In 1644, only a century before Soho House was built, Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas! Carols were forbidden and anyone caught cooking a goose or baking a Christmas cake or boiling a pudding was in danger of fine, confiscation or worse.
By the 1800s it was once again a time of celebration, having been reinstated by Charles II. The Georgian Christmas season began on 6th of December (St. Nicholas Day). Gifts would be exchanged both then and on New Years Day and the main feasting occasion was 6th of January (Twelfth Night, Epiphany). St Stephen’s Day was 26th of December and is now better known as Boxing Day as this was when servants would be presented with gifts and donations made to charity.
The gentry spent the Christmas season in their country houses and didn’t return to their London addresses until February. It was a time of high celebration with gift and charity giving, balls, parties, games, gifts and lots of food. As families were already gathered together it was also an opportunity for weddings.
The Georgian Christmas menu would have included soup, turkey, goose, duck, and cheese. Mince pies have been eaten at Christmas in England since the sixteenth century, however they were made of minced meat. Only later was this replaced with dried fruit and spices. During this period Christmas pudding was better known as lum pottage.
The star of the show would have been Twelfth Cake, a version of present day Christmas cake. It was sliced and given to all members of the household including servants and guests. It contained a dried bean and a dried pea. The person whose slice contained the bean was King for the night; a slice with a pea indicated the Queen. Whoever won, regardless of their social standing and position in the household, was recognized by everyone as the evening’s King and Queen. By the Regency period, Twelfth cake became elaborate with added icing, trimmings, and figurines and it remained popular until the late Victorian period.
Decorating the home with holly, evergreens and mistletoe was well established and practiced throughout the Georgian period, however the Christmas tree was a tradition not yet adopted. It is widely believed that Queen Victoria is responsible for the popularity of the Christmas tree, as a tree would be placed in her bedroom each Christmas. After Victoria’s marriage in 1840 to Germany’s Prince Albert, it grew in popularity amongst the middle classes after the British press reported on the trees adorning Windsor Castle. However, it was George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte, who brought the first version of the present day Christmas tree to Britain in 1800. She had it decorated it with gifts, dolls and tapers after her German traditions.
The yule log was chosen for the fire on Christmas Eve. Wrapped in hazel twigs and dragged home it was the centre piece and would burn in the fireplace during the Christmas season. Traditionally a piece would be kept back for the following year.
As part of the season’s celebrations British Pantomime grew in popularity during the Georgian period, particularly among the upper classes. Carols as we understand them didn’t exist although some such as ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks at Nights’, ‘Joy to the World’ and ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ were beginning to gain in popularity.
This Christmas there are festive tours of Soho House which offer the rare opportunity to see the House decorated for a Georgian Christmas and to hear tales of how the season was celebrated over two hundred years ago (for details visit: http://www.bmag.org.uk/events). There is also a special evening at Soho on 13th December where there will be carols and readings, followed by an opportunity to look around the historic House decorated for Christmas with a choir singing in the world famous Lunar Room (for details of this event visit: http://www.bmag.org.uk/events?id=3501.)
Visitor Services Assistant