Abroad for Christmas #3

Mrs Beeton 1890s Christmas Plum Pudding illustrationAlfred Basil Lubbock was a maritime author who fought in the Boer War, and wrote about his experiences in Round the Horn Before the Mast, published in 1902.  However, before being sent to the war, his ship was heading to England during the winter of 1899, and talk turned from the end of October onwards as to whether the crew would be able to spend Christmas Day on dry land.

[Sunday 29th October 1899]

There has been a lot of betting lately as to whether we shall be home for Christmas. It is odds on at present…

[Sunday 5th November]

The odds about getting home for Christmas are getting worse.

[Saturday 11th November]

Hopes of getting in by Christmas are fast fading away. The dead muzzier, and his companion the pouring rain, continue to harass us.

[Friday 17th November]

Alas! of all our chickens there are only two left, and if these don’t die of old age, they will be kept for the cabin Christmas dinner.

[Friday 8th December]

Seventeen more days to Christmas, and the great question is, Shall we get home in time?

[Friday 22nd December]

During my wheel in the afternoon I brought her up to N.N.E., but in the dog watch she broke off to E. by N. again. Alas! again this head wind destroys all hopes of Christmas on dry land.

Higgins, Mac, and I have been busy all day in the captain’s cabin polishing the woodwork with a concoction of oil and mustard.

[Monday 25th December]

Truly Christmas day dawned a merry one for us Royalshires.

Soon after four this morning a light gleamed on the blackness of the horizon, and we knew that we were being welcomed by the “Coastwise Lights of England,” as Kipling so graphically puts it…

It was my wheel from 6 to 8, and as it got lighter, the rugged, forbidding coast of Ireland showed itself on our port bow.

Day broke clear and frosty, with a fresh whole sail breeze, and the way we smoked through it showed that the girls had got hold of the towrope…

There was a small pilot cutter bobbing about to leeward of us, and soon after we got going she sent a boat alongside with a pilot.

“Merry Christmas, cap’n,” were the first words he said, and down below the pair of them went, whilst we interrogated the crew and asked eagerly for papers…

Loring and the steward are at a loss what to give us for our Christmas dinner, as all the stores have run out, even the cabin ones, and there is not much left but flour and hard-tack. They had, however, some mouldy old dried apples, and these did the trick.

We did not even get pea-soup, only our ordinary allowance of salt horse, and a small pie for each watch, composed of break-jaw crust and stewed apples.

I don’t believe anybody got through his go of pie. I made a valiant attempt, but failed. The nipper lost a couple of teeth over the job, the crust was too much for him. Mac as usual kept some on his plate for tea; he was not particular, and ate alternate mouthfuls of apple pie, salt horse, and all manner of queer tit-bits on his plate, which always reminded me of the queer things Chinamen eat on the top of their little heaps of rice — rats’ tails, snails, slugs, etc. I believe they are eaten by the Chinese chiefly as appetisers.

The apple pie worked havoc with the insides of most of the crew during the afternoon, and men were to be seen lying about the decks in all directions in all the contortions of cramp in the stomach. It truly was a fine Christmas dinner.


In 1846 The Christmas Holydays in Rome was published, written by the Reverend William Ingraham Kip.  The title is slightly misleading as the book is in fact a journal of a winter spent in Rome, of which the Christmas celebrations for only a small part, but the description of Christmas in Rome over 150 years ago is quite fascinating.  Kip was the rector of a church in Albany, New York at the time, but was subsequently appointed the first Bishop of California.  I am quoting from Kip’s account of Christmas Eve, which is the most interesting.

The Christmas Holydays are at hand, and on every side we hear the note of preparation. The shops are decorated with flowers, while the altars of the churches are arrayed in their most splendid ornaments. The images of the Virgin in particular are seen in their gayest dress, and all the jewelry which the treasury can furnish is brought out to give them an elegant and fashionable appearance.

At this time, too, in addition to the varied population of the city — its priests, soldiers, and beggars, who together form the great proportion — a new accession is pouring in from the surrounding country. The peasants who live in the deserted tombs on the Campagna — the natives of the Alban mountains, fierce banditti-looking fellows, who gather their cloaks about them with a scowling air which would not be at all pleasant to encounter among their own hills — and the Trasteverini, in their picturesque costumes, boasting themselves to be the only true descendants of the ancient Romans, and as proud and haughty in their bearing as if they had also inherited the heroic virtues of their ancestors; — these are to be met roaming about every street, and in the churches, gazing in wonder at their magnificence.

