Christmas Ideas from the National Trust

When you are making up your Christmas list for yourself or for lucky giftees, you might want to take a look at the National Trust’s gift shop.

The historic Blewcoat School on Caxton Street in London is a to-die-for shop you won’t want to miss next time you are in London.  But if you can’t quite make it to London this holiday season, shop on line here.  There is something for everyone.

If you live in the US and travel to Britain, you should join the Royal Oak, the US support group for the National Trust. It will give you free admission to Trust properties, newsletters and magazines from both organizations, discounts on purchases, and a great deal of satisfaction.  I have often shown my Royal Oak membership card at a Trust stately home and received a big cheer from the volunteers.  “We love our Royal Oak members,” they always say.  Additional perks are invitations to special programs in major US cities by traveling lecturers and authors sponsored by the Trust and the Royal Oak — and some travel tours that sound brilliant. Or if you are in Britain or elsewhere, join the Trust. And memberships make great gifts too.

As you will see on their website, the Trust’s shops have a wide variety of books. The Christmas recipe collection above is on my list, for sure.

A few more selections… of 100’s.

Or you could choose a photo album and fill it with your own snapshots.

As seen in the examples above, the Trust sells magnificent prints, many by renowned photographers, suitable for framing.

The National Trust runs many shops both in cities and on their properties. They are always good for a browse.

Many popular items such as ceramic mugs and pieces of china compete with wonderful lotions and soaps, silk scarves and shawls, umbrellas and even hiking shoes.  Here are two more books I covet:

Could someone please contact Santa and give him my list?

Photos from the National Trust.

What Christmas Is In Country Places by Charles Dickens

If we want to see the good old Christmas— the traditional Christmas—of old England, we must look for it in the country. There are lasting reasons why the keeping of Christmas cannot change in the country as it may in towns. The seasons themselves ordain the festival. The close of the year is an interval of leisure in agricultural regions ; the only interval of complete leisure in the year; and all influences and opportunities concur to make it a season of holiday and festivity. If the weather is what it ought to be at that time, the autumn crops are in the ground; and the springing wheat is safely covered up with snow. Everything is done for the soil that can be done at present; and as for the clearing and trimming and repairing, all that can be looked to in the after part of the winter; and the planting is safe if done before Candlemas. The plashing of hedges, and cleaning of ditches, and trimming of lanes, and mending of roads, can be got through between Twelfth Night and the early spring ploughing; and a fortnight may well be given to jollity, and complete change.

Such a holiday requires a good deal of preparation: so Christmas is, in this way also, a more weighty affair in the rural districts than elsewhere. The strong beer must be brewed. The pigs must be killed weeks before; the lard is wanted; the bacon has to be cured; the hams will be in request; and, if brawn is sent to the towns, it must be ready before the children come home for the holidays. Then, there is the fattening of the turkeys and geese to be attended to; a score or two of them to be sent to London, and perhaps half-a-dozen to be enjoyed at home. When the gentleman,or the farmer,or the country shop-keeper, goes to the great town for his happy boys and girls, he has a good deal of shopping to do. Besides carrying a note to the haberdasher, and ordering coffee, tea, dried fruit, and spices, he must remember not to forget the packs of cards that will be wanted for loo and whist. Perhaps he carries a secret order for fiddlestrings from a neighbour who is practising his part in good time.

There is one order of persons in the country to whom the month of December is anything but a holiday season—the cooks. Don’t tell us of town-cooks in the same breath! It is really overpowering to the mind to think what the country cooks have to attend to. The goose-pie, alone, is an achievement to be complacent about; even the most ordinary goose-pie ; still more, a superior one, with a whole goose in the middle, and another cut up and laid round ; with a fowl or two, and a pheasant or two, and a few larks put into odd corners; and the top, all shiny with white of egg, figured over with leaves of pastry, and tendrils and crinkle-crankles, with a bunch of the more delicate bird feet standing up in the middle. The oven is the cook’s child and slave; the great concern of her life, at this season. She pets it, she humours it, she scolds it, and she works it without rest. Before daylight she is at it—baking her oat bread; that bread which requires such perfect behaviour on the part of the oven! Long lines of oat-cakes hang overhead, to grow crisp before breakfast; and these are to be put away when crisp, to make room for others; for she can hardly make too much. After breakfast, and all day, she is making and baking meat-pies, mince-pies, sausage-rolls, fruit-pies, and cakes of all shapes, sizes, and colours.

