Christmas Desserts

As we come up to Christmas Day, let’s have a look at the history of several popular Christmas desserts.

Mince Pies

Dating from the Middle Ages this English dessert, like the name suggests, originally contained meat based mince. While meat disappeared from the pie in the 19th century (barring suet), the combination of ingredients in it today dates back from its origins which were inspired by Middle Eastern food that English soldiers experienced during the Crusades. It is not known exactly when they became associated with Christmas, but prior to the restoration of Charles II, their shape was oval and was thought to represent the manager; they also sometimes included a baby Jesus on top. During Oliver Cromwell’s rule mince pies were considered Catholic idolatry and were frowned upon. During the 19th century recipes for both meat based mincemeat and fruit based mincemeat existed but by the end of the century the sweet version, that is made today, dominated.

Yule Log

This popular cake is named and designed after the European Christmas tradition of the Yule Log – a log chosen specially to be burnt on a hearth on Christmas Eve through to Twelfth Night. This tradition happened throughout Europe. The cake itself dates back to at least 1615 with a recipe of the cake featured in The English Huswife. In the 19th century, Parisian bakers popularised the cake, known as bûche de Noël in French, creating the more elaborate designs like you see today. Today the cake itself is more well-known than the origins it is based on.

Christmas Pudding

As we know it today, Christmas Pudding did not appear until the 19th century although it had its origins in the 14th century as pottage – a broth using many of the ingredients that are still in it now, alongside meat. It was served as a starter rather than a dessert. Its association with Christmas did not come until the 18th century. The Victorians were originators of the Stir Up Sunday tradition – the making the pudding on the fifth Sunday before Christmas where each family member took a turn to stir the mixture from east to west. This was meant to represent the journey of the Magi and bring the family good luck for the year. Like Twelfth Night Cake, it was also customary to hide small items within the mixture to symbolise what the future would hold for the person who found that item. A coin could signify future wealth, while a thimble would signify spinsterhood.

Christmas Cake

Like the Christmas Pudding, the Christmas Cake originated from pottage but also from the traditional Twelfth Night Cake. During the 19th century Christmas cake mostly supplanted the Twelfth Night cake and began to use elements such as marzipan for decoration. The expanding British Empire and migration to the colonies – hence the popularity of Christmas Cake outside of Britain – and within Britain itself, also meant that many people began to boil their Christmas Cake with alcohol to preserve the cake during travel. Like mince pies and Christmas Pudding, the spices of a Christmas Cake are meant to represent the Magi.


This German fruit bread has its own festival in Dresden and like those above has developed over its history. Originally it was much less sweet due to restrictions by the Catholic Church during Advent on the use of butter. Eventually Pope Innocent VIII 1491 allowed the Prince Elector of Saxony, his family and household to use butter for Stollen while bakers were allowed to as well as long as they paid a fine that was used to fund churches. This stopped several decades later when Saxony became Protestant. The festival around Stollen dates back to when the rulers of Saxony were presented with a Stollen by the bakers of Dresden. This stopped with the fall of the monarchy in 1918 but was resumed in 1994. The shape of the Stollen is meant to represent the swaddled baby Jesus.

Bonfire Night: Not so Much About Guy Fawkes

Featured Image: The dying flames of Winchester’s Bonfire

Bonfire Night has become so ingrained into British tradition it’s almost a national holiday, without the benefit of a day off work. Many cities and communities across the country have long-standing events to celebrate, by gathering around a very tall bonfire and watch a firework display. Our very own Winchester has one every Saturday closest to the famous date of the 5th of November. It draws huge crowds and people travel far to see these displays. No matter how cold, or even rainy, the night is these festivities always bring people together and the 6th of November always promises to be a cast-over day, with smoke still hanging in the air. This post isn’t interested in the origins of this celebration. We all know about Guy Fawkes and the failed gunpowder plot to blow up parliament, represented by firework displays across the country. We all know the bonfire has often been used to burn an effigy of Guy (and other figures across the years). But the bonfire also makes its mark in another way, and has links with the ritual of Samhain.

