A Georgian Christmas
“I sincerely hope your Christmas…may abound in the gaieties which the season generally brings,” writes Caroline to Jane in Pride and Prejudice. In the early 1800s, those ‘gaieties’ included splendid dining parties, yuletide balls and a variety of parlour games.
The Christmas day feast was a high point with goose, rather than turkey, the typical poultry of choice. Bakeries would roast birds for people who lacked a sizable oven to collect on their way home from church. Another fashionable choice was Wassail, a bowl of spiced punch prepared from sweetened or spiced wine or brandy, which was passed along the table and sipped from in turn.
Some parlour games included children, as when Fanny Austen played ‘Pass the Slipper’ at a Twelfth Night Ball. Sitting in a circle, they passed – or pretended to pass – the slipper in secret under their knees whilst a child on the outside tried to work out who had it. For adults, country dances and card games like cribbage were particularly popular in the long winter evenings.
Christmas trees may not have appeared in British homes until the Victorian era, but the Georgians were great decorators. By the late 18th century, kissing boughs and balls made from holly, ivy, mistletoe and rosemary, and decorated with spices, oranges, candles or ribbons, were very popular, but the centre piece was a blazing Yule log. Chosen on Christmas Eve, this large lump of wood was wrapped in hazel twigs then dragged home to the fireplace where – if the householders were lucky – it burned merrily until Twelfth Night.
Today, Yule logs are more often made of chocolate than wood and trees wrapped in flashing lights tend to take centre stage, but Christmas is still a time of feasting and celebration when, as Emma’s Mr Elton observes, “everyone invites their friends…and people think little of even the worst weather.”