Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Regency Christmas Feast

 by Maria Grace

Christmastide celebrations and traditions in the Regency era extended from a week before Advent all the way through to Twelfth Night on Jan 6. During the entire season people held a wide variety of festivities including balls, parties, dinners, house parties and visits, skating and card parties as well as smaller gatherings and even weddings. So many guests could require a tremendous amount of food to be kept on hand. All this celebrating could leave a hostess utterly overwhelmed and exasperated by the end of the season.

Though the Christmas Day feast was a high point in the festivities, other balls and parties, especially on Twelfth Night placed many demands on the Regency kitchen. A wide variety of dishes would be prepared, but a few were particularly favored and iconic.

Boar’s Head and Brawn 

Bringing in the Boar's HeadWild boar was the most feared animal. (Even today feral hogs cause much destruction and anxiety in modern neighborhoods.) Its presence at a meal represented the victory of good over evil. Since wild boar became extinct in Britain during the 17th century a pig’s head was typically substituted.

During the Regency, brawn was a favorite Christmas treat. Recipes for it are reminiscent of modern headcheese featuring ox feet and pork belly boiled and chilled and sauced.

To make Sham Brawn

TAKE the belly piece, and head of a young pork, rub it well with salt-petre, let it lie three or four days, wash it clean; boil the head, and take off all the meat, and cut it in pieces , have four neat's feet boiled tender, take out the bones, and cut it in thin slices, and mix it with the head, and lay it in the belly-piece, and roll it up tight, and bind it round with sheet-tin, and boil it four hours; take it up, and set it on one end, put a trencher on it within the tin, and a large weight upon that, and let it stand all night; in the morning take it out, and bind it with a fillet; put it in spring-water and salt, and it will be fit for use. When you use it, cut it in slices life brawn. Garnish with parsley. Observe to change the pickle every four or five days, and it will keep a long time. ~From Hannah Glasse

Christmas Goose

For most of the 19th century goose the featured poultry of Christmas dinner. Though not so difficult to prepare, the size of the bird often posed challenges for more modest kitchens. Local bakers provided a solution, roasting birds for customers to pick up on their way home from church on Christmas day. Apparently ‘take out’ food is not a new idea.

Mince Meat Pie/ Twelfth Night Pie

Claesz, Pieter - Tabletop Still Life with Mince Pie and Basket of Grapes - 1625
Mince Pie with a basket of grapes
Most also considered mince meat pies, also known as Christmas or Twelfth Night pies staples for a Christmas feast. Recipes varied by region, but usually included beef, poultry and other meats, suet, sugar, raisins or currants, spices, orange and lemon peel, eggs, apples and brandy. Leftovers from the Christmas feast would be used to make pies for the twelve days until Epiphany. Eating minced pie every day of the twelve days of Christmas was said to bring twelve months of happiness in the new year. To strengthen the charm, the pies must be baked by the dozen and offered by friends.

Plum Pudding

The last Sunday in November was known as Stir Up Sunday. On this day, the family would gather to make Christmas puddings which needed to age before they were served at Christmas dinner. The day became known as “Stir Up Sunday,” not because of the great deal of stirring done, but because the opening words of the main prayer in the Book of Common Prayer of 1549 for that day are: ‘Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people...’

Christmas pudding was prepared with 13 ingredients to represent Christ and the 12 apostles then stirred up all family members who must take a hand in the stirring, using a special wooden spoon (in honor of Christ's crib and stable). The stirring must be done clockwise, from east to west to honor the journey of the Magi, with eyes shut, while making a secret wish. After the family stirred the pudding, tiny charms might be added to the pudding to reveal their finders’ fortune. The pudding was steamed in a cloth bag, then hung up to dry on hooks for weeks prior to serving in order to enhance the flavor.

Stirring christmas puddingOnce dried, they were wrapped in alcohol-soaked cheese cloth, stored in earthenware/crockery, and placed somewhere cool for the duration. More alcohol may have been added during this period. The puddings might also have been sealed against air with suet or wax to aid in preservation. When served, they were typically set aflame.

Many households have their own recipe for Christmas pudding, some handed down through families for generations. Two sample recipes from different centuries show remarkable similarity in ingredients.

