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17 Dec 2020

A Georgian House Christmas

Written by Sheonagh Martin, Visitor Services Manager
A cake decorated with white icing and swans sits on a cake stand on a table. Ivy and dried orange slices hang over it.
Twelfth Night cake
Visitors to the Georgian House at No 7 Charlotte Square often ask us how the first owners, the Lamont family, would have celebrated Christmas when they lived here between 1796 and 1815. How was their home decorated? What traditions and customs were observed? What did they eat and drink? If only we could time travel and drop in on John and Helen as they celebrate the festive season with their family and friends!

Without written accounts from the Lamonts themselves, we can’t answer these questions definitively. But we can paint a vivid picture based on our knowledge of the time, and have fun imagining how the Lamonts may have celebrated ‘the most wonderful time of the year’ in this beautiful Georgian townhouse.

Two women and a man in Georgian period costume stand in front of a fireplace in a Georgian drawing room. A small Christmas tree with presents underneath stands at the window.
The Lamonts at Christmas

A potted history

Christmas in Scotland was known as Yule (also Yhoill or Yuil) from Old Norse. Yule festivities in late 18th-century Edinburgh would have been a blend of Celtic, Norse and Christian traditions. Celtic and Norse celebrations focused on the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, and involved bringing greenery into the house as a symbol of life, and the lighting of fires to banish the dark. Initially, the Church tried to stop these practices as they viewed them as pagan rituals. But time, and people’s unwillingness to give up these customs, led the Church to relent and they became part of the Christian celebration of ‘Christ’s Mass’, marking the birth of Jesus.

Prior to the Reformation of the Church in Scotland in 1560, Yule celebrations were similar to those across Catholic Europe, with games, gifts and feasts. After 1560, traditional feasting days and church holidays, including Christmas Day, were actively discouraged and in 1640 an Act of the Parliament of Scotland abolished the ‘Yule vacation and all observation thereof in time coming’.

Christmas Day only became a national holiday in Scotland in 1958, with Boxing Day following later in 1974. Here, Yule festivities and holidays were simply moved back a week, with merriment, frivolity and excess taking place on Hogmanay instead!

A Georgian Christmas

In the late 18th and early 19th century, Christmas for the wealthy in Edinburgh was a month-long celebration involving parties, balls at the New Assembly Rooms on George Street, and family get-togethers. For the Lamonts the Christmas season would begin on 6 December (St Nicholas Day) and continue until 6 January (Twelfth Night). Christmas Day would have been relatively quiet, marked by the family attending church and celebrating at home. Perhaps it was a welcome respite amidst all the festivities!

St Nicholas was a 3rd-century saint who became an inspiration for our modern-day Santa Claus. He dedicated his life to serving the sick and suffering, and is known for giving his money to the poor. Gathered round the fireplace in the parlour, the Lamonts and their friends may have observed some St Nicholas Day traditions, including leaving gifts for each other in shoes or stockings and exchanging other small gifts, such as books, embroidery or wooden toys.

Decorations

We’re certain that the Lamonts would have decorated their home with evergreens, such as laurel, bay, fir, holly, ivy and mistletoe. They were bringing the ‘outside inside’ to cheer their home on dark, cold winter days. We can imagine Helen Lamont and her daughters – Amelia, Georgina, and Helen Elizabeth – assisted by the housemaids, festooning the stairs with garlands, and hanging swags and wreaths on the doors. This ancient tradition was practised by all social classes as evergreens could be gathered freely from woods and forests whatever your situation. Perhaps the servants decorated the servants’ hall too.

Why evergreens? Evergreen plants flourished over winter, making them symbols of continuing life and a promise that vegetation would return in the spring. Holly, ivy and mistletoe had the strongest life symbol as they also bore fruit in winter.

The centre of the Lamont family’s festivities would have been a ‘kissing bough’, very popular in the late 18th century, which they probably hung in the parlour or drawing room. Kissing boughs had a wooden frame which was shaped into a sphere and wrapped with ivy, holly and, most importantly, a bunch of mistletoe. They were adorned with red apples, oranges, spices, ribbons and candles.

A circular 'kissing bough' hangs from a ceiling. It is decorated with ivy and red and green apples.
The kissing bough

Under the bough, the family and their guests would sing carols, play games like hunt the thimble and charades, and exchange many a kiss! We like to imagine the family gathered round the square piano in the drawing room, played by Georgina, and singing carols such as The Holly and the Ivy, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, In Dulci Jubilo, Joy to the World, or Adeste Fideles, all of which are still popular today.

