Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Christmas in Georgian England Included Christmas Trees and Turgoosen Pies

I am equally amused and frustrated by the annual kerfuffle over American holiday traditions. Amused because I can see humor in the absurd, and frustrated because I hear so many people defending the sanctity of particular Christmas traditions with no idea of their actual provenance.

So I am always fascinated to learn more about Christmas traditions in previous centuries. I had read many years ago that the Christmas tree was introduced into England by the German-born Prince Albert. While I had known that, by Albert's time, England had already been importing its royalty from various German states for a century, I assumed that the popularity of the young royal couple allowed the Prince Consort to introduce innovations in a way that his predecessors had not.

As it turns out, Prince Albert did not introduce the Christmas tree to England. Mass media coverage of the royal Christmas decorations in Victorian times (thanks to the proliferation of literacy and inexpensive magazines) made the Christmas tree popular among the common people for the first time, but the upper classes had been putting up and lighting Christmas trees in their houses since the first decade of the 19th century. The first documented English Christmas tree was set up by Queen Charlotte in Windsor in 1800. So if you read a Regency romance with a Christmas theme, and there is a Christmas tree, it is not an anachronism (assuming it is at an aristocratic gathering).

I was highly amused by this reference to a traditional Yorkshire Christmas pie from 1788. While it is not quite a turducken (because it features a goose rather than a duck nested between the turkey and chicken), it is superior to that modern symbol of excess, because inside the chicken is a pigeon inside a partridge. The pie also includes rabbit and miscellaneous game birds, but they are left outside the matryoshka fowl.

Here is another bit of 18th-century trivia related to German Christmas celebrations. Most Americans of a certain age remember (thanks to Schoolhouse Rock) that the continental army "surprised the Hessians in their lair" after crossing the Delaware "one night" but few realize that night was Christmas. The date chosen was likely deliberate, as one of General Washington's officers wrote "They make a great deal of Christmas in Germany, and no doubt the Hessians will drink a great deal of beer and have a dance to-night. They will be sleepy to-morrow morning."

The assumption about beer-drinking was likely incorrect, as another witness wrote afterward:  "I am certain not a drop of liquor was drunk during the whole night, nor, as I could see, even a piece of bread eaten." The element of surprise was sufficient to carry the day.

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