The most singular, however, are the Calabrian minstrels, the pifferari. Their dress is wild and striking, consisting of a loose sheep-skin coat, with the wool left on it, and a high peaked cap, decked with gay ribbons and sprigs of heather, while the huge zampogne of goat-skin is formed like the bagpipes of Scotland, and resembles them too in its shrill music. These interesting characters arrive during the last days of Advent, and consider themselves the representatives of the shepherds of Judea, who were the first to announce the news of the Nativity. Their usual gathering place is on the steps of the Piazza di Spagna, where they lounge and sleep in the warm sun. Every little while a party sets out on a tour through the city, blowing away with the most desperate energy. At the next corner is one of the shrines of the Madonna, and this is their first stopping place, to salute the Mother and Child. Lady Morgan says, it is done “under the traditional notion of charming her labor-pains on the approaching Christmas.” They turn down the Via Frattina, and a short distance farther come to a carpenter’s shop, which must also be favored with a tune, “per politezza al messer San Giuseppe,” — “out of compliment to St. Joseph.” The owner hands them out a bajoccho, and they continue their march until the circuit is completed.

At sundown on Christmas eve, the cannon sounded from the castle of St. Angelo, to give notice that the Holy Season had begun. We were advised to attend service in the Sistine Chapel, and accordingly at an early hour repaired to the Vatican, in which it is situated…

After a while, the rumor began to spread round among the spectators, that the Pope was not to be present this evening, and therefore there would be no High Mass after Vespers. This news apparently made them more restless, and they began to thin out. One party after another passed down the line of guards as they stood like statues, and departed. Many went to the Church of St. Maria Maggiore, to see at midnight the true cradle in which our Lord was rocked carried in procession. Having however little taste for such exhibitions we did not join them. I found indeed, from the account of a friend who witnessed it, that we did not lose much. After standing for some hours in a dense crowd listening to the singing of the choir, a procession of priests carried the Holy Relic across the Church from the sacrisity to the altar. It was enclosed in a splendid coffer of silver with a canopy of gold cloth elevated over it. Banners waved — the lighted tapers were held up — incense rose in clouds about it — the guard of soldiers, and the crowd which filled the Church dropped on their knees — it passed — and the whole show was over.

Near midnight we took our course homeward, beneath as splendid a moon as ever shone, even through the transparency of an Italian sky. In the square before St. Peter’s, the obelisk raised its tapering point up to Heaven, and the fountain on each side flung high its waters, which fell in silver spray as they reflected back the clear light of the moon. We stood for a while on the Bridge of St. Angelo, looking at its beams play upon the Tiber. That mighty fortress — Hadrian’s massive tomb — was frowning darkly above us, and the statues which lined the bridge looked pale and wan in the clear night, till they appeared like pallid phantoms, steadfastly watching the current of time, by which they could be influenced no more.


My Journey to Jerusalem, by Rev. Nathan Hubbell, was published in 1890.  The author shares his thoughts on Bethlehem, and the celebration of Christmas in general, and includes two quotes from poetry.  The first is from The Misletoe Bough, by Sir Henry Bishop, and the second is from Christmas, by Susan Coolidge.

After the return of our company we made a brief visit to Bethlehem. All the “sights” were seen, including the Church of the Nativity, the manger, and the various parts of the building, and near by the field where Ruth, the Moabitess, gleaned the fields of her kinsman Boaz, whom she subsequently married, and where in later centuries the angels appeared to the startled and sturdy shepherds as they announced the birth of Jesus. Our drive from Jerusalem to the ancient city was replete with interest, passing Rachel’s tomb and other noted localities on the way. Darkness gathered around us before we had fully satisfied ourselves in seeing the prominent objects contained in Bethlehem. The touch of time and the wastings of war have, in a large degree, spared Bethlehem, and it remains essentially unchanged. Many of the people are engaged in the manufacture of mother-of-pearl breast-pins, the material being brought from the Red Sea. Some of the designs are very good; they include the dove, the camel, and the Star of Bethlehem…

Radical changes in the mode of observing Christmas have, indeed, been made since the rude period when

“The mistletoe hung in the great castle hall,
And the holly branch shone on the old oak wall.”

The huge wassail bowl of punch has largely been supplanted by the less stimulating beverages of tea and coffee. The crackling yule-log has vanished before the glowing anthracite. The boar’s head has been supplanted by the far-famed turkey. The excited chase and the huntsman’s horn have yielded to the mellow tones of the Sabbath-school bell. Myriads of children in neat attire, with their parents and friends, annually commemorate the season with gospel songs and scriptural recitations at the house of God.

