Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Georgian Christmas Table

by Catherine Curzon

“Wickednesse in Christmas: More mischief is that time committed then in all the here besides. What masking and mummyng, whereby robberie, whoredome, and sometyme murder and whatnot is committed? What dicying and cardyng, what eatyng and drinkyng, what banquetyng and feastyng is then used more than in all the yere besides to the great dishonour of God, and impoverishyng of the realme.”

Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper
Or so said the puritans in the late 16th century. With a review like that, it’s little wonder that Christmas was not part of the Protectorate’s plan. After all, where would one be if one were to allow unbridled mumming and masking, let alone the dreaded what not?

I bet they didn’t like pulling crackers either!

When Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas in 1644, it’s probably safe to say that people weren’t happy. Yet the law was the law and there were to be no carols nor gifts, and certainly no festive gatherings, on pain of harsh penalties. Happily, these dour days weren’t to last, for we British love a party, and Cromwell’s ban was swept away when Charles II returned to the throne. By the time we reach my own era of interst, the glorious and glittering Georgian period, Christmas was in full-swing once more.

The Georgian Christmas was a long and rather drawn wonderfully drawn-out affair. It began on 6th December, St Nicholas Day, and continued for a whole month until Twelfth Night, which fell on 6th January. On the first day of the season small gifts were exchanged between friends and the month was spent in a variety of festive meet-ups and, among the rich, balls and parties such as those hosted by the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice or the ball at which Sense and Sensibility’s Willoughby dances until dawn breaks. For the poor of course things were rather different, but as far as people were able to mark and celebrate the festive period, they did.

On Christmas Day, the whole country enjoyed a national holiday just as it does today but of course, they didn’t spend it in front of the Christmas telly or bickering over the new board game. Instead, Christmas morning was spent attending church services and for those with money the afternoon was spent  in the dining room, but what did our Georgian ancestors eat?

George I by Sir Godfrey Kneller
Not Terry’s Chocolate Orange, that’s for sure.

The answer, which may or may not come as a surprise, is goose and for some, turkey. Just as it is today, food was an enormously important part of a Georgian Christmas and for those who could really afford to push the boat out, venison was often the dish of the day. It was a symbol of wealth and nobody liked to show off their wealth more than the Georgians. A plum pudding was a popular dish and legend has it that George I requested one for his first Christmas feast in England in 1714, whilst the Christmas Pye, also known as theYorkshire Pie, was hugely popular and perhaps more affordable for some.

Yet not everyone followed the path to game and goose and James Woodforde, however, a clergyman and Oxford scholar, wrote a record of a Christmas table amongst his fellow academics that groaned under the weight of, “two fine Codds boiled with fryed Souls around them and oyster sauce, a fine sirloin of Beef roasted, some peas soup and an orange Pudding for the first course, for the second we had a lease of Wild Ducks roasted, a fork of Lamb and salad and mince pies.”

James Woodforde by Samuel Woodforde
Woodforde was a man of traditional country tastes so his wasn’t an entirely typical dinner. However, it does offer us a valuable insight into what was served at the scholarly table and, just as now, not everyone toed the same line. It was a time to eat well, whatever you chose, and to indulge yourself as much as the budget might allow. For some that was humble indeed, for others it was eye-watering.

The size of one’s festive meal in the 18th century was a measure of a family’s wealth and with wealth came power and prestige. With so much time in the morning spent in church, grander feasts often included an array of cold side dishes to cut down on cooking time, whilst a vast range of meats would be served both hot and cold, alongside a huge selection of vegetables and accompaniments with which the rich piled their plates high. At the end of the meal, desert was often a plum cake alongside the plum pudding or, of course, the traditional rich fruit cake. 

For the poor, things were considerably less grand, but the rich were expected to remember those less fortunate and make gifts of food and other refreshments. Whether they did is another matter, but one can but hope!

Boyce, Charlotte & Fitzpatrick, Joan. A History of Food in Literature. Taylor & Francis, 2017.
Connelly, Mark. Christmas: A History. IB Tauris, 2012.
Crump, William. The Christmas Encyclopaedia. McFarland, 2013.
Davis, Karen. More Than a Meal. Lantern Books, 2001.
Forbes, Bruce David. Christmas: A Candid History. University of California Press, 2008.
Green, Nile. The Love of Strangers. Princeton University Press, 2015.
Macdonald, Fiona. Christmas, A Very Peculiar History. Andrews UK Limited, 2012
Midgley, Graham. University Life in Eighteenth-Century OxfordYale University Press, 1996.
Perry, Joe. Christmas in Germany: A Cultural History. University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
Restad, Penne L. Christmas in America: A History. Oxford University Press, 1996.
Spacks, Patricia Meyer. Privacy: Concealing the Eighteenth-Century Self. University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Stubbes, Phillip. The Anatomie of Abuses. W Pickering, 1836.
Woodforde, James. The Diary of a Country Parson, 1758-1802 Canterbury Press, 2011.

All images from Wikipedia.
Catherine Curzon is a royal historian. She is the author of Life in the Georgian CourtKings of Georgian Britain, and Queens of Georgian Britain

She has written extensively for publications including, the official website of BBC History Magazine, Explore History, All About History, History of Royals and Jane Austen’s Regency World. Catherine has spoken at venues and events including the Stamford Georgian Festival, the Jane Austen Festival, Lichfield Guildhall, the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich and Dr Johnson’s House. In addition, she has appeared with An Evening with Jane Austen at Kenwood House, Godmersham Park, the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, the Jane Austen Festival, Bath, and the Stamford Georgian Festival.

Her novels, The Crown SpireThe Star of Versailles, and The Mistress of Blackstairs, are available now.

Catherine holds a Master’s degree in Film and lives in Yorkshire atop a ludicrously steep hill.

Connect with Catherine through her website (, Facebook, Twitter (@MadameGilflurt)Google PlusPinterest, and Instagram


  1. I enjoyed your post. Somehow we have the impression that people ate few vegetables then; I'm always surprised by the number of vegetable dishes I find when I'm rooting around in early cookbooks.

    1. I've got a wonderful cookbook from the 18th century that is intended for people who can't afford meat. It contains self-improvement essays from the marvellously named Dr Lobb too!