Christmas as we know it today comes directly from Victorian England.

The cards, carols, crackers, Santa Claus, and of course, the food, is an inheritance from these creative, celebratory people. Let’s take a look at what dinner at the Victorians’ Christmas table would have tasted like.

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I think the iconic Christmas dinner, the one that comes to mind when we think “Victorian Christmas,” would be the Cratchit family meal:

Mrs Cratchit made the gravy (ready beforehand in a little saucepan) hissing hot; Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigour; Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple-sauce…. In half a minute Mrs Cratchit entered — flushed, but smiling proudly — with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.

Dickens’s descriptions of roast goose with sage and onions, gravy, mashed potatoes, apple sauce, Christmas plum pudding and brandy, hot spiced rum, and punch sound perfectly traditional, but in Victorian days this spread would have been a fairly modern development.

 Thank you, Germany.

Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, a German, and Christmas in England was never the same. Of course the day had been celebrated for centuries before the Victorians, but the German influence reignited the holiday’s popularity and made it a day of celebration across the country. Kris Kringle became Father Christmas and the Tannenbaum became a Christmas tree as Britain embraced the holiday spirit.
 
Christmas became a time to lay out your very best–and that included food. Rich pies, meats, and treats were prepared to make the day extra-special.
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The Feast

  • While goose was the Christmas bird of choice (poorer families would actually join a goose club in order to afford it), affluent British households indulged in the American turkey. Roast beef would not look out of place, either. 
  • Mince pies had been popular in England since Tudor times, but were costly, which perfectly suited them to Christmas dinner (at this time people started leaving the meat out of the mincemeat). 
  • The Christmas plum pudding is an essential element of the meal. Mixed together on Stir-Up Sunday, steamed to perfection, then garnished with sauce and holly and set ablaze, this is a treat that must have been eagerly awaited all year long by Victorians young and old.
  • Though often considered prudish, many Victorians were not opposed to alcohol. Rum punch was drunk (though it was something of a throwback to the 18th century), negus, beer, smoking bishop, and eggnog were other warming beverages that would have made a Christmas dinner jolly. 

 Christmas Like It’s 1843

So, do you want to replicate an authentic Victorian Christmas dinner? Maybe you’re not that ambitious and you’d just like to try something a little different this year and incorporate one or two new recipes into your family favorites. 
 
Well I’ve got just the thing for you: Dickensian punch and sugar plums

Charles Dickens’s Punch

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The iconic Victorian himself penned this punch recipe in a letter:

Peel into a very common basin (which may be broken in case of accident, without damage to the owner’s peace or pocket) the rinds of three lemons, cut very thin and with as little as possible of the white coating between the peel and the fruit, attached. Add a double handful of lump sugar (good measure [although Dickens had rather small hands]), a pint of good old rum, and a large wine-glass of good old brandy‹if it be not a large claret glass, say two. Set this on fire, by filling a warm silver spoon with the spirit, lighting the contents at a wax taper, and pouring them gently in. Let it burn three or four minutes at least, stirring it from time to time. Then extinguish it by covering the basin with a tray, which will immediately put out the flame. Then squeeze in the juice of the three lemons, and add a quart of boiling water. Stir the whole well, cover it up for five minutes, and stir again.

 
Modern Redaction
This recipe comes from 12bottlebar.com.
Yield: 8 Cups
 
INGREDIENTS: 
  • Rind and Juice of 3 Lemons
  • 6 oz by weight Demerara Sugar Cubes (see note below)
  • 16 oz Pusser’s Rum
  • 10 oz Remy Martin Cognac
  • 40 oz Boiling Water
METHOD:
  1. Peel all three lemons with a swivel-head vegetable peeler, leaving behind as much of the white pith as possible.
  2. Add rinds, sugar, and spirits to a fire-proof bowl.
  3. Place a warm spoon of spirits over the bowl and light on fire.
  4. Slowly pour the flaming contents of the spoon into the bowl, igniting it.
  5. Let the contents of the bowl burn for 3 – 4 minutes, gently stirring occasionally (be careful not to put out the flame).
  6. Cover the bowl with a lid or metal pan, extinguishing the flame.
  7. Add the juice of the lemons and the boiling water.
  8. Stir, cover for five minutes, and stir again.
  9. Place content of bowl into a loosely covered sauce pan and simmer on the stove for 15 minutes and serve hot.

 

roasting sugar plums by kthread
roasting sugar plums, a photo by kthread on Flickr.

Sugar Plums

 

Perhaps made most famous by the Sugar Plum Fairy in Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker, sugar plums were a labor-intensive but delicious Victorian Christmas treat. This recipe comes from bbc.co.uk.
 
INGREDIENTS:
  • Sugar (approx 1kg/2lb 2oz)
  • 1 jar whole plums (preserved in syrup)
METHOD:
  1. Pour the sugar into a bowl. Shake off any excess syrup from the plums. Roll each plum in the sugar until completely coated. Place each sugar-coated plum onto a baking tray and set aside for 30 minutes, then re-roll the plums in the sugar.
  2. Transfer the sugar-coated plums to the oven, set to its lowest setting. Heat gently for several hours, until the juice has seeped out of the plums. Coat the plums in sugar again, then place the coated plums onto a clean baking tray and repeat the drying process again.
  3. Repeat the re-coating and drying process a further 3-4 times, over a period of several days, until the plums have completely dried out and the sugar coating is crisp. (As the plums dry, the juices will seep out, so they will need to be re-coated in sugar and transferred to a clean baking tray every 1-2 hours.)
  4. Thread with cotton to hang on the tree or place in a keepsake box.
Sources:

Written by Abigail Young

I've had a passion for everything British my entire life, despite being raised as a small-town girl in the American Midwest, After years of dreaming, I got the chance to live and work in England for an entire year. Now I write about my favorite country, and hopefully inspire my fellow Britophiles to get over there and experience it for themselves.

This article has 2 comments

  1. Phoenix Reply

    Hello, I belong to a non profit organization called the dynastic order of the green cross. He are having a Victorian Christmas Celebration and would like to know if you have tried and could share some good Victorian recipes with me so we can recreate them for our event. Thank you for your help

    Phoenix

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