In this special festive blog, Yale author Clive Aslet welcomes us in to sit by a warm hearth as he gives a brief history of the Christmas traditions enjoyed (or not enjoyed…) by the residents of stately homes, grand manors and royal courts from medieval times to the present day.
You can find more captivating stories about architectural masterpieces such as Hardwick Hall, Hatfield House and Chatsworth, as well as the cavalcade of characters who lived and worked in them, in Clive’s latest book The Story of The Country House: A History of Places and People.
Clive Aslet discusses the quintessential trimmings of Christmastime at the country house…
In December 1607, Lord Lisle was worried about Christmas. Writing to his wife, Barbara, who kept the home fires at Penshurst Place burning while he was at court, he lamented the unavoidable expense – a man in his position was expected to be prodigal with money, whether he had any or not, and Lisle’s finances were dire. An extravagant present to King James I and his favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, would have been essential to keeping his place. Had he not lived magnificently, other courtiers would have quickly seen he was on the slide. The King himself kept Christmas sumptuously at Hampton Court, with feasting, dancing and masques, where dishes such as peacock, gilded and served with its own feathers, and boar’s head, carried aloft into the hall to the sound of trumpet fanfares, would have been served. It was all part of the tradition of ‘hospitality’, which James saw as an important part of the social glue that kept his kingdom together. Rich subjects were constantly being urged to leave London and ‘repair their mansion houses in the country, to attend their services, and keep hospitality, according to the ancient and laudable custom of England’.
Good Living and Christmas Games
By the time of Lord Lisle’s grumbling letter to his wife, Christmas had long been established as a time of good living. The fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight opens with a magnificent feast: King Arthur is keeping the Christmas season at Camelot, surrounded by the knights of the Round Table and their ladies. When an unknown knight, green from head to toe, rides into the hall and challenges one of the King’s company to cut off his head, it is regarded in the light of a Christmas game – Arthur has already said that he won’t touch his food until something adventurous has happened. The next day, Sir Gawain dons his armour and rides out into the wilds of the countryside, beset by serpents, wolves, bulls, bears, wood satyrs and giants in order to complete the strange knight’s ‘game’. The cruel cold he endures on his mission forms a suitably bleak contrast with the jollity of the Arthurian court at Christmas.
There’s a lingering memory of the Middle Ages in our own celebrations to this day. With few fresh ingredients to be had during the barren winter months, affluent medieval diners in their grand (but draughty) residences placed a premium on dried fruit from sunnier climes, like currants and raisins, mixed with spices and set alight by brandy – behold mincemeat and Christmas pudding, the latter boiled in a muslin bag so that it emerged spherical: ‘a speckled cannonball,’ as it was called in A Christmas Carol. By the nineteenth century, bag puddings made with suet were nothing very remarkable, appearing at the end of numerous meals in Victorian fiction, but the taste of the Christmas pudding remained strange, medieval – and so it still does, which is why many children only suffer it in the hope of being served the coin that is traditionally concealed inside. In the mid-seventeenth century, Oliver Cromwell clearly thought that mince pies retained something of the misbehaving, if not pagan, about them, since he banned them along with other Christmas rituals. The very word mincemeat is non-conforming, since it contains no meat; but originally meat meant any kind of food (hence sweetmeats, or confectionery).
The Christmas Tree
The ubiquitous Christmas tree was made respectable by George III’s German wife Queen Charlotte, who had been brought up to decorate branches of greenery but went the whole hog and bedecked complete trees instead. Evergreen trees had previously been hung, often upside down, outside poorer homes to provide somewhere for the anarchic woodwose — a forest spirit covered in hair, with an alarming sense of mischief — to inhabit, other than the house itself. On country estates, the Christmas tree was often precariously lit with candles, the footmen nervously standing by with buckets of sand in case of fire.
Yet, towering indoor fire-hazards notwithstanding, the Regency Christmas, as described by Jane Austen, was a relatively tame affair, limited to heavy dinners and the occasional dance. A revival came marginally before the Victorian period with A Book of Christmas, written by Thomas Hervey but chiefly remarkable for the enchanting illustrations by Robert Seymour – the mentally troubled first illustrator of Dickens, who sadly killed himself. It appeared in 1836, as part of the same movement that caused the building of pseudo-medieval great halls in country houses. The impressive fireplaces in these new ceremoniously-large spaces were suitable for the burning of enormous yule logs, dragged to the hearth amid rejoicing and kept burning until the New Year. In India, imperial families performed the same ceremony with blocks of ice! Seymour illustrated ‘Old Christmas’ as a Silenus-like figure seated on a goat…the chimney descents came later.
But that’s Christmas – revival, evolution, a birthday party for the baby Jesus, interwoven with folk institutions, some (like mistletoe) pagan, others (like pantomime) baffling. Ancient and laudable customs, like the meaning of hospitality, subtly change over time. They are to that extent like viruses: by mutating they stay alive. But often they get stronger, rather than weaker, and are forever greatly loved. A Merry Christmas to you all.
Clive Aslet is a writer, commentator, historian, editor, and academic. He has written around twenty books on architecture and history and was editor of Country Life magazine from 1993 to 2006.
Click here to learn more about his latest book The Story of the Country House: A History of Places and People.