I am loving my little book ‘A London Christmas’ – so much fun to read how Londoners used to celebrate. Here are some of my observations from the book so far:
Forget turkey, give me beef!
Christmas dinner once upon a time was beef – there is no mention of turkey in this collection of memories and extracts, not until an article published by George Orwell in 1947. Since this book spans centuries of memories (oldest relevant extract is from 1443), it seems beef was the special treat of the year. Also featured were sage and onion stuffing, mince pies, plum pudding with brandy, and the meat dish ‘plum porridge’, which sounds a bit ominous. I am really tempted to try and follow an old recipe to see if it is edible! There is a lot of boiling and straining to do when cooking these old dishes, by the sound of it. The only thing that puts me off is that these recipes sound so fatty! It would have been ideal back then, but not for now when we are surrounded by so many fatty choices, and do little physical exercise, as a nation at least. But to be honest I am not a huge fan of turkey, so perhaps beef would be a traditional alternative.
Nb: Goose was also a traditional choice for this time of year - and I much prefer goose to turkey, so might reinstate that one!
Boxing Day up and down the land was the time for everyone in service to demand payment. The doorbell would ring day and night as butchers, paperboys, the turn-cock (water), road-sweepers, coach-men, musicians, general errand-boys, post-boys, the sweep, dust-men, and lamp-lighters all come knocking for money. In 1852 it was so bad that the advice given in Chamber’s Journal was ‘tie up the knocker – say you’re sick, or you’re dead’. Doesn’t this remind you of how Halloween has morphed into the begging custom trick or treat? Yet in some ways this Boxing Day tradition continues – my mum always mentions giving the dust-men something ‘for their Christmas box’, but it is never on Boxing Day – usually the week before.
Christmas Day post
You could post your Christmas cards on December 24th and receive them Christmas Day. In fact, it was considered normal to post your cards on Christmas Eve, although it later years (by 1901 at least) the general consensus was to ‘post early’ to save the post office from being swamped with cards and parcels at the last minute. In 1890 a shop-bought card price was 8d, which works out to be £3.15 in today’s money. It doesn’t sound much of a difference, except the annual salaries back then worked out approx £12 for a nursemaid, £30 for a groom, £50 for a butler. I don’t think many would have splashed out the equivalent of £3.15 for a single card! No wonder folk made their own cards, if giving any at all.
Christmas Day travel
Trains, trams, buses – all these would be running on Christmas Day, making it easy for people to visit relatives in the country. There may be a brief hiatus on local trains until ‘after the Divine church service’, but the transport service didn’t close down for the day, as it does now. However, this means that now everyone has the right to a day off to celebrate how they choose, an option that just wasn’t considered back in the day.
The Holly and the Ivy
Decorations in olden times brought the country inside. Sprigs of dark green holly with cheerful red berries, clumps of trailing ivy to dress the mantle, boughs of mistletoe for the rich to giggle under. I really like this way of decorating a home - it smells fresh, and candles glimmer in a unique way off the waxed appearance of holly leaves. I would also add decorations of dried orange, and a cinnamon stick here and there for that warm smell of spice.
Can't wait to bring some of these traditions back!