Samhain was a ritualistic Celtic festival to mark the end of the harvest, also marking the beginning of the colder months to come. Nowadays, when the end of October coincides with the clocks going back and longer nights, it also represents the nights beginning to draw in. Traditionally, this part of the year is one of new beginnings: the end of the harvest represents the end to summer and the longer nights causes a change to the lifestyles enjoyed during the warmer months.

Samhain was traditionally practised on the 31st October – 1st November. The 31st October is now commonly linked to Halloween and trick or treaters, and less so with honouring the dead and welcoming the darker half of the year. A bonfire was often lit at the Samhain, and used to cook food and bring people together. This was often the case too at bonfires on Bonfire Night celebrations. Although the Samhain affected many of today’s Halloween traditions (as discussed in previous blog posts), the ritual of lighting bonfires is not associated with this date, and instead has transferred itself to the 5th of November.

The bonfire itself is a centre piece for bringing communities together, gathering round a spectacle of a fire, sharing food and – today- watching fireworks. This has been a part of Celtic ritual not just at the Samhain but at the other end of the year – in welcoming the Spring. This festival, the Beltane, also focused on bonfires because of the community gathering it caused. Bonfires, whether it be for Celtic rituals transferred into modern-day interpretations, have always been a way of gathering communities in celebration. For most today bonfire night is not a celebration of Guy Fawkes failing to blow up parliament, but a chance to meet up whether as a community (like the Winchester Bonfire display) or with friends and family. The fireworks add to the spectacle, as groups come together to watch them.

While the Samhain welcomed in the closing nights and celebrated the fine line between the living and the dead, the Beltane celebrated life, the spring and emphasised fertility. It was a time of year for fairs and markets – May Day and tradition of Maypole dancing can be traced back to the Beltane. Both sides of the year in the Western hemisphere with its changeable seasons were and still are celebrated. At the Samhain, bonfires were used to cook food for the dead. On the Beltane, a piece of wood lit with the fire of the bonfire was taken by members of the community and kept alight to represent fertility. Both represented the beginnings of change in the year. A connection to ancestors and death in the winter, a promise for a new generation and growth in the summer. Colder weather and darker nights in the autumn; warmer and longer days in the spring. The changing seasons and amount of sunlight throughout the year have brought with it its rituals and practices that have lasted through to today, and Bonfire Night and its use of bonfires continues a tradition of welcoming the longer nights and community gathering.

Oliver Cromwell- The Man that Banned Christmas

As part of WUHstry’s tag challenge, this blog will focus upon a man who is often overlooked at this time of year, and at a time of year where in the mid 17th century celebrations were restricted. The man in question is Oliver Cromwell, whom was in charge of England after the English Civil War of 1642- 1651. With more information of how Cromwell came into power, here is a song from a Monty Python sketch:

Once Cromwell rid of Charles I in 1649 within the third conflict of the English Civil War between 1649-1651, it quickly led to the Rump Parliament in place to be disbanded by Cromwell. It paved the way for Cromwell to become the leader of England, an action which saw him set up the Commonwealth, and carry out actions within Ireland and Scotland, due to the population following the Roman Catholic faith. Cromwell himself was a Puritan, or a protestant as is also known, leading to an action which will go down in history. Oliver Cromwell, the man who had led the Parliamentarians against the Royalists, with battles at Basing House which I have written about before, limited the celebration of Christmas. What better way to explain, than through the magic of the Horrible Histories TV series on CBBC.

At a time where we have all hopefully enjoyed a great Christmas, it is hard to imagine that there was once a time where the celebration was muted. The mid 17th century saw a time where Puritan’s were uncertain over the future of Christmas, due to the fact that each year it provided a lot of waste, and also due to the fact that Christ’s mass- the celebration of Christmas, was still heavily rooted to its Roman Catholic Roots, seeing no justification for the holiday.

