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The approaches to and purpose of Christmas celebrations in the 18th century were, in some ways, quite different from modern festivities. The 18th century’s emphasis on the holiness of the season, decorative styles, and Christmas dinners certainly differ from modern Christmas celebrations. However, despite the differences in time, cultural mores, and religious beliefs, there are some surprising similarities between these two periods. 

The Christmas Spirit

In the 18th century, Christmas celebrations were preceded by and infused with spiritual preparation for the religious observance of Christ’s birth. Advent, the four-week season before Christmas Day, marked the beginning of the Christian liturgical year and was devoted to penitential reflection and anticipation for the coming of Christ, especially amongst Anglicans and Catholics. Daily prayer and fasting (consuming one meatless meal a day) were recommended forms of self-examination during this season. After weeks of sober preparation, celebrations occurred from Christmas Day through Twelfth Night, which falls on January 5, the eve of the Epiphany. Twelfth Night was marked by games, dancing, eating, and singing.

 

Modern Christmas celebrations are less focused on the spiritual preparation for Christmas and more on the festivities leading up to, during, and after the season in preparation for New Year’s Day. The focus is more on family gatherings and food rather than games and singing. After that point, modern Christmas celebrations, especially in America, grind to a halt. However, Twelfth Night celebrations do still occur in areas of Europe, with fewer games and more emphasis on eating and drinking.

Deck the Halls, Depending on Socioeconomic Status

During the 18th century, gifts at Christmas were often offered before Christmas, on December 6, St. Nicholas Day. Gifts were few and were generally either Christmas “boxes” or small amounts of money. Often the gifts were given to tradesmen and servants on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26. Wealthy people would give offerings and alms to the poor through the church. Christmas was a lean time for the lower class and poor during the 18th century. Work came to a stop during the holidays. Some landowners would give gifts of blankets, food, or money to their workers during this hiatus.

 

An emphasis on gift-giving and materialism often dominates the more secular modern approach to this season. Current Christmas celebrations often place a heavy focus on gifts, especially for family members and children. Advertisements and societal pressure prompt many people to feel compelled to buy the perfect gift at sometimes exorbitant prices.

 

Whereas the 18th century Christmas celebrations and gift-giving were for adults, today’s Christmas celebrations are often for children, especially when it comes to presents. The two eras are similar in that people who are better off in modern times have many opportunities to volunteer or donate funds and essential goods to the less fortunate through charities, churches, and other religious organizations.

The Holly and The Ivy

Christmas decorations and songs are as popular now as they were in the 18th century, where poor and rich alike decorated their homes; for the wealthy, those homes were vast, and for the poor, houses were today’s equivalent of the tiny home. Although today, decorations can be seen soon after Halloween, in the 18th century, households were undecorated before Christmas Eve; decorating any earlier than this date was considered unlucky. Yule logs were on the fire Christmas Eve, and various greenery, including ivy, holly, mountain laurel, evergreens, and mistletoe decorated the inside and outside of the home. Spices and herbs, such as rosemary and bay, lavender, rose petals, and candles were popular decorations hung above doors and ceilings where people would enter the home, greet each other, and embrace.

 

Twenty-first-century decorations retain some elements of 18th century traditions, but with a modern twist. Rather than candles, electric and solar lights brighten homes, and instead of actual spices and herbs, air fresheners and fragrances reproduce those smells in workplaces and houses. One of the most recognized modern decorations, the Christmas tree, is the centerpiece of most homes, stores, and churches. Trees are decked out in lights and ornaments, and artificial trees used as well as natural ones. In the early 18th century, however, the Christmas tree had yet to emerge as a fashionable decoration. The custom was not established until 1848 when a print of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and the royal family in a circle around a decorated tree ran in Illustrated London News.

Holly Jolly Christmas Pie

For both modern and 18th century holiday celebrants, food was a focal point of Christmas Day. In both eras, the amount of food on the table depended on an individual’s financial status. Wealthy families had more lavish dinner spreads, including freshly slaughtered beef, seafood, goose, ham, and turkey, as well as mincemeat pies, brandied peaches, and plum-cakes. Upper-class households typically offered a wide array of alcohol such as wine, rum punches, and brandy. Less well-to-do families made do with what they could, and their tables were often laid out with sparse pickings, usually tougher meats such as rabbit. Often, the poor were the people cooking food for the rich. By the Victorian era, the Christmas pie was the feature of the table. The pie consisted of a mixture of truffles, pigeons, ducks or pheasants, and turkey with thyme, parsley, cloves, pepper, and nutmeg for seasoning.

 

Modern Christmas dinners feature foods, especially fruits and meats, that were difficult to serve during the 18th century due to availability and meal planning and food preservation techniques. With refrigeration, stoves, and microwaves, it’s much easier to cook and serve fresh meat, even if it is processed. Fresh fruits and vegetables are readily available in grocery stores, and therefore, unlike 18th century life, those items are never entirely out of season. As for pies, the Victorian Christmas pie is no longer the focus of dinner. Dessert pies, such as pumpkin, apple, or cherry pies, are the pies of choice found on many 21st century Christmas dinner tables.

Traditions and Changes

A few 18th century Christmas traditions still exist in some form today. The importance of family gathering, decorations, and food are definite links between these two times. But where the late Georgian and Victorian eras viewed Christmas as a holy time with a focus on reflection, company, and good cheer, today’s Christmas season is often characterized more like a burden to be endured with gift-giving, over-indulging, and overspending. If one looks closely enough, however, the echoes of 18th century Christmas traditions can still be found in the modern era.

 

About the Author:
Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.