UK Christmas History

I live in the UK and so I'm especially interested in how Christmas has been celebrated over the years in my country. Here's some brief information about what Christmas (and especially the food!) was like during some periods in history.

The Tudor Period

During Advent it was traditional to eat no meat, eggs or cheese. This was done for religious reasons - but it also saved up more food for the 12 Days of Christmas, which were a time of big celebrations, especially for the upper classes.

A Traditional English Church from a Christmas Card Scene

December 21st is St Thomas’s Day and poor people often went ‘Thomasing’ around their richer neighbors and employers asking for help over Christmas. They were normally given real items like flour and oats rather than money. Poor people could have also been given some money on Boxing Day when the 'poor boxes' were opened in churches.

During the 12 Days of Christmas everyone was meant to stop work. However, lots of people still did have to work! Farmers weren't allowed to work in the fields, but they still had to look after their animals, so extra feed was needed to be stored for the animals, etc. and lots of firewood was needed for all the houses to burn to keep them warm!

The celebrations by royalty and the upper classes were very extravagant - so all their servant and kitchen staff certainly had to work over Christmas! However, it was traditional to invite all those who’d worked on farms belonging to rich land owners to the main Christmas meal (although they ate with the servants rather than the rich people).

The big formal halls of large houses and palaces were decorated with boughs of holly and ivy. The main decoration was a 'Christmas Crown' made by weaving small branches of ash or hazel together (skills which the farmers had for making fences). It was kind of like a giant Christmas wreath which was filled with more holly, ivy and other greenery and it was hung from a high ceiling on Christmas Eve.

The feasts that very rich people ate were huge. They normally consisted of pottage/frumenty (a watery kind of porridge) or soup (to line the stomach!), lots of meat (only rich people could afford to eat meat), different kinds of 'puddings' (suet or pastry puddings filled with meat and expensive dried fruits) and the meal was finished with cheese. That's still quite similar to the different courses we have today. But often all the dishes were on the table at the same time.

Frumenty is cracked wheat boiled in milk and was eaten all year round. But for Christmas they added dried fruit and spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger which were all very expensive! (Over time, Frumenty became what's Christmas Pudding.)

The traditional center piece of the meal was a boar's head. This went back to Saxon times and there's an early carol called 'The Boar's Head Carol' which was written in the 15th century and was sung when the boar's head was ceremonially brought into the feast! The carol is still sung in many places in the UK.

The boar, or pig's, head had its skin and skull carefully removed and it was then pickled and stuffed with chopped pork. It was sewn back together, a bit like a bag, and then was wrapped in cloth and boiled for 2-3 hours. When it was cooked, for presentation, the skin was sometimes put back on it - you wanted it to look as life-like as possible!

An alternative to a Boar's head was a Swan pie. The body of the swan was stuffed and put on the top of the pie for make it look spectacular!

An early form of a mince pie was a 'shrewd pie'. They were large raised pies (like modern pork pies) containing meat, dried fruit and spices. There might have also been pease pudding (a thick soup type of dish made from boiled dried split peas and often cooked with a joint of bacon or ham), pickled salads and 'leach' (milk set in gelatine).

Monks and Nuns ate poultry rather than red meat (it was thought to be less stimulating!) including chicken, ducks, geese, swans, game (pheasant, partridge and woodcock).

During this time, churches, especially monasteries, starting to have what we now think of as church choirs with (professional) male singers and choir boys - not just the monks singing. Monasteries and churches spent lots of money on candles for the Christmas services as they wanted to have the best lit church and wanted the church to look incredible to glorify God at Christmas.

The 'Banning' of Christmas

From the mid 1640s until 1660, Christmas was 'banned' in England, Wales and Scotland by the Puritans. They thought Christmas was wasteful and that it led to lots of people eating and drinking too much, etc. In 1642 Parliament made the last Wednesday of each month into a 'fasting day' for people to think solemnly about what they had done wrong. In 1644 the last Wednesday in December was the 25th and both Houses of Parliament went to fast sermons. Then in 1645 a new directive of official church worship said that only Sunday were to be holy days, and no other days (like Christmas) should be celebrated; Christmas could be spent in contemplation, but NOT celebrated!

