In Journals 5 we looked at one of the travel journals of Max O’Rell, one of my favourite 19th Century travel writers, who infused his work with a great sense of humour. For this Christmas History snippet, I have found a quote from his first book, John Bull and his Island, published in 1883. It is an exploration of England from the perspective of a Frenchman, and includes some explanation about how Christmas was celebrated in England in the Victorian era. The plum pudding he describes sounds somewhat powerful!
Christmas is the great family fete day in England. Rich or poor, every one dines at Christmas. Even the poorest carry, the day before, a miserable little bundle of rags to the pawnbroker, in order to obtain the wherewith to buy a dinner of meat and pudding. Familiar faces are gathered around every fireside. Only at this time of the year does the Englishman lay aside all business cares, and give free scope to feelings of gaiety. On Christmas Eve, Father Christmas, with his long frost-spangled beard, comes down the chimney to fill the stockings that are hung at the bedside, with sweetmeats and toys, just as in France Petit Noel comes and fills the little shoes that are laid in the fireplace. Here New Year’s Day is not kept as a holiday. Christmas-boxes take the place of New Year’s gifts.
The humblest home is decorated with holly and ivy; the poorest housewife prepares her goose and plum-pudding. The English excel in the art of decorating the interior of their houses. The Christmas decorations are sometimes quite artistic, even the simplest give the house a holiday look; you see at once that the day is no ordinary one. Only the postman has a hard time of it; he must carry compliments of the season and good wishes to every door. “To you and yours we wish a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,” this is the formula. The poor modern Mercury takes heart as he remembers that after he has delivered compliments of the season, presents and Christmas-boxes to all, he himself will not be forgotten when the time comes for him to knock at the door and ask for his Christmas-box. No one forgets him. I know of no more universally popular personage than this humble official. Bearer of love letters, post-office orders, cheques, little carefully tied packages, all the more charming that it is difficult to get at their contents, it is who shall be the first to open the door to him. He is welcomed everywhere; smiling faces greet him at every door. In England, the postman is the hero of Christmas-time; so he strikes the iron while it is hot, and on Boxing Day comes round to ask for a reward which all are ready to give without grudging.
The mistletoe plays an important part at Christmas. Besides all the ivy and holly with which looking-glasses and pictures are framed, branches of mistltoe are suspended from the ceiling. This part of the decorating is superintended by the young girls of the family, who have their reasons for making sure that the mistletoe is conveniently placed, for every young fellow who surprises a girl beneath it has a right to put his arm round her waist and give her a kiss.
The king of the day, however, is indisputably the plum-pudding. You should see faces light up with pleasure, and little mouths stretch out on the entry of the majestic monarch, crowned with holly, and exhaling a perfume which brings joy to every heart. I must say that I never properly appreciated the plum-pudding, but I have always accepted a slice. To refuse a helping of this dainty would be to cast a chill over the family feast, to play the sorry part pf a kill-joy: you might as well refuse the bread and salt of Russian hospitality. The English seem to be the only people who appreciate these cakes and puddings, of which the little Corinthian grape is the chief ingredient It is Greece that supplies these little black berries, “If France, Russia, and America,” says M. About in La Grece Contemporaine, “were possessed with the same craving, the consumption of this product would be unlimited, and Greece would have in her vines an inexhaustible source of revenue.”
It is no small matter to make a plum-pudding. Judge for yourself, here is the recipe: Take a pound and a half of raisins, stone them and cut them in halves, and add half a pound of currants. Chop a pound of suet and a pound of orange and lemon peel, and mix with ten ounces of grated breadcrumbs, a pound of flour, a spoonful of baking powder, ten ounces of sugar, half a pound of almonds, eight eggs, salt, spices, half a pint of pale ale, and a quartern of brandy. Mix well and boil for eight hours. If you do not find your pudding tasty enough to please you, I advise you, next time, to add a decoction of half-an-ounce of shag. This will give it a finishing touch. The quantity of beer, brandy, and spice, that a lower class cook puts into her pudding, renders it a perfect ball of fire; you are obliged to grasp the table, and hold on tight, whilst you swallow a mouthful or two of it.
From 1st to 24th December there will be a “Christmas History” article on Windows into History every day, exploring how people spent Christmas in the past through first-hand accounts in forgotten books. Please come back tomorrow for the next article!
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