Christmas Past

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The name Christmas comes from Christes Maesse. In mediaeval times, the festivities ran from Christmas Eve to Epiphany (6 January). The first record of Christmas festivities is the 14th Century romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which takes place in the hall of Camelot. Carols date at least from this period, as Sir Gawain, visiting another castle, joined his hosts ‘with Canticles of Christmas and Carols new’. Mince pies also date back to this time, but they then contained shredded meat (thus the name) and fruit and spices. Christmas dinner would have consisted of goose or venison, followed by plum pudding.

The Tudor monarchs regularly spent the Christmas season at Richmond Palace. Charles I spent Christmas there in 1638 where a number of plays were performed for the Court.

The Christmas tradition lasted until the Civil War, when the victorious Parliamentarian puritanical leaders banned all Christmas festivities including the Christmas dinner. After the Restoration, Christmas Day was once again a holiday, but more subdued. In 1660, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary that after Church he dined with his wife and brother on mutton and chicken and then again to church.

In the 18th Century there was a change in attitude. George I reintroduced the custom of eating plum pudding and in 1800, Queen Charlotte introduced the German custom of the Christmas tree, though it did not become popular until, the Illustrated London News printed an engraving of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their family around their Christmas tree in 1848.

Many Christmas traditions began in the Victorian era, such as the sending of cards, made possible by the introduction of cheap postage. In 1880, 11 million cards were printed and one can see from the Richmond and Twickenham Times that many Richmond shops were advertising Christmas cards.

Turkeys had been introduced from the New World sometime before, but the Victorians made it the popular Christmas dish. Before that the well-to-do would have generally eaten roast beef. The Victorians also omitted meat from their mince pies.

The custom of exchanging presents returned and many stores in Richmond were advertising their wares. Hammonds were offering Turkeys at 6s 6d, while Goslings were offering 5% discount for ‘ready cash’. However, Christmas was in some ways different from today. The Richmond and Twickenham Times (December 1900) said that, while at Christmas there were usually far less railway passengers than other Bank Holidays, that year was even quieter.

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