And at night, when she can scarcely stand for fatigue, she banks the oven fire, and puts in the great jar of stock for the soups, that the drawing may go on, from all sorts of savoury odds and ends, while everything but the drowsy fire is asleep. She wishes the dear little lasses would not come messing and fussing about, making gingerbread and cheesecakes. She would rather do it herself, than have them in her way. But she has not the heart to tell them so. On the contrary, she gives them ginger, and cuts the citron-peel bountifully for them; hoping, the while, that the weather will be fine enough for them to go into the woods with their brothers for holly and ivy. Meantime, the dairy-woman says, (what she declares every Christmas,) that she never saw such a demand for cream and butter; and that, before Twelfth Night, there will be none. And how, at that season, can she supply eggs by scores, as she is expected to do. The gingerbread baked, the rosiest apples picked out from their straw in the apple-closet, the cats, and dogs, and canary birds, played with and fed, the little lasses run out to see what the boys are about.

The woodmen want something else than green to dress the house with. They are looking for the thickest, and hardest, and knottiest block of wood they can find, that will go into the kitchen chimney. A gnarled stump of elm will serve their purpose best; and they trim it into a size to send home. They fancy that their holiday is to last as long as this log remains; and they are satisfied that it will be uncommonly difficult to burn up this one. This done, one of them proceeds with the boys and girls to the copses where the hollies are thickest; and by carrying his bill-hook, he saves a vast deal of destruction by rending and tearing. The poor little birds, which make the hollies so many aviaries in winter, coming to feed on the berries, and to pop in among the shining leaves for shelter, are sadly scared, and out they flit on all sides, and away to the great oak, where nobody will follow them.

For, alas! there is no real mistletoe now. There is to be something so called hung from the middle of the kitchen ceiling, that the lads and lasses may snatch kisses and have their fun; but it will have no white berries, and no Druidical dignity about it. It will be merely a bush of evergreen, called by some a mistletoe, and by others the Bob, which is supposed to be a corruption of ” bough.” When all the party have got their fagots tied up, and strung over their shoulders, and button-holes, hats, and bonnets stuck with sprigs, and gay with berries, it is time they were going home ; for there is a vast deal to be done this Christmas Eve, and the sunshine is already between the hills, in soft yellow gushes, and not on them.

A vast deal there is to be done; and especially if there is any village near. First, there is to dress the house with green; and then to go and help to adorn the church. The Bob must not be hung up till to-morrow: but every door has a branch over it; and the leads of the latticed windows are stuck with sprigs; and every picture-frame, and lookingglass, and c
andlestick is garnished. Any “scraps” (very young children) who are too small to help, pick up scattered holly-leaves, and, being not allowed to go upon the rug, beg somebody to throw them into the fire; whence ensues a series of cracklings, and sputtering blazes, and lighting up of wide-open eyes. In the midst of this—hark ! is not that the church bell? The boys go out to listen, and report that it is so;—the “Christmas deal” (or dole) is about to begin; so, off go all who are able, up to the church.

It is very cold there, and dim, and dreary, in spite of the candles, and the kindness, and other good things that are collected there. By the time the bell has ceased to clang, there are a few gentlemen there, and a number of widows, and aged men, and orphan children. There are piles of blankets; and bits of paper, which are orders for coals. One gentleman has sent a bag of silver money; and another, two or three sheep, cut up ready for cooking; and another, a great pile of loaves. The boys run and bring down a ladder to dress the pillars; and scuffle in the galleries; and venture into the pulpit, under pretence of dressing the church. When the dole is done and the poor people gone, the doors are closed; and, if the boys remain, they must be quiet; for the organist and the singers are ‘going to rehearse the anthem that is to be sung to-morrow. If the boys are not quiet, they are turned out.

There is plenty of bustle in the village. The magistrates are in the long room of the inn, settling justice business. The inn looks as if it were illuminated. The waiters are seen to glide across the hall; and on the steps are the old constable, and the new rural policeman, and the tax-collector, and the postman. It is so cold that something steaming hot will soon be brought for them to drink; and the poor postman will be taken on his weak side. Christmas is a trying season to him, with his weak head, and his popularity, and his Christmas-boxes, and his constant liability to be reported.

