes it easy to read. Again this is up there with one of my favourite books of all time as it is full of emotion but is also education in the respect it shows just how complicated history has portrayed Sitting Bull. I wrote a review of this earlier in the year, so please do take a look here if you’re interested.

Before the Crown by Flora Harding

This is another fiction book, but this time an adult one. I was recently given this by a friend as a gift, so I would definitely recommend gifting this one. It tells the story of how Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip fell in love during the war and the lead up to their wedding on the 20th November 1947. Whilst this isn’t my usual time period, my friend obviously remembered that I have a personal connection to the Queen’s wedding day as my mum was born on the exact same day. I feel this has captured a young Elizabeth and Philip well and is also a very easy read. This would definitely be a good choice for any Royal fan!

Saving Mona Lisa: The Battle to Protect the Louvre and Its Treasures from the Nazis

Again this isn’t my usual time period, but I read this mainly because I have been a regular visitor to the Louvre, but was unaware of the troubles the museum had had during the Second World War. Whilst this is a non-fiction book, it does read more like an action or thriller story as the museum staff risked their lives to protect the treasures in their care. Again this makes it an enjoyable read and really focuses on the individuals involved and their sacrifices, as well as the personal achievements and recognition they had after the war ended. I recently wrote a review of this, which can be found here.

End of Year Thank You

I would first of all like to thank everyone who has read and supported this blog this year. Writing posts for it is about he only think that’s kept me sane, so it honestly means a lot to me. It’s honestly been so humbling to know how many of you have been reading, and most importantly, enjoying the things that I’ve been writing about throughout 2020. I hope in my own small way that I have helped to bring a small amount of happiness to you all with the posts, even if it’s only been for a short while.

A man on horseback driving a sledge with two young girls and a young boy on it. Engraving. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

This year has certainly been one full of stress and lots of bad things for all of us, and I haven’t escaped that. Sadly I lost my last surviving grandparent in April, just before my dad’s birthday and we were unable to say goodbye. I know this is a situation that so many of us have been in this year and I just want all of you to know I truly hope and pray that 2021 will be the better year we all deserve.

Something this year has taught me is to take each day as it comes and do the things that you love. For me, blogging and my love of history is one of those things. I honestly hope that comes across in my writing. I was hoping to have time to post once more before Christmas, but sadly I haven’t had the time. I now won’t be posting again until some point in January. The first post will be on Horace Walpole and his amazing house of Strawberry Hill. There will hopefully be some guest posts coming in various times throughout 2021, along with some interesting topics, so keep an eye out.

Print from: A description of the villa of Mr. Horace Walpole, youngest son of Sir Robert Walpole Earl of Orford, at Strawberry-Hill near Twickenham, Middlesex: with an inventory of the furniture, pictures, curiosities, & c. Strawberry-Hill: printed by Thomas Kirgate, 1784, Rijksmuseum

If you want to read up on anything during the festive period, I will leave you with my favourite post of this year on the real Ulrich von Lichtenstein, who was played by Heath Ledger in the film A Knight’s Tale.

I hope that Christmas is a happy time for you, but please remember to abide by the rules and stay safe and healthy. Once again, I want to thank you for all your support of this blog throughout 2020, which has been the most popular year since I started blogging 2 years ago. From the bottom of my heart, it honestly means the world to me that people are genuinely interested in the things I post.

Wassail: The Traditional Christmas Tipple

In the past, wassail was the traditional drink of Christmas, especially on Twelfth night. Wassail was a warm beer, cider, or wine, combined with honey and spices and served in a large bowl that people would sip from. The tradition of sharing wassail comes from an ancient Anglo-Saxon tradition where local landowners would hold a gathering to toast those from the local community. This toast was called waes hael, which meant be well.[1]

2729
Silver mounted mother-of-pearl wassail bowl, 1650-1700, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK/ Bridgeman Images

As wassail played a part in the Twelfth Night celebrations, it was seen as a sinful drink. This was because Twelfth Night was a big party, very similar to modern Christmas Day, where extravagance, over indulgence and drunkenness were seen as acceptable.[2] With all this drunkenness, wassail was blamed for creating an environment that bred revelry and disorder.[3] It was a way of undermining the traditional social and cultural order of the day by allowing any member of the gathering, no matter their background, to be the king and queen for the Twelfth Night celebration.[4]

