Dr Amy Frost, senior curator at Bath Preservation Trust, reveals how those in the 18th century may have celebrated Christmas
How would Christmas have been celebrated in Bath in the 18th century, especially in an elegant town house like No 1 Royal Crescent? Almost certainly with feasting and festivities that extended over the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas but perhaps in a more low-key manner than we would expect.
The social season in Bath had come to an end by December and regular city activities suspended rather than increased over the Christmas period as the most fashionable members of society left for their country estates. In 1788 Richard Tyson, Master of Ceremonies at the New Assembly Rooms, announced: “Tomorrow being Christmas Day there will be no Cotillion Ball until Thursday 1st January.” There were, however, special Christmas events like Vananzio Rauzzini’s annual Christmas Eve benefit performance of Handel’s Messiah.
On Christmas Day most people in Bath went to the Abbey service, where psalms were sung rather than carols. The day would then focus not on public events, but small sociable gatherings and Christmas dinner at home. For many people in the city it was work as usual – especially for servants employed to ensure the occupants of a house were looked after and well fed.
The Georgians were renowned for their huge appetites and eating well over Christmas was the priority, especially for the main family feast on Christmas Eve. Dining tables groaned under the weight of beef, hams, puddings and mince pies. Early mincemeat recipes contained beef or tongue and mince pies were boat shaped to represent a cradle. Turkey was available but roast beef was still the preferred choice for the Christmas feast. Syllabub glasses were filled with a glistening array of quivering jellies and creams and a magnificent cake was cooked for Twelfth Night (5 January), which by the late 18th century would contain two hidden beans; whoever got the beans in their piece of cake would be crowned the King and Queen for the evening.
It was still customary to welcome guests with a bowl of punch, inspired by one of the oldest English traditions, the Wassail Bowl. Steaming wine infused with roasted apples, sugar and spices might have been prepared by the host himself, it being a potion ‘too abstruse and complex for the comprehension of an ordinary servant’.
“Early mincemeat recipes contained beef or tongue and mince pies were boat shaped to represent a cradle…”
When the hard work was over the servants could settle down to celebrate the day too with a hearty supper of bread, cheese, ale, or posset, perhaps followed by plum porridge. The generous master or mistress might have presented servants with a token gift, the value of which depended on their status within the family, or allowed them to box up the left-overs to take to their own families on Boxing Day. House keepers in country houses were known to spend the forfeits collected all year from the servants (fines for such crimes as wearing a hat indoors, wiping your knife on the table or cutting too much bread) on extra provisions for Twelfth Night.
Christmas decorations were simple and mainly consisted of ‘bringing in the greens’, foliage such as bay, yew or herbs which would have added fragrance to the house. The custom of bringing home the Yule log to burn in the kitchen hearth was still observed, certainly in country houses if not in the town, and it was considered bad luck if it did not burn for at least 12 hours. Large bunches of mistletoe was considered inappropriate as it featured in pagan legends, but it was popular with servants because of its association with love.
Large bunches, or sometimes a ‘kissing bough’ made of a crown of candles within a sphere of evergreens, were often hung up in the kitchen to catch people as they walked past.
The Christmas tree was a German custom originally introduced into England as a table decoration by the German born Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. It was soon copied by a few fashion-conscious aristocrats wanting to emulate the queen. Although trees did not become generally popular until the mid-19th century, this year at No.1 Royal Crescent we too are emulating Queen Charlotte and introducing to our Georgian Christmas decorations a large Christmas tree.
Visit No. 1 Royal Crescent any day until Sunday 17 December to see the house decorated for a Georgian Christmas with greenery, gilded fruit and foodstuffs, spices, sparkling candles, fragrant herbs and the tree. The house, which is decorated and furnished just as it would have been in the period 1776 – 1796, is open daily until 5.30pm (last entry at 4.40pm) and will be open until 7.30pm Saturdays and Sundays in December.