6 Christmas party tips from the past

Many of our Christmas traditions were started by the Victorians, from cards and crackers to the figure we now recognise as Father Christmas. But there are more festive party tips to be found in history than you might think, whether you take inspiration from a medieval Christmas dinner or let your hair down like the Romans…

A 15th-century miniature from 'La Vraye Histoire du Bon Roy Alixandre'. (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

With this year’s Christmas party season in full swing, here are six tips from history to help you survive…

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1

Ask your boss to serve the food

During the Roman festival of Saturnalia, originally celebrated on 17 December, the ordinarily rigid and conservative social restrictions of the Romans changed. The festival was the Romans’ mid-winter knees up, a holiday of feasting, drinking, singing in the street naked, clapping hands, gambling in public and making noise – but it was also a time to upend the social order.

For example, masters served their slaves during a feast, adults would serve children, and slaves were allowed to gamble. And the aristocracy, who usually wore conservative clothes, dressed in brightly coloured fabrics such as red, purple and gold.

This festive inversion of power was also an entertainment during Tudor times. Inspired by a medieval custom, ‘boy bishops’ replaced high ranking members of the clergy on St Nicolas Day (6 December). They held office until Holy Innocents’ Day on 28/29 December and were deferred to as if they were real bishops, enjoying actual episcopal power. They were even given gifts in reward for delivering sermons.

Illustration showing Roman Saturnalia banquet. (Photo by Alamy)
Illustration showing Roman Saturnalia banquet. (Photo by Alamy)
2

Make up your own carols

If you don’t know the words to popular carols, why not follow in the Victorians’ footsteps and write some of your own?

While the carol we know today as ‘Deck the Halls’ originated in the 16th-century as a favourite Welsh song called ‘Nos Galan’, it wasn’t until the 19th century that it acquired Christmas lyrics. In its earliest form, ‘Deck the Halls’ was a folk song, but one with some rather naughty words. Translated directly, the Welsh lyrics celebrated a “fair one’s bosom”, going on to sing of “blisses, words of love, and mutual kisses”.

Such raucous words would not have suited the prim Victorians, explains Alexandra Coghlan, so when Scottish musician Thomas Oliphant came to write an English text for the melody in the 1860s he started from scratch, using the dancing melody and lively ‘fa la la’ chorus for an altogether more innocent version.

If you’re fed up of Christmas songs, you could also co-opt another holiday favourite: ‘Jingle Bells’ is one of the only Christmas songs that doesn’t mention Christmas, Jesus or the Nativity. That’s because it was written to celebrate Thanksgiving.

3

Give a practical gift

If you’re buying a present for someone tricky this Christmas and you have no idea what to give, or the office ‘Secret Santa’ present has you stumped, take a tip from those who lived through the First World War: give something practical.

A nurse bestows a Christmas gift of cigarettes and apples on a serviceman at a hospital in New York City, c1918. (Photo by Paul Thompson/FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
A nurse bestows a Christmas gift of cigarettes and apples on a serviceman at a hospital in New York City, c1918. (Photo by Paul Thompson/FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

It might have been the Victorians who first “turned the season of goodwill into an orgy of consumption”, but during the First World War, seasonal cheer came up against the grim reality of war. Yet Britain continued to embrace the Christmas spirit, exchanging gifts and hosting celebrations, making do with what they could. As one wartime advertisement said: “It is in keeping with the times that only practical presents shall be given this Christmas.”

Shoppers were encouraged to give useful, sensible items, particularly to their male relatives at the front. Shops entered the season with a raft of tools and tokens to help the fighting man. Suggested gifts included soldiers’ work cases and wallets; warm gloves; pipe sets; correspondence cases; safety razors; tinder lighters and watches. Cigarettes, aka ‘the fuel of the British Army’, were particularly in demand.

4

Tuck into something other than turkey

Nowadays, turkey is a firm favourite for Christmas dinner, and its consumption in Britain dates back to the Tudor era. Henry VIII is the first known English king to have eaten turkey. At that time the bird was seen as something of an exotic delicacy and would have been just one of a variety of fowl to be placed before the hungry monarch. One of the reasons for turkey’s appeal was that it was not only large enough to make a fine display on the table but also had tastier and less stringy flesh than that other exotic royal favourite, the peacock.

Henry VIII is the first known English king to have eaten turkey. Pictured is Charles Laughton in the title role of 'The Private Life of Henry VIII', 1933. (Photo by Alamy)
Henry VIII is the first known English king to have eaten turkey. Pictured is Charles Laughton in the title role of ‘The Private Life of Henry VIII’, 1933. (Photo by Alamy)

However, history shows there are plenty of other choices fit for the festive table. We know the boar’s head was on the medieval menu from the records of the Christmas feasting of Richard de Swinfield, Bishop of Hereford in the 13th century. Along with boar, Richard served beef, venison, partridges, geese, bread, cheese, ale and wine. A chief characteristic of medieval food was its seasonal variation, and would have been flavoured with spices like pepper, ginger, cloves and saffron.

Turkey was also historically an expensive choice. If a working-class family in the 19th century ate a bird, it was more likely to have been a goose, and Christmas ‘goose clubs’ were established to help them save up for it. In Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the poverty-stricken Bob Cratchit scrapes enough money together to buy a goose before the reformed Scrooge presents his family with a massive turkey.

5

Stay calm during your Christmas speech

If you’re tasked with presenting a speech to friends or colleagues this Christmas, and the prospect makes you feel a little queasy, you’re not alone.

King George V makes a speech to the empire on Christmas Day, 1935. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
King George V makes a speech to the empire on Christmas Day, 1935. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Before the first ever Christmas King’s Speech on Christmas Day 1932, King George V was so nervous he was reported as saying that the prospect of making the broadcast ruined his Christmas. The table at which he sat was covered with thick cloth to muffle the rustling of the papers held in his trembling hands.

The king reportedly believed he lacked the sophistication and flair of broadcasters of the time, and as the Christmas message would be a personal address to the nation, he would not be able to disguise this with formality.

Britons watch Queen Elizabeth II’s Christmas message in 1958. (© Topfoto)

Yet the speech was received well: more than 20 million people listened and there was widespread approval of the king’s no-nonsense delivery. His slightly gravelly voice was thought to be particularly well-suited to his image as the ‘grandfather of the empire’.

6

Let your hair down

The winter months have long been a time to celebrate surviving the year gone by and the promise of renewal. Harvests had been gathered, nights had grown darker, and it was time to take some respite from months of hard work.

“Anyone with a passing knowledge of the history of the midwinter festival now known as Christmas,” says historian Dan Snow,“will know that ever since humans became capable of sharing a common culture, they have let their hair down and partied at the time of year when the days are shortest.”

He adds that before Christians began to celebrate 25 December (around 1,500 years ago), “the days around midwinter were a time of rest, banqueting, excess and gift giving. The Slavs enjoyed the rather boisterous Korochun and the Greeks and Romans feasted in honour of Bacchus throughout December, a festival known as the Burnalia which climaxed on the night of 24 December.”

During the midwinter festival of Saturnalia, the Roman historian Livy notes that by 217 BC there would have been a huge public feast at the oldest temple in Rome, the Temple of Saturn, with rowdy participants spilling out onto the street. The participants would shout “Io Saturnalia!” the way we might greet people with “Merry Christmas!”or “Happy New Year’’.

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So, should anyone bemoan Christmas excesses and advise restraint this festive season, why not share the rich history of midwinter partying? As Dan Snow says, “History is on your side.”

Read more about the history of Christmas here