For the last few months, I have been volunteering at The Georgian House. Situated in the heart of Edinburgh’s New Town, The Georgian House is a restored late 18th century townhouse, once owned by John Lamont (the 18th chief of the Clan Lamont). Today it is a show house, designed to show what life was like for those above and below stairs in 18th century Edinburgh. Each room is full of Georgian furniture, rugs, knickknacks and art, giving you the genuine feeling of stepping back in time.
I have loved volunteering there and will do a longer post next year on what to expect from a visit to The Georgian House (and why you should definitely pop in to say hello if you’re ever in Edinburgh!), but I wanted to tell you about this month in particular because we’ve been doing some pretty cool stuff this Christmas! For one thing, I have been dressing up, along with some of the other volunteers, as members of the Lamont family for our event ‘Meet the Lamonts’. Visitors could interact with us (we’re in character the entire time!) and learn about life for the Lamont family and their servants. I was dressed as Georgina, the 2nd daughter of John Lamont, but we also had people portraying the butler, our housekeeper, the cook, and more.
The house was also decorated for Christmas and part of our job was to discuss with the visitors how a family like the Lamonts would have celebrated Christmas in Georgian Edinburgh.
So how would the Georgians celebrate Christmas?
For the rest of this post, I’ll talk a bit about Christmas festivities in 18th century Edinburgh and then next week, we’ll look at how it was celebrated over in the American colonies. Let’s explore!
Firstly, when is Christmas?
For the Georgians, Christmas was not two days (Christmas eve and day) but in fact an entire season. Christmas was a month long celebration that involved parties, dances, meals etc. It ran from December 6th (St Nicholas Day) until January 6th (Twelfth Night). Our modern shortened Christmas came into being when employers needed their workers to work throughout the festive period (remember how angry Scrooge gets when his employee, Bob Cratchit, wants the day off for Christmas?) So it was a festive, party-filled period for socializing and family get-togethers, which readers of Jane Austen novels might be familiar with, as the characters are always visiting friends and family (and celebrating!) during this time of year.
How was it different from modern Christmas celebrations?
A lot of the Christmas traditions that we associate with the holiday today did not come into practice until the Victorian period. The Christmas tree, for example, was not widely practiced outside of Germany until Victorian times, when Prince Albert famously introduced the tradition into English society. Christmas cards as well did not really come in until the Victorian period. We didn’t have Santa Claus as we know him yet either (more on that next week).
They did however sing Christmas carols. Elite young ladies and gentlemen would often be taught to play an instrument, and the family could gather round and sing. ‘Joy to the World’ was already around, as was ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’. (I wonder if people got as sick of hearing these same tunes as I do of modern Christmas songs…)
People of all social classes could decorate their homes for Christmas because decorations were often natural elements brought in from the outside. People brought in evergreens (holly, mistletoe, ivy etc.) and festooned the house with them. Greenery was a symbol of the promise that life would return in spring (if that sounds vaguely pagan, then you’re right! The idea comes from pagan traditions.).
One tradition practiced by many in this period was the Yule Candle. It was a big white candle lit by the head of the household at sunset on Christmas Eve and then allowed to burn throughout the night. It was believed to be bad luck if it burned out before Christmas morning. In Scotland, the Yule candle was not to be purchased, but given as a gift to the family and typically sat on the dining table where Christmas Eve dinner was eaten. And speaking of which…
What did they eat?
Obviously this would vary widely depending on region and social class. For a wealthy family like the Lamonts, vension might have been the meat of choice. Other typical Christmas foods were cheeses, soups, and minced pies (which were made with real mince in them! And similar spices to our modern mince pies: cloves, mace etc.). A popular drink was a Wassail bowl, similar to a mulled wine: cooked with spices and sweetened wine or brandy, served in a large bowl garnished with apples. I’ll talk a bit more about Christmas food next week, in my post about Christmas in the American colonies.
So that is a bit about Christmas festivities in Georgian times! I hope that it was informative and if you want to pay a visit to The Georgian House, I believe it will be decorated until January 5th. Be sure to check opening times on The National Trust’s Website before you go! Alas, I will not be there dressed up (our ‘Meet the Lamonts’ reenactment events are finished for the year), but there will be helpful volunteer guides in each room and it would be fun and Christmas-y nonetheless. A lot of the information from this blog post I learned from a very informative little booklet The Georgian House has made this year about Georgian Christmas traditions, including recipes, which you can pick up there for a small donation if you’re curious! I have also included some further reading below if you want to learn more about Christmas in Georgian Britain. Next week, we’re sailing across the Atlantic to British America!
Thanks very much for reading. I hope you’re having a great holiday season. Cheers!
If you’re still looking for Christmas gifts, might I suggest giving the gift of poetry? I have a new poetry pamphlet coming out next year (!) and my publisher, the wonderful Edinburgh-based Stewed Rhubarb, is offering a subscription service called marvelously The Fellowship of the Stewed Rhubarb. Members of the ‘fellowship’ get each of Stewed Rhubarb’s new poetry pamphlets mailed out to them as they are published next year. That’s four, new Scottish poetry books (mine included!) which will arrive in the mail to you throughout 2020. It’s the gift that keeps on giving!
This subscription service is a new initiative to support Scottish poetry and writers like me, and if we don’t get enough subscribers, we won’t be able to go forward with the project. So if you have a literature lover in your life, or if you are one yourself, it would be lovely if you joined us! Support the arts in Scotland and get four great books out of the deal. You can find all the details here. Thanks!
Further Christmas reading:
The Keeping of Christmas: 1760-1840, published by Fairfax House in York, England, text and design by Peter Brown (I got this little book as part of Fairfax’s house exhibition ‘The Keeping of Christmas’ and it’s very useful. Can’t seem to find it online, but here’s the link to Fairfax House)
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (Okay so it’s not Georgian, but I believe that everyone should read this. It’s entertaining, compassionate and timely. I re-read it every year)
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!