In 1647 this was confirmed and the feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun (Pentecost) were all banned. Then in the 1650s more laws were passed ordering shops to stay open on December 25th and penalising anyone who went to a Church service on that day. Soldiers were even posted on the streets and confiscated any food they thought would be used to celebrate Christmas.

It's commonly thought that Oliver Cromwell 'banned' Christmas. But the laws were in place before he came to power. He was the 'Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland' from 1653 to 1658 and certainly supported the laws, but he didn't create them!

Although Christmas was officially 'banned', many people still celebrated it in quiet. In the late 1640s there were riots in several big towns between people who wanted to celebrate Christmas and those who didn't!

When King Charles was restored to the throne in 1660, all the laws made between 1642 and 1660 were thrown out and so Christmas and the 12 Days of Christmas were also restored and celebrated again in England!

The Georgian Period

The 12 Days of Christmas continued to be very important into the Georgian period.

Popular Christmas food (for rich people) included Brawn/head cheese (boiled pigs head which then had the meat put in a mould and set with savoury jelly) and multi bird pies which were especially popular in Yorkshire (like a Turducken but in a pie).

In Georgian times all the food, savoury or sweet was served at once you just took what you wanted!

This time also started some things that were think of as more 'traditional' Christmas foods like roast beef and Christmas puddings and mince pies (without the meat in!).

They also like sweet jellies with lots of alcohol in them and different flavors of blancmange (a sweet set custard like panna cotta). Rich families hired very expensive chefs who could make jellies in large and spectacular moulds/shapes.

The Georgian also popularised the Twelfth Night Cake, which is still eaten in many countries at Epiphany.

The Victorian Period

The Victorian period has probably shaped more of how we now celebrate Christmas than any other. It was at this time that many of the foods and decorations that we now commonly associate with Christmas became popular.

Books such as 'A Christmas Carol' by Charles Dickens, published in 1843, put together new feelings about Christmas helped to shape the Christmas traditions and celebrations we still have today.

A drawing of the famous Royal Christmas Tree from 1848

Christmas cards were also invented in 1843 and Christmas crackers a few years later. The Christmas tree really became popular in the UK and USA around the same time when a drawing of the British Royal family with a tree was published in 1848 in the UK and 1850 in the USA.

Also during the Victorian period there was a renaissance of singing Christmas carols with people collecting old folk tunes and adding new words to them. Popular magazines published the music and words for carols and Christmas songs, so people could make their own entertainment at home on the piano. Many new carols were also written at this time including Silent Night (written in 1816 but it was translated into English in 1863), Good King Wenceslas and In the Bleak Midwinter (written in 1872 and became a carol in 1906).

Magazines and books also published new 'parlour games' like snap dragon which became popular ways of having entertainment after Christmas dinner.

'Traditional' Christmas cakes and puddings only really became what we now think of them during the Victorian period with more cook books being published and dried fruits and spices, although still being expensive, were becoming available to many more people.

The First Christmas Card

"Firstchristmascard". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Christmas also became much more 'commercial' with there being presents you could actually buy and a much wider range of food available. Traditionally, any presents had been made by hand, like sewing and wooden toys. There was no electric lighting, with only oil (or perhaps) gas lamps and certainly no central heating. So it was dark and cold, not easy to make things in - but people did amazing craft works even in those conditions!

With trains expanding throughout the UK at the time, travel became easier; so foods such as turkey became more popular (and one also appeared in 'A Christmas Carol'!). They could get from farms in the countryside to the towns for sale much more quickly. Having a roast goose was still very popular. Many people belonged to 'goose clubs' where you put some money away each week and in December you've have enough to buy a goose (the plot of the Sherlock Holmes story 'The Blue Carbuncle' is about a jewel being hidden in a goose from a goose club).

