In Britain it’s hard to separate Christmas and the Victorians. Queen Victoria's reign encompassed the expansionism of the British Empire, and that roiling uproar of commercial progress may have helped promulgate the wholesale end-of-year rejoicing that Christmas has come to represent – albeit only for a day, if you were lucky in Dickens' A Christmas Carol.
Before then, Christmas stood in the religious calendar, but wasn't celebrated as a public holiday. Then in 1848 (five years after A Christmas Carol) Prince Albert introduced the Christmas tree to Britain, decorated with sweets and candles reminiscent of his German childhood. It quickly caught on, Christmas cards took off and the first Christmas cracker got pulled. Other new entertainments followed, such as elaborate leafy home decorations, mince pies with sweetmeat not actual meat and the singing of carols with old words set to new tunes.
In fact, most aspects of the tinsel-draped Victorian Christmas weren't new. Their origins lay in centuries-old rituals from the countryside. When Victorian carollers called out for figgy pudding ("We won't go until we get some"), they were harking back at least four hundred years to the wassailers of the village who'd gather outside the manor and tunefully seek charity from their feudal lord, refusing to leave until fed. The Victorians' new hot fruit punch of Smoking Bishop was an update of the wassailers' bowl, while the goose that graced the mahogany table of course fed back to medieval winter solstice feasts. Why not try your own modern version with a punch of goosey Gusbourne and sloe gin? (And remember, a goose is not just for Christmas!)
Beyond the menu, the decorative holly and ivy that decked the halls echoed the mysteries of the pagan-festival Green Man figure dressed as a tree. And before it morphed into a chocolate cake in recent times, the yule log kept burning in the fireplace (of the larger Victorian castles at least) was the direct descendant of the ancient Europe-wide tradition of keeping an enormous log alight for the twelve days of the season, with a host of superstitious significations for the coming year.
Here in Kent, in the rural garden of England, we too have long-held traditions we like to keep alive. One that we observe at the same time every twelve-month involves the gentle opening of a bottle of chilled sparkling wine on the morning of the day we call Christmas.
Image kindly provided by Sorn Fine Goods who have a luxurious Christmas hamper featuring Gusbourne.
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