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Everyone knows how Christmas looks today, but some people wonder how Christmas time looked like in the past. The 18th century was both a time of violence because of the reactions against the rich and a time of economic expansion and Enlightenment thinking. The century witnessed plenty of events that marked world history in one way or another. Christmas is one of the things that suffered changes throughout history, and this article will present what was so different about this time of the year.

How long did Christmas last?

The Christmas season was not identical to how people know it today. The holy days of Christmas were part of a 40-day cycle that people respected religiously. Today, people offer tremendous attention to the first and second day of Christmas. The Christmas lasted this long because of what the Gospels of St. Luke and Matthew narrated. By reading these narratives, people would know the events that they would celebrate during Christmas.

The events took place on 25th of December, which is still celebrated today as The Nativity of Jesus, 1st of January, 6th of January (the Epiphany) and 2nd of February. Of course, the days between these intervals also meant something. People in the 18th century celebrated the octave week, which began on the 25th of December and lasted until the 1st of January. The end of the octave week was not the end of the Christmas holiday cycle though. 40 days after The Nativity of Jesus the Purification of the Virgin Mary took place. Clergymen sometimes held special celebrations on the 27th of December. As you may notice yourself, Christmas was perceived from an exclusively-religious point of view. Today, people see it more as family-bonding time, while just a few still hold on to religious traditions.

How about gift giving?

Gift giving was present in the 18th century, even for the poorer families. The Christmas holiday meant no working days, and employers would give their workers money to buy gifts for their family members. The less fortunate were given blankets and food for the Christmas time. The church also made donations to the poor around Christmas time. The wealthy families were giving gifts to each other, as well as to their servants. Another common habit was to offer money as a gift. Because all gifts were offered in boxes, the tradition still stands today. Christmas was a time of being kind, of offering goods to other people – everyone was happy during this season, including the lower-class families.

Were homes decorated in the 18th century?

One of the first questions that pop in the head of people when they think about Christmas during the old times has to do with decorations. Were houses decorated the same? Was the Christmas tree a thing back then? Well, yes – both houses and churches were decorated in a specific manner during the 18th century, but they were not the Christmas hanging decoration type you see today. Most decorations were made out of natural materials and homes didn’t look as fancy as nowadays. Churches included more decoration elements during Christmas time compared to houses. In England, decorated trees were introduced by the Victorians, as well as cards, cookies and the Father Christmas legend. Somewhere in the 17th Century, Oliver Cromwell banned the Christmas holiday entirely.

The widely known decoration item that was presented in most homes at the time were garlands. Garlands are still placed on the entrance door today, and people enjoy them just as much as they did years ago. Garlands were made of ivy, holly, and mistletoe, which were also present in most churches. Fruits were quite expensive in the 18th century, so people did not use them as decorations. They were more like a commodity for the aristocracy. People also used flowers and herbs of all types – lavender, rose, rosemary. These herbs were always aromatic in order to leave a specific holiday scent behind. Homeowners used to decorate just the rooms in their houses that visitors reached, usually the hallway, dining room and living room.

Did carols exist?

Yes, and they were considered even more important back then. Carols of all sorts of themed music and even hymns filled the streets during Christmas. Everyone danced and sang along with the street musicians. The 18th-century author that came up with many Christmas songs at that time is Isaac Watts. A few of them are Joy to the World and The First Noel. An old Christmas carol that everyone knows about is O Tannenbaum which translates as O Christmas Tree. This carol has German origins and was published at the beginning of the 19th century. It was probably written during the 18th century, as well as O Come All Ye Faithful.  

Themed food was a thing?

One thing that was particular about the 18th century Christmas is related to food. Unlike the customs adopted nowadays, people used to direct more of their attention to food rather than gifts. The shops were filled with all sorts of foods, the most popular ones being plum pudding and mince pies. One item, in particular, was beautifully ornamented and present in all homes – the plum cake. This tradition has its origins in England, where the Festival of the Kings took place on the 12th night of Christmas, considered by them the culmination of the holiday season. During this festival, a fruit cake named the Twelfth Cake was present on all tables. There were other goodies present on the tables of aristocracy and – in some areas – people used to drink too.

Was Christmas celebrated everywhere?

No, there were some parts of the world that were not celebrating Christmas during the 18th century, mostly because of religious reasons. Calvinists and Protestants were among the people who didn’t celebrate Christmas at all. On the other hand, Anglicans and Lutherans are among the people who respected all traditions during the Christmas season. In Philadelphia, it was stated that Quakers did not celebrate Christmas either. Presbyterian people fall in the same category.