A boiled Plum Pudding (18th century)

Take a pound of suet cut in little pieces, not too fine, a pound of currants and a pound of raisins storied, eight eggs, half the whites, half a nutmeg grated and a tea spoonful of beaten ginger, a pound of flour, a pint of milk. Beat the eggs first, then half the milk. Beat them together and by degrees stir in the flour then the suet, spice and fruit and as much milk as will mix it well together very thick. Boil it five hours ~Hannah Glasse

Rich Plum Pudding (19th Century)

Stone carefully one pound of the best raisins, wash and pick one pound of currants, chop very small one pound of fresh beef suet, blanch and chop small or pound two ounces of sweet almonds and one ounce of bitter ones; mix the whole well together, with one pound of sifted flour, and the same weight of crumb of bread soaked in milk, then squeezed dry and stirred with a spoon until reduced to a mash before it is mixed with the flour. 

Cut in small pieces two ounces each of preserved citron, orange, and lemon-peel, and add a quarter of an ounce of mixed spice; quarter of a pound of moist sugar should be put into a basin, with eight eggs, and well beaten together with a three-pronged fork; stir this with the pudding, and make it of a proper consistence with milk.

Remember that it must not be made too thin, or the fruit will sink to the bottom, but be made to the consistence of good thick batter. Two wineglassfuls of brandy should be poured over the fruit and spice, mixed together in a basin, and allowed to stand three or four hours before the pudding is made, stirring them occasionally.

It must be tied in a cloth, and will take five hours of constant boiling. When done, turn it out on a dish, sift loaf-sugar over the top, and serve it with wine-sauce in a boat, and some poured round the pudding. The pudding will be of considerable size, but half the quantity of materials, used in the same proportion, will be equally good. ~ Lady's Book, Dec. 1860

Black Butter

Black butter was another traditional treat, mentioned in a letter of Jane Austen’s. It sounds rather unappealing until you realize that black butter contains no butter at all. It is a fruit preserve much like today’s apple butter.

Beurrée d'nièr beurre black butter on breadThis is thought to be Jane Austen’s recipe for Black Butter.

Take 4 pounds of full ripe apples, and peel and core them. Meanwhile put into a pan 2 pints of sweet cider, and boil until it reduces by half. Put the apples, chopped small, to the cider. Cook slowly stirring frequently, until the fruit is tender, as you can crush beneath the back of a spoon. Then work the apple through a sieve, and return to the pan adding 1lb beaten (granulated) sugar and spices as following, 1 teaspoon clove well ground, 2 teaspoons cinnamon well ground, 1 saltspoon allspice well ground.

Cook over low fire for about ¾ hour, stirring until mixture thickens and turns a rich brown. Pour the butter into into small clean jars, and cover with clarified butter when cold. Seal and keep for three months before using. By this time the butter will have turned almost black, and have a most delicious flavour. – Copyright Maria Hubert von Staufer March 1995

Fruit Cake

Decadent fruit cakes, whose consumption was regulated in the 18th century, were enjoyed for special occasions like Christmas. Like the yule log and yule candle, it was considered good luck to save a portion of the holiday fruit cake for the following year. The quantities of alcohol and dried fruit in the cake made it quite possible for it to last that long.


Another perennial favorite, gingerbread often appeared with Christmas desserts.

CakegingerbreadTo make Ginger-Bread Cakes.

TAKE three pounds of flour, one pound of sugar, one pound of butter rubbed in very fine, two ounces of ginger beat fine, a large nutmeg grated.; then take a pound of treacle, a quarter of a pint of cream, make them warm together, and make up the bread stiff; roll it out, and make it up into thin wakes, cut them out with a tea-cup, or small glass; or roll them round like nuts, and bake them on tin-plates in a flack oven.~Hannah Glasse


Not only did special dishes appear on the table for the holidays, but special beverages as well.


Syllabub had several forms, but in all, it was a mixture of alcohol and cream, less potent than eggnog. Some recipes call for making it directly under the cow, but Hannah Glasse recommends three different alternatives, a bit less rustic.

