Have you started your holiday baking yet? If not, you’re already behind! With Advent beginning yesterday and American Thanksgiving last week, the Holiday Treat Season is in full swing! Let’s have a look at how our 19th century forbears celebrated in the kitchen.
Just like today, Victorian families celebrated their year-end holidays with food, drink, and feasting. F.W. Dawson’s treatise on the history of the holiday, Christmas: Its Origins & Associations (1902) contains no fewer than sixteen illustrations featuring Christmas food and feasting through the centuries, including this look at Renaissance wassailers:
Wassailing was an early incarnation of Christmas caroling, in which people went door-to-door to toast the season with their neighbors (“Wassail,” or waes hael, is an Anglo-Saxon toast meaning “Good health”). A popular carol from the mid-1800s immortalizes the tradition:
Here we come a wassailing, among the leaves so green
Here we come a wand’ring, so fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you, and to you your wassail too,
And God bless you and send you a happy new year!
Revelers fortunate enough to be invited inside would be welcomed with a holiday spread for the ages.
Charles Dickens, who did much to promote Christmas to an eager Victorian audience, offered several lively depictions of grand holiday meals (even among his characters of modest means).
There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn’t ate it all at last! Yet everyone had had enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows! —A Christmas Carol, 1843
This particular goose is from the Cratchits’ celebration of Christmas Present (of course, they later have an even more spectacular goose, thanks to Scrooge). But where would the poor Cratchits have gotten such a meal? From their local Goose Club.
Goose Clubs were a type of layaway, sponsored by neighborhood pubs or other organizations, in which families could put in a few pence each week and be sure to have a nice fat goose for their Christmas tables. A sinister twist on this custom (including quite a detailed explanation of its workings) appears in the only Sherlock Holmes story set at Christmas, “The Blue Carbuncle.”
After the goose, the dish probably most associated with Victorian British Christmas dinner is the pudding—plum pudding, figgy pudding, Christmas pudding, whatever you term it, Christmas wasn’t Christmas without the pud.
Plum pudding was made weeks in advance, to allow the alcohol and other ingredients to become fully… potent. The last Sunday before Advent, known as “Stir-Up Sunday,” became the traditional day for families to make their puddings. In the Book of Common Prayer, the church service for that Sunday begins, “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people.” And what better way to get into the faithful spirit of Advent then stirring up some Christmas cheer? This year’s Stir-up Sunday was actually last weekend (November 20), but there’s certainly still time to get your pudding in the steamer.
If you want to plan a traditional 19th century holiday feast this year, you’ll appreciate the guidance and recipes of Isabella Beeton, the guru to whom generations of cooks and housewives have turned for advice since 1861. A bestseller for well over a century, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management contains all you need to know to cook up the perfect Victorian Christmas dinner. You may consult all of Mrs. Beeton’s recipes at Project Gutenberg at the link above.
I’d like to try this recipe, myself, her alcohol-free pudding:
Have fun stirring up some holiday cheer in your own kitchens this year!