Christmas is a magical time of year and holds a very special place in all the hearts at Tea with Rosie, the Victorian Christmas underpins our values and outlook on the festive period. It is, then, perhaps an appropriate time to cast our attention back to the nineteenth century and look at the way in which the society that invented Christmas in its modern form chose to celebrate the occasion.
Dinner parties in general played an important role in affluent Victorian society. They were used by wealthy households to showcase their affluence and good taste to other members of ‘high society’. Christmas dinner, however, was a slightly different affair, yet equally important. Like today, Christmas dinners were more about family than impressing guests. In fact, the Victorians pretty much designed the family element of Christmas. During the 1840s, the economy was in poor-health (sound familiar?), and there was a lot of social unrest which made the middle class feel insecure. The Victorians regarded the family as a stronghold against these uncertainties and the family unit was therefore very important to them. Christmas had not been emphasised much since the seventeenth century, when the Puritans had tried to have it banned. The Victorians recognised that a revival of the festival might distract from some of the misery of the ‘hungry’ forties, and so they began to celebrate it once more, incorporating their strong family values into it. Christmas day, and in particularly Christmas dinner, became the pinnacle of Victorian family-time, when everyone from grandparents to children gathered together under the same roof to eat and share presents. This ideal is a prominent theme in Charles Dickens’ famous Christmas novel A Christmas Carol, in which the reformed Ebenezer Scrooge consolidates his new outlook by having Christmas dinner with his previously estranged family.
Although Christmas dinner was less about impressing guests than sharing a festive celebration with relations, as with everything in Victorian middle class society, it had to be carried out with more than a touch of elegance and finesse. Articles in women’s magazines and domestic journals instructed upon every last detail of preparation for the event – from the arrangement of flowers and decorations on the festive dinner table to menu and recipe suggestions and even tips on dealing with the in-laws! The intricacies of some of these preparations make today’s task seem tame – although the lady of the house, to whom responsibility for them fell, was in some instances aided by a small of army of house-staff!
Victorian Christmas dinners nearly always incorporated the main elements of beef or turkey and mince pies but they also had to be ‘recherché’ (exotic) in order to be truly ‘tasteful’. They were often begun with fish or vegetable soups as starters and accompanied with walnuts, grapes, and ‘bengal toasts’. Christmas pudding was a mainstay (and the subject, like today, of much complaint and humour!), but was also typically supplemented by a variety of other puddings such as trifles and ‘French sweets’. Christmas crackers (another Victorian invention) would be present at the table and, like today, pulled during the meal. After dinner, a dance might be held for the children of the family, followed by games and entertainments such as charades or ‘magic lantern’ shows (magic lanterns were early image-projectors, so it was a little bit like settling down to watch some good Christmas telly!).
As can be seen, many elements of our modern Christmas were first devised by the Victorians, and so it is them we can thank for the festival as we now enjoy it. Elegance was the watchword of the Victorian festive dining experience, and Tea with Rosie shares this sentiment. We can – to pinch another Victorian slogan – bring ‘sweetness and light’ to your Christmas dinner or Christmas party, so get in touch if you would like to find out more.