To make Whipped-Syllabubs

TAKE a quart of thick cream, and half a pint of sack, the juice of two Seville oranges or lemons, grate in the peel of two lemons, half a pound of double-refined sugar, pour it into a broad earthen pan, and whisk it well; but first sweeten some red-wine or sack, and fill your glasses as full as you choose, then as the froth rises, take it off with a spoon, and lay it on a sieve to drain; then lay it carefully into your glasses till they are as full as they will hold. Do not make these long before you use them: Many use. cyder sweetened, or any wine you please, or lemon, or orange whey made thus: squeeze the juice of a lemon, or orange, into a quarter of a pint of milk; when the curd is hard, pour the whey clear off, and sweeten it to your .palate. You may colour some with the juice of spinach, some with saffron, and some with cochineal, just as you fancy.

To make Everlasting Syllabubs

TAKE five half pints of thick cream, half a pint of Rhenish, half a pint of sack, and the juice of two large Seville oranges; grate in just the yellow rind of three lemons, and a pound of -double-refined sugar well beat and lifted; mix all together with a spoonful of orange-flower water; beat it well together with a whisk half an hour, then with a spoon take it off, and lay it on a sieve to drain, then fill your glasses. These will keep about a week, and is better made the day before. The best way to whip syllabub is, have a fine large chocolate mill, which you must keep on purpose, and a large deep bowl to mill them in. It is both quicker done, and the froth stronger. For the thin that is left at the bottom, have ready some calf's-foot jelly boiled and clarified, there must be nothing but the calf's-foot boiled to a hard jelly: when cold, take off the fit, clear it with the whites of eggs, run it through a flannel bag, and mix it with the clear, which you saved of the syllabubs. Sweeten it to your palate, and give it-a boil; then pour it into basins, or what you please. When cold, turn it out, and it is a fine flummery.

To make Solid Syllabub

TO a quart of rich cream put a pint of white-wine, the juice of two lemons, the rind of one grated, sweeten it to your taste; mill it with a chocolate mill till it is all of a thickness; then put it in glasses, or a bowl, and set it in a cool place till next day.

Punch and Wassail

Traditional punch bowl
Punch was traditionally taken in company and usually contained large amounts of alcohol. Though the recipes varied, they generally included rum, brandy, port, fruit juice, orange, lemons and their rinds and sugar.

Wassail was essentially punch made with apple cider, spice, sugar, rum and brandy, often served hot. Punch was traditionally served in ceramic punch bowls which were imported into England.

Prior to the 19th century, it was shared from a communal punch bowl, afterwards, it was drunk from smaller punch cups served from the larger bowl. Expensive (sugar, spices and liquor were all expensive commodities) and time consuming (hand peeling, squeezing and sieving fruits) to prepare, punch was certainly not a drink for children and could easily lead to riotous behavior in large quantities.


A Regency Christmas By Kieran Hazzard ©2013 2nd Bn. 95th Rifles
Black Butter: A Christmas Recipe Popular in Jane Austen’s Day 
BLACK BUTTER, A recipe from Jane Austen's Christmas by Maria Hubert. Sutton Publishing 1996
Christmas in the Regency Jo Beverley
Celebrating a Regency Christmas by reginajeffers
Christmas Traditions in Regency England by Regan Walker
Christmas Feast Christmas Pudding
Hale, Mrs. Sarah J. Morton M'michael And Louis A. Godey. Lady's Book, Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, Publishers' Hall, Dec. 1860.
Jane Austen and Christmas: Mrs Musgrove’s Brawn
Jane Austen and Christmas: The Christmas Eve Dinner at Randalls 
Jane Austen and Christmas: Mr Weston’s Wine and Punch
Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. (1784) London:
Rundell, Eliza. A New System of Domestic Cookery. (1814)
Syllabub or Sillabub, Straight from the Cow: We Just Don’t Drink It Like This Any More


 Maria Grace is the author of Darcy's Decision,  The Future Mrs. Darcy and All the Appearance of GoodnessClick here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, follow on Twitter or email her.


  1. They still make black butter on the British Channel Island of Jersey. They do it traditionally around a fire, singing, drinking cider and having general merriment along the way.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Excellent post, Maria! Thanks for sharing! Tweeted as well.

  4. Great post! Reblogged on my site at www.courtneyjhall.com.


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