2802747.jpg
J. Stephanoff, The Wassail Bowl, Private Collection / Look and Learn / Bridgeman Images

However, it was not until the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that wassail openly became associated with sinful acts over the Christmas period. During this time there were increasing fears of alcohol being the ‘evil drink’ and that drunkenness was responsible for urban disorder and violence within English society.[5] Fears of irreligiosity and immorality seemed to be accentuated at a time when reflection and contemplation of the gift of Christ was to be the norm.[6] It was bad enough that drunkenness at any other time of year would turn the ‘little’ sinner into the ‘big’ sinner, but alcohol, on top of general social disorder and revelry, was too much for critics to handle at Christmas time.[7]

391503
S. Collings, Christmas in the Country (1791), Private Collection/Bridgeman Images

Alcohol and other intoxicants were seen as a way for those of the middle and upper classes to prove their social status.[8] This added an extra element of the removal of social norms, of which wassail played a part. By consuming wassail with the aim to get drunk, the poor created an environment where it was widely acceptable for them to participate in and demand for privileges that were unreachable for them at other times of the year.[9]

Whilst drunkenness was of course not a new thing by the eighteenth century, fear of it became more apparent due to its greater definition in law, as well as acceptance of the mental distress it caused drunkards.[10] It was in this context that wassail became known as the sin drink during the Christmas festivities. It was seen as the root of merry behaviour and disorder during this time of year.[11] The poor were seen as the main victim of this sin as they were unable to work the fields during December and early January due to the cold weather.[12] Combined with a season of over indulgence, drunkenness and idleness, wassail was seen as the temptress to all righteous social order.

[1] Castlowe, E., ‘Wassailing’, https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/Wassailing/

[2] Johnson, B., ‘A Georgian Christmas’, https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/A-Georgian-Christmas/

[3] Mattern, J., Celebrate Christmas (New York: Enslow Publishing Inc, 2012), p. 24.

[4] Ratcliffe, J., ‘An 18th-Century Christmas’, http://www.julieratcliffe.co.uk/an-eighteenth-century-christmas/

[5] Holliday, S. L., Jayne, M. and Valentine, G., Alcohol, Drinking, Drunkenness: (Dis)Orderly Spaces (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2011), p. 13.

[6] Miles, C. A., Christmas in Ritual and Tradition (London: T. F. Unwin, 1912), p. 45; Holliday, S. L., Jayne, M. and Valentine, G., Alcohol, Drinking, Drunkenness, p. 14.

[7] Rabin, D., ‘Drunkenness and Responsibility for Crime in the Eighteenth Century’, Journal of British Studies, 44.3 (2005), p. 457.

[8] Withington, P., ‘Intoxicants and Society in Early Modern England’, The Historical Journal, 54.3 (2011), p. 632.

[9] Doares, R., Wassailing Through History, http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/holiday06/wassail.cfm

[10] Rabin, D., ‘Drunkenness and Responsibility for Crime in the Eighteenth Century’, p. 458.

[11] Mattern, J., Celebrate Christmas (New York: Enslow Publishing Inc, 2012), p. 24.

[12] Ratcliffe, J., ‘An 18th-Century Christmas’, http://www.julieratcliffe.co.uk/an-eighteenth-century-christmas/

Regency Christmas

For a recent job interview, I had to research into how Christmas was celebrated during the Regency period. The Christmas we know today was largely developed by the Victorians and it was interesting to see whether or not Christmas was celebrated differently before then. So, with exactly 100 days to go until Christmas Day, I thought it would be a good time to look into how Christmas was spent during the early nineteenth century.

391503
Samuel Collings, ‘Christmas in the Country’ (1791), Private Collection/Bridgeman Images

The Christmas period was celebrated for a lot longer than it is today. Society was still predominately reliant on agriculture, the Christmas period lasted for a month, from December 6th till January 6th, as it was too cold to be working out in the fields. This meant that it was seen as a season of charity and giving as it was a hard time for the poor who wouldn’t be working during this time.[1] The Christmas season was also one where begging was informally accepted and casual money giving increased due to the understanding that the poor were unable to fend for themselves during this time of seasonal unemployment.[2]

