Many of the Christmas traditions enjoyed by the English during the Edwardian era were similar to those we enjoy in the US today, but some are quite different. I loved learning more about Edwardian Christmas traditions as I did research for my novel, The Governess of Highland Hall, which is set in the fall and winter of 1911- 1912.
Preparations for the Christmas holiday began the last Sunday before Advent, which was called Stir Up Sunday. A rich plum pudding batter was prepared, using some ingredients that sound a little odd to an American, including beef suet and brandy. But I suppose you have to taste it to appreciate it. Each member of the family would take a turn stirring the pudding batter and add a good-luck coin that would be discovered on Christmas day when the pudding was served. It was then steamed for six hours and stored over a month for the flavors to ripen. On Christmas day it is steamed again for an hour and a half, then more brandy was added and it was served flaming. The flames were originally meant to represent Christ’s passion.
Other traditional food served on Christmas included roasted nuts, minced pies, dates, figs, chocolate, boar’s head, sheep’s tongue, roast pork, goose, or turkey. The birds would be stuffed with chestnuts, pork, and apple stuffing, and sprinkled with fat and salt, then served with apple, gooseberry, and bread sauces. Besides plum pudding and fruitcake, a rolled Christmas cake called Buche de Noel was often served for dessert.
The Edwardians decorated their homes with holly, ivy, yew, laurel, mistletoe, paper chains, ribbons and candles. But the Christmas tree was not set up until Christmas Eve. It was decorated with paper and glass ornaments as well as toys, sweets, mistletoe, candles, and ribbons. Some families had table-top-size trees, while many had larger, floor-standing trees.
Father Christmas had been a figure in English history since medieval times. He represents the Christmas spirit of goodwill, but he did not bring gifts. He came from Odin and wore a blue-hooded cloak and white beard, and had an evergreen wreath around his head. St Nicholas, the Christian saint, visited Dutch children on Christmas Eve and left toys and candy in their straw-filled clogs. If the children were bad a birch rod would be left instead of sweets. By Edwardian times, Father Christmas and St. Nicholas had merged together, and Father Christmas was pictured in a red suit and brought gifts to good children who hung up their stockings on Christmas Eve.
Christmas cards were very popular during the Edwardian period. Since postage rates were so inexpensive, many Christmas cards were sent and received by friends and family.
Christmas Day would have started with the family attending a church service, although some families attended on Christmas Eve. Before dinner was served at mid-day, they pulled open paper Christmas crackers and put on paper hats. After dinner, they enjoyed playing games and gathering around the piano to sing carols. Some of the favorites were ‘Good King Wenceslas’, ‘It Came Upon the Midnight Clear’, ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman’, and ‘Once in Royal David’s City’. This last carol had Victorian moral for young: ‘Christian children all must be mild, obedient, and good as He’. Wealthy families might have had gramophone to play their favorite Christmas music.
Gifts for adults included pens and stationery sets, manicure & grooming kits and for the wealthy, driving clothing and caps, with Burberry being the leading brand.
For boys, toy soldiers were very popular, and for girls, dolls and tea sets. For younger children, wooden animals and wooden alphabet & number blocks. Some of these would have been bought in department stores, which had emerged in the late 1860s, and were a mainstay of Christmas shopping rituals by the Edwardian period.
The day after Christmas, Boxing Day was celebrated, and gifts were given to those in need. It was also a day of sports and outdoor entertainments, such as ice skating and hunting. But the cinema was becoming more popular, and movies made especially for Christmas, such as an early adaptation of Dickens’ Christmas Carol were shown and enjoyed by many.
Do you think you’d enjoy Christmas in Edwardian England? Which Christmas tradition is your favorite?