Cold as it is, there are women flitting about; going to or from the grocer’s shop, and all bringing away the same things. The grocers give away, this night, to their regular customers, a good mould candle each, and a nutmeg. This is because the women must be up by candle-light to-morrow, to make something that is to be spiced with nutmeg. So a good number of women pass by with a candle and a nutmeg; and some, with a bottle or pitcher, come up the steps, and go to the bar for some rum. But the clock strikes supper-time, and away go the boys home.

Somebody wonders at supper whether the true oval mince-pie is really meant to be in the form of a certain manger; and its contents to signify the gifts, various and rich, brought by the Magi to that manger. And while the little ones are staring at this news, somebody else observes that it was a pretty idea of the old pagans, in our island, of dressing up their houses with evergreens, that there might be a warm retreat for the spirits of the woods in times of frost and bitter winter storms. Some child peeps timidly up at the biggest branch in the room, and fancies what it would be to see some sprite sitting under a leaf, or dancing along a spray. When supper is done, and the youngest are gone to bed, having been told not to be surprised if they should hear the stars singing in the night, the rest of the party turn to the fire, and begin to roast their chestnuts in the shovel, and to heat the elderwine in the old-fashioned saucepan, silvered inside. One absent boy, staring at the fire, starts when his father offers him a chestnut for his thoughts. He hesitates, but his curiosity is vivid, and he braves all the consequences of saying what he is thinking about. He wonders whether he might, just for once, —just for this once—go to the stalls when midnight has struck, and see whether the oxen are kneeling. He has heard, and perhaps read, that the oxen kneeled, on the first Christmas-day, and kept the manger warm with their breath ; and that all oxen still kneel in their stalls when Christmas-day comes in. Father and mother exchange a quick glance of agreement to take this seriously; and they explain that there is now so much uncertainty, since the New Style of reckoning the days of the year was introduced, that the oxen cannot be depended on; and it is not worth while to be out of bed at midnight for the chance. Some say the oxen kneel punctually when Old Christmas comes in; and if so, they will not do it to-night.

This is not the quietest night of the year; even if nobody visits the oxen. Soon after all are settled to sleep, sounds arise which thrill through some who are half-awakened by them, and then, remembering something about the stars singing, the children rouse themselves, and lie, with open eyes and ears, feeling that Christmas morning has come. They must soon, one would think, give up the star theory; for the music is only two fiddles, or a fiddle and clarionet; or, possibly, a fiddle and drum, with a voice or two, which can hardly be likened to that of the spheres. The voices sing, ” While shepherds watch’d their flocks by night ;” and then—marvellously enough.—single out this family of all the families on the earth, to bless with the good wishes of the season. They certainly are wishing to master and mistress and all the young ladies and gentlemen, “good morning,” and ” a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.” Before this celestial mystery is solved, and before the distant twang of the fiddle is quite out of hearing, the celestial mystery of sleep enwraps the other, and lays it to rest until the morrow.

The boys—the elder ones—meant to keep awake; first, for the Waits, and afterwards to determine for themselves whether the cock crows all night on Christmas Eve, to keep all hurtful things from walking the earth. When the Waits are gone, they just remember that any night, between this and Old Christmas, will do for the cock, which is said to defy evil spirits in this manner for the whole of that season. Which the boys are very glad to remember; for they are excessively sleepy; so off they go into the land of dreams.

It is now past two; and at three the maids must be up. Christmas morning is the one, of all the year, when, in the North of England especially, families make a point of meeting, and it must be at the breakfast table. In every house, far and near, where there is fuel and flour, and a few pence to buy currants, there are cakes making, which everybody must eat of; cakes of pastry, with currants between the layers. The grocer has given the nutmeg; and those who can afford it, add rum, and other dain
ties. The ladies are up betimes, to set out the best candlesticks, to garnish the table, to make the coffee, and to prepare a welcome for all who claim a seat. The infant in arms must be there, as seven o’clock strikes. Any married brother or sister, living within reach, must be there, with the whole family train. Long before sunrise, there they sit, in the glow of the fire and the glitter of candles, chatting and laughing, and exchanging good wishes.

In due time, the church-bell calls the flock of worshippers from over hill, and down dale, and along commons, and across fields: and presently they are seen coming, all in their best,—the majority probably saying the same thing,—that, somehow, it seems always to be fine on Christmas-day. Then, one may reckon up the exceptions he remembers; and another may tell of different sorts of fine weather that he has known; how, on one occasion, his daughter gathered thirty-four sorts of flowers in their own garden on Christmas-day; and the rose-bushes had not lost their leaves on Twelfth Day; and then the wise will agree how much they prefer a good seasonable frost and sheeted snow like this, to April weather in December.