December 6th was a day of gift giving to mark the beginning of the Christmas season, but other notable days of the season included Christmas Day, St Stephen’s Day, which later became known as Boxing Day and most important of all was January 6th, known as Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night was celebrated in much the same way as Christmas Day is celebrated today. It was a day full of feasting, games, partying and drinking. It was seen as the big blowout to mark the end of the Christmas season.[3] The main tradition of Twelfth Night cake. It is seen as the traditional precursor to the present-day Christmas cake.[4] It was made from the leftovers of all the puddings eaten over the Christmas period and was elaborately decorated with icing and figurines.[5] As Twelfth Night was celebrated by whole households the cake was shared by everyone.[6] Both a dried pea and dried bean were placed into the cake and whoever found them would be the King and Queen for the day, no matter what social standing they had normally.[7]

Wassail was the traditional drink that was consumed over the period and was a form of mulled punch.[8] It was traditionally consumed in a large bowl called the wassail bowl which was drunk from by all (as seen in the above image).[9] It was this specific Christmas tradition that was blamed on creating disorder and revelry at a time when merry making should not be allowed to turn into promiscuity.[10] It was often passed around by Christmas carollers in exchange for food or small amounts of money. I recently first tasted this at a Maritime festival where tasters of it were being passed around. It has a rather strong taste and it’s no wonder why people associated it with drunkenness!

Decorations were always put up on Christmas Eve as it was deemed as unlucky to put them up before then. A yule log was chosen that would be big enough to burn for the whole season. A part of it was always kept to help light next year’s one too. The main theme of decoration was always evergreen and holly, but kissing balls were made from different materials, including mistletoe, ivy, spices, candles and ribbons. All of these had to be down and burned after Twelfth Night to avoid bad luck for the rest of the year.[11]

The thing I find the most intriguing about how Christmas was celebrated during the early nineteenth century is how contemporary issues influenced it. Between 1780 and 1815, Christmas was thought to have been in a downward spiral due to the horrors of the French Revolution and the subsequent wars with the French meant that people couldn’t afford to celebrate the season as well as they had done previously.[12] Fears rose of Christmas traditions fading with the increase of industrialisation, despite it being was seen as a symbol of English identity.[13] And yet, Christmas also had its critics, for the drunkenness and revelry associated was seen as a threat to order.[14] Yet, the Regency period was the last time Christmas was celebrated for an extended period because industrialisation would soon end the rural way of life.[15]

[1] Ratcliffe, J., ‘An 18th-Century Christmas’, http://www.julieratcliffe.co.uk/an-eighteenth-century-christmas/

[2] Hitchcock, T., ‘Begging on the Streets of Eighteenth-Century London’, Journal of British Studies, 44.3 (2005), p. 485.

[3] Johnson, B., ‘A Georgian Christmas’, https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/A-Georgian-Christmas/

[4] Johnson, B., ‘A Georgian Christmas’, https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/A-Georgian-Christmas/

[5] Early Modern England, December 22nd 2013 http://www.earlymodernengland.com/2013/12/georgian-christmas-an-eighteenth-century-celebration/; Leach, H. M. and Inglis, R., ‘The Archaeology of Christmas Cakes’, Food and Foodways, 11.2-3 (2003), p. 146; Shaughnessy, J., ‘Leftover Cake and the First Christmas Tree: A Georgian Christmas’, https://blog.findmypast.co.uk/a-georgian-christmas-dinner-1503656888.html

[6] Early Modern England, December 22nd 2013 http://www.earlymodernengland.com/2013/12/georgian-christmas-an-eighteenth-century-celebration/

[7] Ratcliffe, J., ‘An 18th-Century Christmas’, http://www.julieratcliffe.co.uk/an-eighteenth-century-christmas/

[8] Johnson, B., ‘A Georgian Christmas’, https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/A-Georgian-Christmas/

[9] Shaughnessy, J., ‘Leftover Cake and the First Christmas Tree: A Georgian Christmas’, https://blog.findmypast.co.uk/a-georgian-christmas-dinner-1503656888.html

[10] Connelly, M., Christmas: A History (London: I.B. Tauris & CO LTD, 2012), p. xii.

[11] Johnson, B., ‘A Georgian Christmas’, https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/A-Georgian-Christmas/

[12] Connelly, M., Christmas: A History, p. 6.

[13] Connelly, M., Christmas: A History, pp. 9-10 and 15.

[14] Mattern, J., Celebrate Christmas (New York: Enslow Publishing Inc, 2012), p. 24.

[15] Johnson, B., ‘A Georgian Christmas’, https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/A-Georgian-Christmas/