02 November 2012

Roasts and Toasts of Christmas Past

What did the Victorians eat for Christmas dinner? Why do we decorate trees at Christmas? Who was the 'Lord of Misrule'? If you fancy partying medieval-style or joining Queen Victoria for a royal celebration, take a look at our tips for a truly historic Christmas.

Christmas decorations light up the house at Osborne

Christmas decorations light up the house at Osborne

Lord of Misrule: Tudor and Medieval Celebrations

  • For a Tudor feast, don't forget to add lots of sugary treats, like Leach, a kind of jellied milk sweet a bit like Turkish delight. Try our recipe for Leach here. However as sugar was so expensive, it was only the rich who could afford it. Elizabeth was said to like sugar so much she had black teeth!
  • Instead of Christmas pudding, try a medieval version of the plum pudding - a slightly less appealing mix of corn, oats, stock, fruit, sugar and spices, mixed into a kind of watery gruel.
  • For an authentic medieval themed present, stick to food. Peasants would often give their landlords small gifts like apples or eggs, with landlords providing a feast in return. For something slightly more elaborate go for a Tudor gift - sweets, jewellery and scented pomanders were often given to superiors in this era.
A traditional 'kissing bough' which was popular before the Victorian age

A traditional 'kissing bough' which was popular before the Victorian age

  • No need for a Christmas tree if you're celebrating Tudor style, but don't forget the kissing bough! This was an evergreen sphere hung indoors, usually over the front door so visitors were embraced beneath it, and any bad feeling instantly forgotten.
  • If you want your celebrations to go with a bang, appoint a 'Lord of Misrule'. These were usually minor members of the household appointed to run the festivities. Henry VII is recorded as having both a 'Lord of Misrule' and an 'Abbot of Unreason' one year!
  • Make sure you have a big feast at Twelfth Night. Before Victorian times this was the focus of most festivities and the highlight of this was the great Twelfth Night Cake. A bit like our custom of hiding a coin in the Christmas pudding, the cake would contain a bean, and whoever found this would be pronounced 'king' of the celebrations.

Medieval Christmas Events

Find out more about Medieval celebrations at Belsay Hall in Northumberland on 8 December, and shop for treasures in Medieval surroundings at Lincoln Medieval Bishop's Palace from 6-9 December.

Christmas treats are prepared at Audley End

Christmas treats are prepared at Audley End

Snapdragon and Wild Boar: Victorian Festivities

  • Not a fan of turkey? Not a problem for a Victorian Christmas dinner. A much wider variety of meat and poultry was eaten, like beef, geese, venison and game. On Christmas day in 1868 at Audley End in Essex, the family consumed mutton, veal, hares, rabbits, pheasants, partridges, chicken and turkeys. At Osborne in 1896, Queen Victoria's royal feast was even grander, with pork, beef, turbot, a wild boar's head and game pie.
  • Not everyone could afford such a spread, however. Those who couldn't afford a Christmas goose could join a 'goose club', which helped people save up throughout the year.
  • For a true Victorian Christmas, you'll need a Christmas tree. Although Queen Charlotte introduced the Christmas tree to England in the 18th century, it wasn't until the Victorian era that these became popular. Queen Victoria was keen to make her new husband, Prince Albert feel at home, so took on many German festive traditions from his childhood. After the royal family were pictured around their tree in the Illustrated London News in 1848, the Christmas tree became even more popular.
  • Forget the fairy lights - tree decorations in the Victorian era included handmade paper flowers, fruits, nuts, gingerbread, and particularly during the Crimean War, patriotic flags.
  • Decorating your house with evergreens has been popular since the pre-Christian age, and the Victorian era was no exception. To make your own Victorian Christmas wreath, see our handy guide. You can also join in our wreath making workshops at various properties all over the country.
Discover how the Victorians decorated their houses for Christmas at Audley End

Find out more about Victorian Christmas celebrations at Audley End

  • Going carol singing? You'll have to do without some of our festive favourites, including In the Bleak Midwinter (not composed until 1906) and Away in a Manger. Many carols that we still sing today were already popular, though, like Good King Wenceslas, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and Silent Night.
  • You'll need nerves of steel (and possibly a fire extinguisher) if you want to play any Victorian Christmas games. 'Snapdragon' involved making a big pile of dried fruit, covering it in brandy then setting it alight. Then in the dark, the aim was for everyone to pick up a piece of fruit before the fire went out. Let's hope nobody played it with long sleeves!
  • You could choose to give presents at New Year instead of on Christmas Day. Before the Victorian era, this was customary. By the 1840s presents were exchanged by the Royal Family, but it wasn't until later - helped by the introduction of the parcel post in 1883 - that this tradition caught on with the masses. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert would often give each other specially commissioned paintings and sculpture, and many of these pieces are part of the royal collection at Osborne.

Victorian Christmas Events

Experience a true Victorian Christmas at Audley End in Essex on 24 & 25 November and 1 & 2 December. You can also find out how Queen Victoria would have celebrated Christmas on a festive tour at Osborne on the Isle of Wight throughout November and December. Belsay Hall in Northumberland and Apsley House in London will also be alive with Victorian festivities on 24 & 25 November and 8 & 9 December.

Some of the content included in this article originates from 'Eat, Drink and Be Merry', an entertaining and interesting book looking at Christmas traditions past. This is available in our Online Shop.

Christmas Events

Enter a world of Christmas past this festive season, from carol singing to meeting Father Christmas.

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Make Your Own

Victorian Christmas Wreath

Wartime Christmas Pudding

Elizabethan Leach  

Plum Cake (1897)

Mincemeat (1855)

Rabbit Soup (1880s) 

Pigeon Pie with feet (abt.1865)

Gingerbread Cake (1880s)

Plum Pudding (1901) 

Elizabethan Gingerbread

Medieval Hot Wine

Victorian Ginger Beer

Queen Victoria's Christmas Day Menus