Service over, the bell silent, and the sexton turning the key in the lock, off run the young men, out of reach of remonstrance, to shoot, until dinner at least,—more probably until the light fails. They shoot almost any thing that comes across them, but especially little birds,— chaffinches, blackbirds, thrushes,—any winged creature distressed by the cold, or betrayed by the smooth and cruel snow. The little children at home are doing better than their elder brothers. They are putting out crums of bread for the robins, and feeling sorry and surprised that robins prefer bread to plumpudding. They would have given the robins some of their own pudding, if they had but liked it.

In every house, there is dinner to-day,—of one sort or another,—except where the closed shutter shows that the folk are out to dinner. The commonest dinner in the poorer houses —in some parts of the country—is a curious sort of mutton pie. The meat is cut off a loin of mutton, and reduced to mouthfuls, and then strewed over with currants or raisins and spice, and the whole covered in with a stout crust. In some places, the dinner is baked meat and potatoes: in too many cottages, there is nothing better than a morsel of bacon to flavour the bread or potatoes. But it may be safely said that there is more and better dining in England on Christmas-day than on any other day of the year.

In the houses of gentry and farmers, the dinner and dessert are a long affair, and soon followed by tea, that the sports may begin. Everybody knows what these sports are, in parlour, hall, and kitchen :—singing, dancing, cards, blind-man’s buff, and other such games; forfeits, ghost-story telling, snap-dragon;— these, with a bountiful supper interposed, lasting till midnight. In scattered houses, among the wilds, card-playing goes on briskly. Wherever there are Wesleyans enough to form a congregation, they are collected at a tea-drinking in their chapel; and they spend the evening in singing hymns. Where there are Germans settled, or any leading family which has been in Germany, there is a Christmastree lighted up somewhere. Those Christmastrees are as prolific as the inexhaustible cedars of Lebanon. Wherever one strikes root, a great number is sure to spring up under its shelter.

However spent, the evening comes to an end. The hymns in the chapel, and the carols in the kitchen, and the piano in the parlour are all hushed. The ghosts have glided by into the night. The forfeits are redeemed. The blind-man has recovered his sight, and lost it again in sleep. The dust of the dancers has subsided. The fires are nearly out, and the candles quite so. The reflection that the great day is over, would have been too much for some little hearts, sighing before they slept, but for the thought that to-morrow is Boxing Day; and that Twelfth Night is yet to come.

But, first, will come New Year’s Eve, with its singular inconvenience (in some districts) of nothing whatever being carried out of the house for twenty-four hours, lest, in throwing away anything, you should be throwing away some luck for the next year. Not a potatoparing, nor a drop of soap-suds or cabbagewater, not a cinder, nor a pinch of dust, must be removed till New Year’s morning. In these places, there is one person who must be stirring early—the darkest man in the neighbourhood. It is a serious thing there to have a swarthy complexion and black hair; for the owner cannot refuse to his acquaintance the good luck of his being the first to enter their houses on New Year’s day. If he is poor, or his time is precious, he is regularly paid for his visit. He comes at daybreak, with something in his hand, if it is only an orange or an egg, or a bit of ribbon, or a twopenny picture. He can’t stay a minute,—he has so many to visit; but he leaves peace of mind behind him. His friends begin the year with the advantage of having seen a dark man enter their house the first in the New Year.

Such, in its general features, is Christmas, throughout the rural districts of Old England. Here, the revellers may be living in the midst of pastoral levels, all sheeted with snow; there, in deep lanes, or round a village green, with ploughed slopes rising on either hand: here, on the spurs of mountains, with glittering icicles hanging from the grey precipices above them, and the accustomed waterfall bound in silence by the frost beside their doors; and there again, they may be within hearing of the wintry surge, booming along the rocky shore; but the revelry is of much the same character everywhere. There may be one old superstition in one place, and another in another ; but that which is no superstition is everywhere;—the hospitality, the mirth, the social glow which spreads from heart to heart, which thaws the pride and the purse-strings, and brightens the eyes and affections.

Merry Christmas!

Victoria's Family Christmas

That would be Victoria H. not Victoria R. — you’ve already heard about her Christmas.

