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Feasts & Fancies



Celebrating Christmas in England


The counterpart of the modern dessert, the banquet or sweetmeat course that followed an elaborate meal was a combination of both food and entertainment. Sweet foods were often prepared from published recipes: for example sugar paste or marmalade: and were sometimes believed to act as aphrodisiacs. Elaborate vessels made from expensive materials appeared on the banquet tables of the wealthy and enhanced the appearance of the sweets. Trenchers decorated with verses to be read aloud made the tablewares part of the banquet entertainment.

 

Elaborate foods and drinks played important roles in Christmas celebrations during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Christmas festivities often ended with a Twelfth Night banquet on the sixth of January, and the Christmas season was the time when the yeomanry and apprentices demanded finer quality bread and ale than they ordinarily received. This tradition, called "wassailing," provided an important opportunity for the gentry to demonstrate their hospitality. As Thomas Tusser counseled his readers, "At Christmas be merye, & thankful withall/ & feast thy poore neighbors ye gret with ye small."

 

Religious aspects of keeping Christmas changed during the seventeenth century, although many social customs like wassailing remained intact. Josiah King's book, illustrated here, mocks those who would suppress Christmas. The Puritan jury members are all mean, among them Mr. Eat-alone, Mr. Hoord-corne, and Mr. Cold-kitchin, and they are replaced by Mr. Warm-gut, Mr. Neighbour-hood, and Mr. Open-house, who acquit Father Christmas.


Josiah King. The examination and tryal of old Father Christmas. London, 1687




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