The term Christmas being derived from the Latin words, Christi-Massa, denoting the mass of Christ, should by all means be religiously observed. It is the birthday of the Prince of Peace. The day should not be devoted exclusively to feasting and the bestowal or reception of gifts. Let each human heart be given fully and irrevocably to Him. Acts of charity should, indeed, be numerous and multiform. Heal estrangements and banish hideous hate by the benign principle of love. Not for the day merely, but for all time. Alas ! it often occurs that

” We ring the bells and we raise the strain,
We hang up garlands every-where,
And bid the tapers twinkle fair.
Feast and frolic, and then we go
Back to the same old lives again.”


One of my favourite 19th Century travel writers is Max O’Rell, who infused his work with a great sense of humour.  For this Christmas History snippet, I have found a quote from his first book, John Bull and his Island, published in 1883.  It is an exploration of England from the perspective of a Frenchman, and includes some explanation about how Christmas was celebrated in England in the Victorian era.  The plum pudding he describes sounds somewhat powerful!

Christmas is the great family fete day in England. Rich or poor, every one dines at Christmas. Even the poorest carry, the day before, a miserable little bundle of rags to the pawnbroker, in order to obtain the wherewith to buy a dinner of meat and pudding. Familiar faces are gathered around every fireside. Only at this time of the year does the Englishman lay aside all business cares, and give free scope to feelings of gaiety. On Christmas Eve, Father Christmas, with his long frost-spangled beard, comes down the chimney to fill the stockings that are hung at the bedside, with sweetmeats and toys, just as in France Petit Noel comes and fills the little shoes that are laid in the fireplace. Here New Year’s Day is not kept as a holiday. Christmas-boxes take the place of New Year’s gifts.

The humblest home is decorated with holly and ivy; the poorest housewife prepares her goose and plum-pudding. The English excel in the art of decorating the interior of their houses. The Christmas decorations are sometimes quite artistic, even the simplest give the house a holiday look; you see at once that the day is no ordinary one. Only the postman has a hard time of it; he must carry compliments of the season and good wishes to every door.  “To you and yours we wish a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,” this is the formula.  The poor modern Mercury takes heart as he remembers that after he has delivered compliments of the season, presents and Christmas-boxes to all, he himself will not be forgotten when the time comes for him to knock at the door and ask for his Christmas-box.  No one forgets him. I know of no more universally popular personage than this humble official.  Bearer of love letters, post-office orders, cheques, little carefully tied packages, all the more charming that it is difficult to get at their contents, it is who shall be the first to open the door to him. He is welcomed everywhere; smiling faces greet him at every door. In England, the postman is the hero of Christmas-time; so he strikes the iron while it is hot, and on Boxing Day comes round to ask for a reward which all are ready to give without grudging.

The mistletoe plays an important part at Christmas.  Besides all the ivy and holly with which looking-glasses and pictures are framed, branches of mistltoe are suspended from the ceiling. This part of the decorating is superintended by the young girls of the family, who have their reasons for making sure that the mistletoe is conveniently placed, for every young fellow who surprises a girl beneath it has a right to put his arm round her waist and give her a kiss.

The king of the day, however, is indisputably the plum-pudding. You should see faces light up with pleasure, and little mouths stretch out on the entry of the majestic monarch, crowned with holly, and exhaling a perfume which brings joy to every heart. I must say that I never properly appreciated the plum-pudding, but I have always accepted a slice. To refuse a helping of this dainty would be to cast a chill over the family feast, to play the sorry part pf a kill-joy: you might as well refuse the bread and salt of Russian hospitality. The English seem to be the only people who appreciate these cakes and puddings, of which the little Corinthian grape is the chief ingredient It is Greece that supplies these little black berries, “If France, Russia, and America,” says M. About in La Grece Contemporaine, “were possessed with the same craving, the consumption of this product would be unlimited, and Greece would have in her vines an inexhaustible source of revenue.”

It is no small matter to make a plum-pudding. Judge for yourself, here is the recipe: Take a pound and a half of raisins, stone them and cut them in halves, and add half a pound of currants. Chop a pound of suet and a pound of orange and lemon peel, and mix with ten ounces of grated breadcrumbs, a pound of flour, a spoonful of baking powder, ten ounces of sugar, half a pound of almonds, eight eggs, salt, spices, half a pint of pale ale, and a quartern of brandy. Mix well and boil for eight hours. If you do not find your pudding tasty enough to please you, I advise you, next time, to add a decoction of half-an-ounce of shag. This will give it a finishing touch. The quantity of beer, brandy, and spice, that a lower class cook puts into her pudding, renders it a perfect ball of fire; you are obliged to grasp the table, and hold on tight, whilst you swallow a mouthful or two of it.


The above content originally appeared on our sister site, Windows into History.  Content from that site is being moved and collated here.  In the meantime, there are many more interesting history articles to be found there.   RP

About Roger Pocock

Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com Co-writer on junkyard.blog Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in Christmas, History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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