English Victorian Traditions
The Victorian Era saw a great revival in the celebration of Christmas in Great Britain. Two hundred years before, Christmas celebrations had been briefly banned by the Puritan government during the English Civil War who felt that the holiday was too pagan and disliked the raucous, immoral celebrations that accompanied the Christmas season in poorer communities. Although the law lasted only a few years, Christmas was no longer a fashionable holiday, and was seen by the wealthy and middle classes as a holiday for the poor to forget their sorrows for a short time.
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol almost single-handedly restored Christmas to its former glory. The first printing of the book sold out in less than a day in London. Readers across Britain were touched by the story of the redemption of the bitter old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, and fell in love with Dickens’ idealized picture of a jolly, mirthful Christmas focused on family and filled with charity and good will towards men.
In the years that followed this explosion in popularity, Christmas began to take its modern form. In 1850, a Christmas tree became a necessity in every fashionable Victorian home when a print was published depicting the royal family gathered around their own Tannenbaum, a tradition Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, introduced from his native Germany. Soon enough, live trees could be seen in every home, strung with popcorn and cranberries, hung with hand-made paper and wooden ornaments, and lit with dozens of glowing candles. On Christmas Eve the whole family would gather together—uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents—and sit around the tree, exchanging small, hand-made gifts with each other.
Christmas Eve was also the time for caroling, an age-old English tradition that had all-but disappeared, but was revived when two writers named William Sandys and Davis Gilbert took it upon themselves to gather together traditional Christmas songs from the towns and villages of the English countryside. Carolers would go door-to-door in the chilly winter air, singing at each house they came to and hoping to be invited in for a warm drink.
Even the seemingly modern Christmas card got its start amid Victorian Christmas celebrations when a wealthy citizen by the name of Sir Henry Cole commissioned London artist, John Calcott Horsley, to design and print for him 1,000 illustrated cards that he could proudly send to friends and family to wish them a “Merry Christmas.” The first Christmas card featured three images: one each of a man and a woman feeding and clothing the poor on either side of a picture of a family gathered around the table for Christmas dinner and a banner that read: “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.” Soon, printed Christmas cards were all the rage in Britain and quickly spread to Germany and the United States. Traditional, hand-written letters bearing Christmas greetings were replaced by printed cards bearing images of Christmas scenes—everything from family and street scenes, to Christmas trees, to images of Father Christmas, who began to look more and more like the Santa Claus we know today following the publication of the American poem: “The Night Before Christmas” by Clement C. Moore.
No dish speaks to Victorian Christmas dinner quite like the pudding. Many households kept their own special pudding recipes, closely guarded secrets handed down generation to generation. In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the pudding represents the climax of the Cratchit family’s modest Christmas feast:
"Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper! A smell like a washing-day. That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook's next door to each other, with a laundress's next door to that. That was the pudding. In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered -- flushed, but smiling proudly -- with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quarter of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top."
Puddings are traditionally made on “Stir-up Sunday”—the Sunday before Advent, the fifth before Christmas Day—when each member of the household must take a turn at stirring the pudding mix while making a wish. Often, a few silver coins or a ring are placed in the mix, to bring riches or luck to whoever may find them in the piece they are served on Christmas Day. The pudding is then boiled in a pudding cloth and set to rest until Christmas Day so the flavors can mix. Try Christmas Pudding at your holiday dinner this year. The recipe below is from “Christmas Feasts” by Lorna J. Sass.
No dish speaks to VictorianChristmas dinner quite
like the pudding!
- ½ cup flour
- 1 cup breadcrumbs
- 2 cups (1/2 pound loosely packed) grated beef kidney suet
- 1 cup (tightly packed) raisins
- 1 ¼ cups currants
- 1 cup peeled, minced apples
- 1/3 cup coarsely chopped candied orange peel
- ¾ cup sugar
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- Scant ½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1/8 teaspoon mace
- ¼ cup good quality brandy
- 3 large eggs
Note: A pudding cloth is ideally a clean sheet of muslin approximately 15” to a side. It should be uncolored, so the dye does not leak into the pudding. A clean 100% cotton pillowcase or a tea towel may be used in a pinch. Alternately, one may buy a pudding basin.
In a very large bowl, combine all of the above ingredients. Blend them well.
Wet the pudding cloth thoroughly and sprinkle it generously with flour. With your fingers, spread out the flour to make a thin layer on the cloth. Set the pudding cloth into a medium-sizedbowl, pressing it into the shape of the bowl. Set the mixture into the cloth and tie it tightly aboutan inch above the bulge of the mixture (allowing room for the pudding to swell).
Bring a very large pot of water to a boil. Gently set the pudding into the water and bring the water back to a boil. Then reduce the heat to medium so that the water boils gently for 3 ½ hours, replacing water as needed so that the pudding is always totally submerged. Occasionally, lift the pudding so that it does not stick to the bottom of the pot.
When the pudding is done, lift it up and place it in a large colander to drain. Gently remove the string and the cloth. (If you are not planning to use the pudding immediately, let it cool completely, wrap it thoroughly in a few layers of aluminum foil and store it in a cool place until needed. Then, tie the pudding back in the cloth and boil for an additional two hours before serving.)
To serve the pudding, set it on a platter, spoon some warmed brandy on top (if desired) and hold a match nearby until it catches. You may, of course, set a sprig of holly in the center for good luck. Serve warm with a sauceboat of punch sauce on the side.
- Scant 1/3 cup sugar
- ¾ cup water
- ½ small lemon
- 1/3 juice orange
- 3 tablespoons butter, cut into bits
- 1 teaspoon flour
- ¼ cup brandy
- ¼ cup white wine
- 1/3 cup rum
In a small heavy pot, dissolve the sugar in the water.
Meanwhile, squeeze the lemon and orange and reserve the juices. Chop the peels into 3 or 4 pieces and place them in the sugar syrup. Boil gently for about 20 minutes. Press them against the side of the pot to squeeze out all the flavor, and remove the peels with a slotted spoon. (You may reserve them for use as candied peel.)
Place the butter in a small bowl and sprinkle it with the flour. Mash them together until the flour is completely absorbed.
Whisk the butter mixture into the sugar syrup over medium heat. Add the reserved fruit juices, brandy, wine, and rum and heat just to the boiling point, but do not boil once the spirits have been added.
Serve very hot or store (after it has cooled) in the refrigerator, covered with a piece of waxed paper until needed. Then reheat and serve in a sauceboat.