Whether you had a goose or turkey, it was normally spit roasted over a fire or on a mechanical spit called a 'bottle jack & hasner' which was a wind up vertical spit with a metal surround (to reflect the heat all around the bird) which was placed in front of an open fire/range. Sometimes bakers would also let people cook their birds in the large bakers over.

It was also during the later Victorian period that the 12 Days of Christmas became less important. Many more people now lived in cities and large towns and had to work over the Christmas period. So things like the Twelfth Night parties and Twelfth Night Cake became Christmas parties and Christmas Cake.

World War II

The Christmases during World War II in the UK were very different. Many people were not in their own homes. Lots of men went into the army; most children from cities were evacuated into the countryside (some lived with family members but others with people who took them in).

In cities lots of houses were bombed and destroyed during air raids.

Decorations could be hard to get as most things were scarce and/or rationed. Real Christmas Trees were hard to find, especially in cities, as wood was used for construction. There weren't many balloons as most of the rubber plantations were in the war zone in the Far East.

The WVS (Women's Voluntary Service) and other groups published, in papers and magazines, instructions for home made decorations made from scraps and left overs. Such as paper lanterns/paper chains made from old magazines/wallpaper, etc. Paper was strictly rationed so every bit was used and reused!

Greenery like Holly and Ivy was still available and you could also decorations using the Chinese Lantern Plant (Physalis alkekengi) plant. As well as threading the paper lanterns on cotton.

Some other unusual decoration came from the sky! German planes released 'chaff', lots of strips of metal foil, to try and confuse radar. People used them to make shiny decorations!

Many children lost all of their toys as thousands of homes were completely destroyed. Toys were made from what you had lying around! Before the war, many toys were imported from Germany - but that all stopped!

Pipe cleaners, wire, matchboxes and cigarette packets and cards, matchsticks, cotton reals snd odd bits of materials could all be used to make furniture for doll's houses. Four lids from cocoa tins and one tin could make a model car.

Games like 'pin the tale on the donkey' became 'pin the mustache on Hitler'!

During the war, going to church became more popular again. People were looking for hope and comfort. Although others found the war put them off religion all together.

Christmas cards were very popular as a way of families, often split up or in the forces, keeping in touch. The military forces used 'air graphs' where letters were photographed and put onto film and then developed/printed at their destination and put in the normal post! This saved lots of space taking things to and from the front line as you could get up to 1500 letters on one role of film.

Most food was rationed so there wasn't the huge range of food we have today. However, farmers could take as much milk they wanted from their own cows - so they had lots of butter and cream! Often lots of vegetables were eaten as people were encouraged to grow their own fruit and vegetables. Lots of things were made from carrots, including candied carrot (made into sweets!), carrot soup, carrot cake and even carrot fudge!

Carrots, and other vegetables, were also added to things like Mince Pies, Christmas Pudding and Christmas Cake as it was often very hard to get hold of things like dried fruit. During Christmas time, people were given extra food rations by the Government to help people celebrate Christmas.

Stuffed rabbit was an alternative to Turkey! Only 1 family in 10 would be able to get a Turkey or Goose.

In cities like London, many slept in underground caves, tunnels and air raid shelters to be protected from bombs and rockets. At Christmas 1944 in Chiselhirst Caves under London, up to 15,000 slept in the caves. It became an underground town with water and sanitation, a chapel, cinema and hospital! Some people lived in the caves for months.

There was 'blackout' at night so enemy planes couldn't see the lights of town and cities to drop bombs on them. Houses were fined if they even showed a little bit of light from their windows! People had blackout curtains to stop light escaping. Cars, trucks and even trains had to have things on their lights to stop them shining up and there were no street lamps and certainly no Christmas light displays in the streets!

You can watch some excellent short films about Christmas during WWII on the site of the Imperial War Museum (goes to another site).