The flavour of a 19th century Christmas

A Merry ChristmasIn researching my novels, I spend a lot of time immersed in newspapers, letters, diaries and memoirs from the first half of the 1800s. Here’s a selection of extracts to give you the flavour of Christmas in 1824, including some puzzles to amuse you during the holiday.

Christmas reflections

“Whatever may be said of the dissipation of Christmas, we think its recurrence is attended with many excellent effects. In a commercial country like England, where the merchant during the entire year is glued to his desk, and wholly intent on his selfish schemes, his feelings are apt to be frozen over by the palsying power of interest. In counting over his gains, he forgets that others, connected with him, and his equals in rank, and character, may claim a right to share his coffers or his society; and hence the impulse of avarice too often disserves the links in the chain of the family bond, and which go far to injure the strength and durability of the greater chain of society. But when all the members of the family once assemble under the same roof – to commemorate the Nativity of Him who came to destroy all fictitious distinctions, and to partake anew of that festive mirth which delighted their early years, there is a mingling of affection, and a re-union of sympathy, the effect of which is to render men better when they emerge anew into the troubled waters of busy life.” (1)

Christmas customs – US style

“The twenty-fifth of December is the reputed birth-day of our religion (for there are doubts among the chronologers) and should receive that degree of reverence which its grave nature demands. Religion, however, not consisting only in the punctual attention to times and outward observances, but in the purity of the heart, and propriety of the conduct, this day is observed in many sections of our country with different degrees of reverence and attention. Christmas day in the south presents the appearance of a Sunday, while Boston is as full of life and activity as any other day. The customs of our Puritan ancestors have survived in New England…. Every observance that had the remotest resemblance to the pomp of the Romish religion was indignantly banished from their calendar, while the feasts of the English Episcopal Church were cherished in the many of the middle and southern states, and continue at the present day to form a distinctive mark between those different sections of the country.” (2)

Christmas presents – UK style

“It were idle to tell our readers that at this merry and joyous season of the year, when the spirits are all on the wing, and when the imagination is caught be every glittering appearance, it is the customs of reviving and refreshing friendships by some trivial yet suitable offerings. Children receive their wooden horses, their penny trumpets, and Dutch dolls – the charming fair-one luxuriates over her ‘Forget me Not,’ and her ‘Hommage aux Dames’ – and grave and potent Signiors procure their works of edification and instruction. Of what these latter consist it may not be unprofitable to inquire; and as we have been favoured with a list of the presents which are in course of preparation for some of the ennobled of the land, we shall devote a small portion of our columns for conveying this very seasonable piece of information:”

His Most Gracious Majesty [George IV] receives an Imperial Edition of the Holy Scriptures, with notes critical and explanatory on the Seventh and Tenth Commandments, by William Hone, Esquire.’

The Marquis of Conyngham [husband of the King’s mistress] receives West’s superb picture of the spaniel having its ears cropped, and bearing the marks of the lash on its sides.’

His Noble Marchioness [the King’s mistress] receives the last edition of Horne’s Art of Love; printed on Crown paper, 1820. (3)

Christmas cake – New York style

“To make a cake or a comedy is equally an arduous task. To be intimately acquainted with the consistence of flour, the fragrance of fruit, and the intensity of fire, is as necessary for the first purpose as to know the human heart, the colouring of the feelings, or the shafts of wit or ridicule, is necessary for the second. Again the successful writer of comedy receives the praise of critics and the admiration of pretty blue stockings; and there is no reason in nature that the victorious hero in flour, fruit, and firing, should not be crowned with laurel, or powdered from Richmond brand.

“Good cake-makers are more scarce than comedy writers; and whenever a Napoleon among the confectioners appears, we should smack our lips in approbation as the delicious morsel from his oven slides in between them. What are kisses, or nuts, or sugared almonds, or corianders crusted over with the juice of the cane, compared with a mammoth Christmas cake, containing 63 pounds of flour from Utica, 270 pounds of currants from the weeping Grecian isles, 750 eggs from the cackling fowls of Duchess county, besides citron from the east, sugar from the west, and a confectioner of splendid talents and unrivalled genius to blend the productions of different climates together, and from the apparent confusion make the celebrated La Fayette Cake, of 530 pounds, avoirdupois, start into existence.

“In these tranquil times of peace, we are glad to put on the records of history a celebrated action, whether in cake or comedy, in flour or feeling. New York, thy celebrity is great among thy sisters in this western Republic. In this distinguished spot are to be found the fleetest horses, the swiftest boats, the longest canals, the wittiest editors, and the largest Christmas cakes.” (4)

Christmas Day in Paris

“We are requested to state (from authority) that there will be Divine Service and Sacrament tomorrow (Christmas Day), at his Excellency’s the British Ambassador’s, at the usual hour of half-past eleven; and, in consequence of the present limited accommodation, there will also be a Sacrament on the day following. Divine Service will be celebrated at the Oratoire at three o’clock on Christmas Day, and the Sacrament administered at ten o’clock on the same morning….

“[A] grand Mass in Music of the composition of M. Desvignes will be performed with full orchestra at the Cathedral of Notre Dame at ten o’clock in the morning. The Archbishop of Paris will officiate pontifically.