My family always had an English Christmas dinner, complete with Roast Beef, Yorkshire Pudding and for dessert, Plum Pudding made by my grandmother, known as Mimi, from a recipe suposedly brought to the U.S. by her grandmother (my great-great grandmother) Elizabeth Stanley about 1850.

Elizabeth and Thomas Stanley came by ship from Liverpool to New Orleans and up the Mississippi to St. Louis. They traveled east across Illinois almost to the border with Indiana, the Wabash River.

 There, in the little town of Albion, Illinois, they settled.  They had come from their home in Yorkshire with eight children including a pair of 2-yr.-old twins.  I can’t begin to imagine what they endured.  A final son was born to them in 1852, named George Washington Stanley, my great-grandfther.  He became the sheriff of Edwards County, IL, of which Albion was the seat.  So Mimi (1890-1975) spent a part of her childhood in a house on Court House Square which also held the office and jail as well as the residence of the county’s leading law enforcer.

Some weeks before Christmas, Mimi chose a piece of flour sacking which she boiled until it was absolutely sterile.  Once the batter and fruits were mixed, they were piled onto the cloth, then it was gathered up and tied at the top and steamed in a large boiler, the kind of copper boilers they did laundry in.

This hanging pudding-filled cloth on a broomstick over the boiling water steamed the pudding into a round shape.  One of the crucial moments was after the puddding had cooled — peeling the cloth off without tearing the “skin” of the pudding.  Many laments often accompanied this operation, but it had nothing to do with the taste of the pudding.
What does affect the taste of the pudding (besides the ingredients) are the sauces — my Grandmother always served two, one warm, one room temperature — and the ceremonial flaming with warmed brandy in a darkened dining room, at which moment everyone oohed and aahed and Mimi said, “Well, it isn’t as good as last year’s.”  We all disagreed, to her pleasure, year after year.  If you try it, warm the brandy before pouring it over the pudding. If it is not warmed a bit, it won’t have the lovely blue flame you want. 
Plum pudding is a traditional dish and a traditional symbol of Britain. Here is a cartoon by James Gillray from 1805 called the Plum-pudding in Danger — showing the English possessing the sea while the French carve off Europe.
Here is my Grandmother’s recipe, accompanied by the two sauces.

Mimi’s Old English Plum Pudding

4 C. flour
1 C. butter or 3 scant C. suet, finely chopped
1 box currants, washed and dried well
1 box seedless raisins
1 box golden raisins
Optional: other dried fruits and nuts, such as candied orange or lemon peel, dried apricots, cherries, dates, chopped almonds, etc.
2 C. granulated sugar or brown sugar or one C. each
1 t. cinnamon
1 t ground ginger
Sprinkle of nutmeg
½ t. cloves (optional)
3-4 eggs
1 t baking soda
Milk by the spoonful

Sift flour, sugar and spices into large bowl. Add butter or suet, currants and raisins, and other fruits and nuts, as desired. Beat eggs and add to dry mixture, stirring well.

Add baking soda dissolved in a little hot water. Mix and stir to a stiff batter with milk. The mixture should be stiff enough that a wooden spoon will stand up in the batter.

Dip a pudding cloth (cotton flour sacking) in hot water, then dredge with flour. Add pudding mix and bring edges of cloth together and tie loosely (not real close to the pudding at the top).

Boil four hours in large kettle, placing the pudding into boiling water to cover. For round shape, tie top of cloth to a stick across the top of the pan.

OR: put pudding into a mold and steam according to directions for steamed puddings in any cookbook.

Note: Pudding should be served hot; may be prepared several days before serving and resteamed when served.

Place on platter and stick Holly in the top. Pierce with fork in several places. Warm brandy and pour over the pudding. Light and present to table with blue flames dancing on the surface of the pudding. Serve with warm lemon sauce and/or hard sauce. Keeps well in refrigerator if wrapped in foil.

Mimi’s Lemon Sauce for Plum Pudding

1 c. granulated sugar
2 T cornstarch
2 C boiling water
4 T butter
3-4 T Lemon Juice
¼ t. salt

Mix sugar and cornstarch, add water gradually, stirring constantly. Boil for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, add butter, lemon juice and salt. Serve warm over slices of plum pudding.

