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
The festive season is upon us and with it traditions of historic communal drinking and singing. We are fortunate to have a number of large wooden wassail bowls made for just such events in the mid 17th century. They are made from lignum vitae, Guaiacum Officianale, a tropical hardwood from Central and South America.
Lignum Vitae wood was first brought to Europe in the early 1500s. It must have been viewed with a certain amount of curiosity and awe as there is nothing quite like it in Europe. It is the heaviest wood in the world; so dense and heavy that is cannot float even in salt water. Its shiny, oily texture gives it a wonderfully lustrous finish which woodworkers found invaluable for making boxes where it was important to keep the contents from drying out. Plus the dense interlocking grain which made the wood so strong meant it was ideal for making anything which needed to be especially durable. But the thing which mattered most in the early 1500s was that it came with a supposed guarantee that it could cure syphilis. Traditionally, the Taino people from the Caribbean Antilles had boiled lignum wood shavings and extracted the resin which they applied directly on to wounds. Europeans, eagerly anticipating a cure, called this new wood ‘Lignum Vitae’ – tree of life.
Now all this might seem a long way away from good cheer and carolling but the prospect of a drinking bowl which contained medicinal properties made lignum vitae the perfect choice of wood for a ceremony called waes-hael, or as we would say today – good health. Traditionally maple wood had been used for such celebrations and the diameter of drinking bowls, known as mazers, was naturally limited to the size of the trees growing in the local landscape. But the size of lignum vitae logs was larger than anyone had seen before so there was no holding back: it was now possible to turn larger and deeper bowls which was ideal for community festivities.
This bowl is one of the smaller ones and can be described as a loving cup as it would be possible to lift it; drink from it and then pass on to your neighbour. Some of the larger wassail bowls would have been too heavy to lift when they were full of drink and instead smaller cups were used to dip into a wassail bowl to refill the loving cups. It would have been used in a wealthy household as working with wood this hard and dense required specialist tools and access to a ‘machine’ lathe with one or two apprentices providing the power needed to turn the great wheel. The decoration provides another clue that this is a prestige object. The criss-cross and wavy lines which are so often found on wassail bowls are known as rose engine turning from their similarity to rose petals. They represent the peak of wood turning skill and many of the turners capable of carrying out such work also worked in ivory and other expensive materials.
Wassailing was not restricted to Christmas. There were many other times in the year which called for the bowl to be in use. Shrove Tuesday; Halloween and All Saints Day on November 1st were all associated with wassailing in various parts of the UK. But one of the main celebrations in which it played a part was at the end of Christmas at Twelfth Night on January 6th. The poet, Robert Herrick (1591-1674) mentioned wassailing in his poem “Twelfth Night” and gives us a tasty glimpse of the contents which were bound to make the party go well.
“Next crown a bowl full
With gentle lambs-wool;
Add sugar, nutmeg and ginger,
With store of ale, too;
And thus ye must do
To make the wassail a swinger.”
Curator (Applied Art)