“[T]he Exchange and other Public Establishments will be shut. All the theatres likewise will be closed, except Franconi’s Circus, where equestrian exercises will be performed; and the Theatre of M. Comte, Passage des Panoramas, whose performances are peculiarly adapted to the juvenile branch of society, who always reckon upon amusement at the present season.” (5)

Christmas fooleries

“If we except the great twelfth-night cake, there is no part of the Christmas festivities more attractive than the pantomimes. The relish for plum-pudding is soon gone, and the mistle-toe kiss is forgotten; nay, the last fragment of the cake itself is very seldom placed below the pillow; but the trickery of Columbine and Harlequin, with the buffoonery and grimace of the Clown, form the theme of half a year’s talk among the holyday folk, and are always remembered with pleasure. The managers of our theatres have piously resolved not to abridge this amusement, and old Drury, in the plenitude of his loving kindness, has actually been rehearsing his part ever since he opened his doors.  The Enchanted Courser and the Fire Worshippers were but preludes to the Christmas pantomime; and although both of them were booted from the stage (horses, men, and scenery together), yet this disaster was viewed with great complacency, from the expected glory which was to attend their successor. We are sorry to say that the means have not exactly quadrated with the end; for the pantomime of Monday evening was one piece of dullness and stupidity from beginning to end, and was heard to the close merely through the aid of the tiny voices and the clapping of little hands in the gallery. Notwithstanding, however, its utter insignificance, use and wont compel us to give it a brief notice. It is called Harlequin and the Talking Birds; or, the Singing Trees and Golden Waters, and owes its birth to that fruitful source of romance, the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments.” (6)

Christmas caution

“Ladies, let us entreat ye not to forget the damp and cold nights of this season. Beware of balls and midnight parties – or rather, of the manner in which you quit them. ‘A stitch in time saves nine.’ Cover your throat, ears, legs, and feet well, before you tempt the keen blast or cold shower of two o’clock in the morning. Don’t be ashamed to draw a pair of worsted hose over your silk ones,  nor blush to wrap yourself up in a great coat, should your shawl be too flimsy – nay, spurn not a drop o’ brandy when the cock warns you of your departure from the merry meeting. These things – if you fear death or Doctor’s bill.” (7)

Christmas advertising

“A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year are generally the congratulations at this festive season, and every auxiliary is eagerly sought for the embellishment of the person; the most prominent trait of beauty in either sex is a fine head of hair; its beautiful arrangement is aided and assisted by the wonderful energetic powers of Rowland’s Macassar Oil, which has, by its superior excellence, in promoting the elegance and durability of that grand ornament, gained the admiration of the whole world. Parents and Guardians cannot offer to those under their care a more acceptable present, as that useful adornment attended to in youth is of the highest importance. Conductors of Seminaries will find Rowland’s Macassar Oil indispensably necessary.” (8)

Christmas puzzles

The following puzzles appeared in the Liverpool Mercury, December 27, 1816.

  1. What question in the English language cannot be answered by any other word than ‘Yes’?
  2. Why is the letter S like a furnace for making red hot balls in a battery?
  3. Why is the letter T like an island?
  4. Inscription over the Ten Commandments in Amlwch Church, North Wales. By the repetition of one vowel, the letters will make two lines in verse.
    P r s v r y p r f c t m n
    V r k p t h s p r c p t s t n
  5. A riddle:
    Before creating nature will’d
    That atoms into form should jar,
    By me the boundless space was fill’d
    On me was built the first made star;
    For me the saint will break his word;
    By the proud atheist I’m revered;
    At me the coward draws his sword;
    And by the hero I am fear’d;
    Own’d by the meek and gentle mind,
    Yet ever by the vain possest;
    Heard by the deaf, seen by the blind,
    And to the troubled conscience rest;
    Than wisdom’s sacred self I’m wiser,
    And yet by every blockhead known;
    I’m freely given by the miser;
    Kept by the prodigal alone.
    As vice deform’d, as virtue fair,
    The statesman’s loss, the patriot’s gains,
    The poet’s purse, the coxcomb’s care;
    Read – and you’ll have me for your pains.
  6. It will be found not a little puzzling to repeat the words ‘Good blood, bad blood’ half a dozen times in quick succession.

Answers to Christmas puzzles

  1. What word do the letters Y E S form?
  2. Because it makes hot shot; that is, makes the word hot into the word shot.
  3. Because it is in the middle of WATER.
  4. Add the single vowel e, and it will read:
    ‘Persevere, ye perfect men,
    Ever keep the precepts ten.’
  5. Nothing (9)

Wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas!

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How the 20 Questions game came to America

  1. The Sunday Times (London), December 26, 1824.
  2. The National Advocate (New York), December 25, 1824.
  3. The Sunday Times (London), December 26, 1824.
  4. The National Advocate (New York), December 28, 1824.
  5. Galignani’s Messenger (Paris), December 24 & 25, 1824.
  6. The Sunday Times (London), January 2, 1825.
  7. The Morning Post (London), December 25, 1824.
  8. Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle (London), January 2, 1825.
  9. Liverpool Mercury, January 3, 1817.

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Children receive their wooden horses, their penny trumpets, and Dutch dolls – the charming fair-one luxuriates over her ‘Forget me Not,’ and her ‘Hommage aux Dames’ – and grave and potent Signiors procure their works of edification and instruction.

The Sunday Times