’s Hard Sauce for Plum Pudding

1-2 C. powdered sugar
½ C. Butter
2 t. vanilla
Dash of rum or rum flavoring

Mix ingredients and beat until light and creamy. Refrigerate.

Happy Christmas!!

A Christmas Complaint

The following letter, published under the heading It Is Lucky That Christmas Does Come But Once A Year, first appeared in an 1853 volume of Punch.

DEAR PUNCH.-I live in lodgings. I am one of those poor unfortunate helpless beings, called Bachelors, who are dependent for their wants and comforts upon the services of others. If I want the mustard, I have to ring half-a-dozen times for it; if I am waiting for my shaving water, I have to wander up and down the room for at least a quarter of an hour, with a soaped chin, before it makes its appearance.

But this system of delay, this extreme backwardness in attending to one’s simplest calls, is invariably shown a thousand times more backward about Christmas time. I am afraid to tell you what I have endured this
Christmas. My persecutions have been such as to almost make me wish that Christmas were blotted out of the Calendar altogether.

I have never been called in the morning at the proper time. My breakfast has always been served an hour later than usual—and as for dinner, it has been with difficulty that I have been able to procure any at all!
This invasion of one’s habits and comforts is most heart-rending; and the only excuse I have been able to receive to my repeated remonstrances has been, ‘Oh, Sir, you must really make some allowances; pray recollect, it is Christmas time.’

Last week I invited some friends to spend the evening with me—but I could give them neither tea, nor hot grog, nor supper, nor anything—because, ‘ Please, Sir, the servant has gone to the Pantomime—she’s always allowed to go at Christinas time.’

Hang this Christmas time! My canary died this morning. Upon inquiry I found that it had not had any seed or water for three days, Every one was so busy at. this time of the year. It was lucky, I thought, that I had some more expressive means of making my wants known than my poor starved canary, or else I should have shared its unhappy fate a week ago.

A day or two before Christmas Day my dress boots burst, and I sent them to be mended, with a pressing request that they might be sent home immediately. Well, Sir, from that day to this, I have never seen my dress boots. The only explanation I get to my frequent inquiries is, “Very sorry, Sir, but it is impossible, Sir, to get the men to work at this time of the year.” It has been the same with a dress coat, which was split down the back. The tailor informs me, with a face as long as his pattern-book and containing nearly as many colours, that ‘he regrets it extremely—but every one of his workmen have been drunk since Christmas Day – they always do at this period of the year.’

What has been the consequence, Sir? Why I have only one pair of dress-boots, one dress-coat. I am not ashamed to confess I cannot afford more. And the consequence has been, that I have not been able to accept many pleasant Christmas invitations, because I had not the proper attire to go in to them! Instead of amusing myself and others elsewhere, I have been obliged to mope at home over a sickly fire, expiring by inches for the want of a few nourishing coals, and without even a drop of hot water to make myself a comforting glass of grog. Servants, it would seem, have a time-honoured privilege to go out and do just as they please at Christmas time!

I suffered cold, incipient rheumatism, and violent tooth-ache, for three sleepless nights, because there was a broken window in my bedroom. I stamped, I swore, I rung the bell like a madman, but not a person could I get to put in a fresh pane for me. No: ‘It was Christmas time, and the men wouldn’t work, to please anybody.’

The worst yet remains. As I was out walking, a coalheaver knocked against me. He then abused me, and because I complained rather warmly, he bonnetted me, and ultimately knocked me down. I have still the marks of his brutality on both my eyes. Yet, Sir, will you believe it, this savage met me the following morning in Court; his wife was with him, and she said, half-crying, ‘Her husband was very sorry, and so was she; but the fact was, he had taken a little drop too much, but she hoped I would excuse it—it was Christmas time.’ Pretty compensation this to a man who has received a couple of black eyes !

Now, Sir. it seems to me, from the above grievances, (and I have not enumerated one half of them), that Christmas is, with a certain class of people, a privileged period of the year to commit all sorts of excesses, to evade their usual duties, and to jump altogether out of their customary avocations into others the very opposite of them. For myself, I am extremely glad that Christmas does come but once a-year. I know I shall go, next December, to Constantinople, or Jerusalem, or the Minories, or some place where the savage customs I have described do not exist; for I would not endure another Christmas in England for any amount of holly, plum-pudding, or Christmas-boxes in the world.

I have the misfortune to remain, Mr. Punch,
Your much-persecuted Servant,
An Old Bachelor.