Kissing boughs were gradually replaced by Christmas trees in the latter half of the 19th century. The German custom for trees was popularised by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, when pictures and accounts of the royal trees at Windsor appeared in newspapers and journals from the 1840s.

Fire and light

Bringing fire in the form of a Yule candle or a Yule log into the house was another ancient tradition which the Lamont family most likely observed. Fire was regarded as a substitute for the sun, bringing light into the home and banishing darkness. The Yule candle was also a symbol of Christian belief – Christ as the ‘light of the world’.

The Yule candle was a large ornamental white candle, sometimes decorated with sprigs of holly and other evergreens. The candle would be given as a gift to the family from a close friend and would take pride of place on the dining table. Mr Lamont, with the family beside him, would light it at sunset on Christmas Eve and not extinguish it until dawn on Christmas Day. Burning the candle was believed to confer a blessing on the household. If the candle went out before morning it was an omen of misfortune or death in the coming year!

Yule log burning, dating back to the 8th century, was widely practised in Scotland in Georgian times. Mr Lamont probably went out, with his sons John and Norman, on Christmas Eve to find a hardwood log – oak, willow or birch – for their Yule log. Once home, they would wrap it in hazel twigs and place it in the fireplace. The log would then be ceremonially lit by Mr Lamont using a piece of the previous year’s log. Those sitting round the fire while the log burned would hope to enjoy prosperity and protection over the following year.

The remnants of the candle and log were not thrown away – the Lamonts would keep them in the house to ensure good luck and protection from evil in the year to come.

The Lamont’s festive menu

Food and drink was an essential part of the Lamont family’s celebrations. They attended lavish parties and, naturally, hosted one or two themselves. We would love an invitation! To maintain their reputation as excellent hosts, the food and drink had to be of the highest quality. Their butler would ensure that the finest French wines, claret, port and brandy were served, while for parties the cook would prepare lots of food in advance, including soups such as powsowdie (sheepheid broth), Scotch broth or St Cuthbert’s (creamy chicken soup), as well as a variety of cold dishes, cheeses and sweet confections.

How would you like to try plum porridge? Walter Scott mentioned this popular dish in his poem ‘Old Christmastide’ and it may well have been served to the Lamont’s guests. It came in jelly form and was made from a boiled leg and shin of beef, stock thickened with bread, spices, dried fruit, sugar and wine.

On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the Lamont family would have enjoyed a fine variety of food. Soup to start, followed by roast goose, prime mutton or beef (perhaps from the Lamont estate in Argyllshire), game pies filled with venison and pheasant, mincemeat pies (meat mixed with fruit and spices), goose fat roast potatoes, carrots, cabbage and braised leeks. To finish there would be delicious desserts – Christmas pudding, cranachan and Pitcaithly bannock – a large, round festive shortbread decorated with almonds and crystallised fruit.

Spare a thought for the servants!

The servants – butler, housemaids, cook and kitchen maid – worked hard, 16 hours a day or more, to make the celebrations and festivities possible. This was recognised by the Lamont family and, as was traditional in the Georgian period, they would give their servants the day off on 26 December, when the servants would go home to celebrate Christmas with their families. Mr Lamont would give each servant a ‘Christmas box’ to take with them, containing gifts, clothes and leftover food. This practice goes back to the 17th century, giving us ‘Boxing Day’. The giving of Christmas boxes was a way of helping those less fortunate and had its roots in the Feast Day for St Stephen, which took place on 26 December. St Stephen was associated with charity, and alms boxes in churches were opened on this day and the money distributed to the needy.

Twelfth Night was the last day of the month-long Christmas season. It was an evening when the Lamont family and their servants would celebrate together. For the occasion, the cook baked a ‘Twelfth Night cake’, a rich, crumbly fruit cake decorated with lavish icing. This cake contained a dried bean and a dried pea and all members of the household, including servants, were given a slice. The man who found the bean was King for the night, and the lady who found the pea was Queen. It was a night of games, drinking, lots of food – and great hilarity if a servant found the bean or pea!

Black and white engraving of a family celebrating Christmas around a table.
Celebrating Christmas Georgian-style

On Twelfth Night the family and servants would take down all the decorations, as we do today, and the greenery was burned to protect the household from misfortune in the New Year. Although we have been imagining Christmas with the Lamonts, it’s clear that our Christmas celebrations are not so different.

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