Earlier in December, heritage perfume brand Penhaligon’s invited a bunch of journalists and bloggers on a walk with Emma Parker of Coutours to learn about some historic sites of London that had connections to Christmas. Nerd that I am, I took notes. In my defence, the evening was like a live version of QI to a backdrop of beautiful London – hardly an opportunity a hardened Victorian fan should let pass without recording for posterity. Here are some of the titillating tidbits I jotted down //
Threatening Carols / An exchange existed between feudal lords and peasants in the middle ages whereby workers on the land would go ‘wassailing’ in return for food and drink from the masters. Though this could be considered an early form of carolling, there’s a threatening element to the wassailing tradition: should adequate food and drink not be provided, rather than heap blessings upon the crops, the workers may curse (or even destroy) them. This is the reason for the slightly menacing lyrics in very old carols such as the 16th Century We Wish You A Merry Christmas (“we won’t go until we get some, so bring some out here”).
The Lazy Reason for Christmas Cards / In 1843, a rather fascinating man called Sir Henry Cole decided that he was a bit sick of writing long epistles to his family and that adding an image would cut down the space upon which to write, thereby reducing the load considerably. This was a savvy move – Cole had introduced the penny post several years earlier, and by encouraging the sending of cards, he would effectively create a need for the service. The first batch of around 1000 featured a family feasting – and a child drinking out of a wine glass.
Oliver Cromwell The Grinch / Cromwell decided that all the traditions that elevated the spirits of those living in dark, dank England during the winter months, were decidedly unchristian as they weren’t in the bible and therefore did away with them all. This, understandably, wasn’t met with cheer – the annual feasting and burning of a yule log continuously over the twelve days of Christmas to bring good luck may well have been pagan, but they also brought much-needed levity.
Dangerous Games & Humble Pie / The first rendition of a Christmas pudding was a pottage containing breadcrumbs. By the late medieval period, dried fruit was added as the sugar would help it to last for longer. This made it clumpy and the current version was born – though the idea of the bomb-shape was likely the result of a Dickensian illustration.
Snap dragon was a popular food-related Victorian game. Don’t try this one at home, folks: they used to take a bowl of sultanas soaked in hot brandy, light the top and try to grab the sultanas. Worryingly, this was considered a suitable game for the kiddies.
The final food-related tale pertains to status. Rich or aristocratic families would sit down to eat beef at Christmas – the bigger the better, as the size of the joint denoted the size of one’s oven and, by extension, bank balance. Servants would be given the offal as a gift. Offal was known as umbles, which gave birth to the expression humble pie.
Pantomime & Breaking A Leg / Panto was born of boredom: it’s a grim time of year and mummer plays were the antidote to being cooped up indoors for hours on end. The tales of good versus evil were pretty simple, with good characters entering on stage right and bad on stage left (left is sinistra in Italian, hence sinister).
I also found the origins of “break a leg” intriguing. Playhouse owner and playwright Samuel Foote used to boast about his skills as an equestrian. The Duke of York tired of this, and gave him an extremely difficult horse to ride one day in 1766. Foote broke his leg badly, after which the Duke felt so bad that he asked his elder brother, George III, to grant the royal warrant to Foote’s theatre. The Theatre Royal Haymarket stands on the very same spot to this day.