Washington Irving's English Christmas

Washington Irving (1783-1859) was born in Manhattan, NYC, and traveled in Europe as a young man and later for business.  He was one of the first genuine American literary geniuses, famous for many stories and essays, especially The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. 

During his travels in England he wrote about Christmas celebrations in the countryside.  Below are a few excepts…for the entire text click here.  This is a long account, so I have eliminated large parts, which may be of interest to you, but in the spirit of the season, here is a taste…

Christmas in England

“…Of all the old festivals that of Christmas awakens the strongest and most heartfelt associations. There is a tone of solemn and sacred feeling that blends with our conviviality, and lifts the spirit to a state of hallowed and elevated enjoyment. The services of the church about this season are extremely tender and inspiring. They dwell on the beautiful story of the origin of our faith, and the pastoral scenes that accompanied its announcement. They gradually increase in fervour and pathos during the season of Advent, until they break forth in full jubilee on the morning that brought peace and good-will to men. I do not know a grander effect of music on the moral feelings than to hear the full choir and the pealing organ performing a Christmas anthem in a cathedral, and filling every part of the vast pile with triumphant harmony.

It is a beautiful arrangement, also derived from days of yore, that this festival, which commemorates the announcement of the religion of peace and love, has been made the season for gathering together of family connections, and drawing closer again those bands of kindred hearts which the cares and pleasures and sorrows of the world are continually operating to cast loose; of calling back the children of a family who have launched forth in life, and wandered widely asunder, once more to assemble about the paternal hearth, that rallying-place of the affections, there to grow young and loving again among the endearing mementoes of childhood. …

The English, from the great prevalence of rural habits throughout every class of society, have always been fond of those festivals and holidays which agreeably interrupt the stillness of country life; and they were, in former days, particularly observant of the religious and social rites of Christmas. It is inspiring to read even the dry details which some antiquarians have given of the quaint humours, the burlesque pageants, the complete abandonment to mirth and good-fellowship with which this festival was celebrated. It seemed to throw open every door, and unlock every heart. It brought the peasant and the peer together, and blended all ranks in one warm generous flow of joy and kindness. The old halls of castles and manor-houses resounded with the harp and the Christmas carol, and their ample boards groaned under the weight of hospitality. Even the poorest cottage welcomed the festive season with green decorations of bay and holly–the cheerful fire glanced its rays through the lattice, inviting the passenger to raise the latch, and join the gossip knot huddled around the hearth, beguiling the long evening with legendary jokes and oft-told Christmas tales.

… The traditionary customs of golden-hearted antiquity, its feudal hospitalities, and lordly wassailings, have passed away with the baronial castles and stately manor-houses in which they were celebrated. They comported with the shadowy hall, the great oaken gallery, and the tapestried parlour, but are unfitted to the light showy saloons and gay drawing-rooms of the modern villa.

Shorn, however, as it is, of its ancient and festive honours, Christmas is still a period of delightful excitement in England. It is gratifying to see that home feeling completely aroused which seems to hold so powerful a place in every English bosom. The preparations making on every side for the social board that is again to unite friends and kindred; the presents of good cheer passing and repassing, those tokens of regard, and quickeners of kind feelings; the evergreens distributed about houses and churches, emblems of peace and gladness; all these have the most pleasing effect in producing fond associations, and kindling benevolent sympathies. Even the sound of the waits, rude as may be their minstrelsy, breaks upon the mid-watches of a winter night with the effect of perfect harmony. As I have been awakened by them in that still and solemn hour, “when deep sleep falleth upon man,” I have listened with a hushed delight, and, connecting them with the sacred and joyous occasion, have almost fancied them into another celestial choir, announcing peace and good-will to mankind.

How delightfully the imagination, when wrought upon by these moral influences, turns everything to melody and beauty: The very crowing of the cock, who is sometimes heard in the profound repose of the country, “telling the night-wa
tches to his feathery dames,” was thought by the common people to announce the approach of this sacred festival:

“Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;

The nights are wholesome–then no planets strike, no fairy takes, no witch hath power to charm, So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.”

Amidst the general call to happiness, the bustle of the spirits, and stir of the affections, which prevail at this period, what bosom can remain insensible? It is, indeed, the season of regenerated feeling–the season for kindling, not merely the fire of hospitality in the hall, but the genial flame of charity in the heart….”

Have a happy, old-fashioned holiday!!