Traditions of Christmas Past

Christmas for many of us is a time for fun and frivolity. It is a time to enjoy the company of family and friends as we celibate the holiday season, observing customs and traditions which began with our ancestors many centuries ago. Surprisingly, some of the celebrations we associate with a typical English Christmas began a long time before Christianity. Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Christ, gradually incorporated many of the old pagan celebrations; but it was not until the reign of Queen Victoria that many of today’s special Christmas traditions became a wonderful part of the yuletide experience. Discover the origins of some quaint traditions in England -Christmas past!

A Medieval Christmas

yule log

The Yule log was carried into the house on Christmas Eve and put into the fireplace of the main room family room. It was decorated with greenery and ribbons and then ceremoniously set alight together with the end of the previous year’s log, which had been saved for this special day. The log was then burnt continuously for the Twelve Days of Christmas, providing much-needed light, warmth and cheer in the cold winter solstice. A kissing-bough was sometimes hung from the ceiling. This would consist of a ball of twigs and attached greenery which was decorated with seasonal fruit, such as apples and oranges. It was later to be replaced mistletoe; under which no lady could refuse a kiss…Although many may have tried!

An Elizabethan Christmas

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The expression ‘eat, drink and be merry’ characterised Christmas in Elizabethan England. The highlight of the holiday was the Christmas feast, in which the wealthy entertained their guests with lavish displays of elaborate dishes. In households wishing to impress important guests, this culminated in a ‘banqueting course’ of sweet and colourful delicacies. Pride of place, was the marchpane, a round piece of almond paste that was iced and elaborately decorated, often with figures made from sugar. Sometimes Gold leaf was used to gild lemons and gingerbread which added colour and splendour to the banquet.  The feast would be accompanied by hot drinks of delicious spiced wines.

A Georgian Christmas

Twelfth Cake1 cropped

Twelfth Night, the 5th of January, has long been celebrated as the end of the Christmas holiday. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Twelfth Night parties were very popular and usually involved playing games, drinking and eating luxurious foods. The special Twelfth Cake, which eventually evolved into the traditional Christmas cake, was the centrepiece of these parties and a slice of the cake was given to every member of the household, including the servants! By the early 19th century, the Christmas cake had increased in popularity. It became very elaborate, with frosting and specially made trimmings and was often decorated with delicate, handmade figures made from sugar paste. If writings from the time are to be believed, the cake looked wonderful and tasted delicious!

A Victorian Christmas

The image of the decorated fir tree, its branches twinkling with lights, is one of the most recognisable images of a ‘traditional’ English Christmas. The Christmas tree was made widely popular by Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert. The custom of the Christmas tree originated in Germany and was introduced into England during the Georgian period. Prince Albert is usually given credit for starting the tradition in England, although his role was actually, to make an existing custom more fashionable! Victoria and Albert shared a heart-warming enthusiasm for Christmas and decorated fir trees became a celebrated feature of Christmas in Victorian England.


Irish Coffee & Classic Hot Winter Drinks

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As the long winter evenings approach and the climate becomes cooler, what could be nicer than to enjoy an exciting spice infused punch, enticing flamed cocktail or wonderfully warming Irish coffee? With such a wide variety to choose from, where did the fashion for hot drinks begin?

As the name suggests Irish coffee did in fact originate from a restaurant near an air base at Limerick in Ireland. In 1942, a young chef was asked to prepare a special drink to warm passengers on a stopover flight to America. He brewed a dark, rich coffee, added some good quality Irish whiskey, a little brown sugar and floated freshly whisked cream on the top. When a surprised American traveller asked, “Is this Brazilian coffee?” the inventive chef, Joe Sheridan replied, “No its Irish coffee!” and the classic hot drink was born.

Irish coffee is not the easiest of hot drinks to make; it can be tricky is to keep the cream separate on the top, instead of disbursed throughout the glass, before serving. To achieve the desired effect, make sure the coffee is piping hot and if you are using single or double cream, pour it slowly over the back of a spoon so that it floats on the top; with whipped cream, spoon it gently on the surface to ensure an attractive serving. Sugar is a matter of taste, the classic Irish recipe specifies brown sugar is be added immediately after the whiskey, but if you are unsure if a guest would appreciate the extra sweetness, then it can be served as an accompaniment after serving.

A perennial winter classic is the drink affectionately called grog. This drink was originally named after a British sea captain nick named ‘old grog’ in the 18th century. The drink consisted of rum mixed with water, a dash of brown sugar and lime. The original recipe has undergone many transformations and refinements over the years, but has become particularly popular in Germany, where it is called ‘Glühwein’ or glow wine, which is a reference to the hot irons which were once used for heating or mulling it.

Punch was introduced to England from India in the early 17th century and it has since become popular though out the world.  It is typically served at parties in decorative glass punch bowls. Recipes vary, but its base should be a spirit such as vodka or rum, alternatively, red wine can be used, to which fruit juice and lime are added; as well as green tea for authenticity.

Mulled wine is the most classic Christmas cocktail; with many connoisseurs believing it represents ‘nostalgia in a glass.’ This hot drink has a traditional, ‘olde-worlde’ flavor, and is an intoxicating mix of red wine and spices, with recipes varying from country to country, defined by local tastes and preferences.

But it is not only the classic hot drinks which have become popular in winter. After dinner cocktails such as a flamed Sambuca or Espresso Martini, may add an extra warm glow to winter dinner parties. For guests with a particularly sweet tooth, a specially laced hot chocolate, topped with marshmallows and cream can be delightful. This delicious drink is especially appreciated by sporting enthusiasts, après-ski.

Classic hot drinks are perennially popular, but there is always room for new invention. So which hot drinks are trending this winter?  In recent months, ‘tipsy hot chocolate’ has established itself as a firm favorite. With names as charming as the ‘Polar Bear Hot Chocolate’ and ‘Russian Hot Christmas’ their popularity is hardly surprising!

Whether your tastes are traditional or experimental, on these crisp, cold days and chilly winter evenings, why not indulge your palette with a classic hot cocktail or exotic winter warmer?

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