Humorous Image of Cromwell in a Santa Hat

As Charles I started to lose power in the 1640’s to the Long Parliament, parliament began clamping down on the celebration of Christmas, which, if it was kept, should be a day of fasting and seeking the lord. In January 1642 shortly before the Civil War started, Charles I agreed to Parliaments suggestion that the last Wednesday of every month be kept as a fasting day. Many hoped that this would be alongside the Christmas fasting-day. Late 1644 saw the parliament agree upon the 25th December to be a day of fasting.

Cromwell as portrayed in Horrible Histories

January 1645 saw parliament appoint a group of ministers to produce a new Directory of Public Worship, which set out for a new church organisation to be followed in England and Wales. It made clear that Sundays were holy days, however there would be no holy days of festivities. June 1647 further added to this with the Long Parliament reiterating the abolition of feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun. This was further instated during the 1650’s, putting in place penalties for anyone found to be holding or attending Christmas services, with shops and markets made to stay open on this day.

Snoopy Celebrating Christmas- Imagine How Different Christmas Could Have Been

It is worth noting that although his name has not been mentioned directly, Cromwell was heavily involved within the Long Parliament, proving to be an important asset. As a Puritan he was against the open worship of Christmas, so was fully behind the acts passed. Yet although legislation had been passed banning Christmas, people still carried out the celebrations, with semi-clandestine services being performed. Shops often stayed closed, and riots had been known to take place in London, Canterbury, Bury St Edmunds and Norwich. Sadly for Cromwell (and luckily for everyone else), once Charles II was instated following the political crisis in Britain upon Cromwell’s death in 1658, Christmas was too, with people being allowed to openly celebrate the occasion.

Image of Charles II– The first Monarch after the Restoration- The Monarch Who Allowed Christmas

So at a time of year where we have celebrated Christmas, it is worth remembering the roots of Christmas are heavily Catholicised, remembering Christ. It is worth remembering that without Charles II, Christmas as we know it may not have been as celebrated as it was, due to the fact that Cromwell and parliament had attempted Puritan reform to limit the celebration of Christmas. Christmas in that time as it is now, became a time where family mattered more than just the celebration, something that is still true today. I hope you enjoyed reading this post as part of WUHstry’s tag challenge month, and that you had a good Christmas.

When the Thames Came to a Standstill: Frost Fairs on the Thames

Between 1309 and 1814, the river Thames froze twenty-three times. This ice was thick enough during the sixteenth, seventeenth and nineteenth centuries on five occasions for a fair to be held on the ice. During this period the global climate phenomenon the Little Ice Age, where global temperatures dropped, caused the temperature to drop low enough for the Thames to freeze. Another contributor was the structure of London Bridge which had been built during the Middle Ages. The many arches of London Bridge meant that it created a dam like structure that meant the Thames froze more easily. A new London Bridge was built in the nineteenth century with fewer arches which as a result further limited the opportunity for the Thames to freeze.
Tom de Castella described the Frost fairs as ‘a cross between a Christmas market, circus and illegal rave’.

Food and drink were especially popular with a large number of bars appearing on the ice. However there were also printers, barbers, souvenir sellers and activities such as football. Ice skating too was popular especially with the introduction of iron ice skates in 1667. Less charming activities also happened upon the ice, likely exacerbated by the heavy drinking that took place, such as bear-baiting. The presence of booths on the Thames along with the footfall of Londoners accessing the ice, which was estimated to be thousands by contemporaries, shows how thick the ice was to withstand such an amount of activity. This also explains why despite the Thames freezing on twenty-three occasions that only on five occasions the ice was thick enough to actually host a frost fair.

The frost fairs brought all walks of life together, with the most privileged in society mixing with the least privileged. Even Charles II attended a frost fair and got a souvenir proving he had been there. Courtiers travelled via the ice to Westminster. The ice was free to access and allowed the poor to mingle.
This isn’t to say however that Frost Fairs were all happy. Unsurprisingly casualties happened when ice thinned or too much pressure was put on the ice. The other cause of death was with the cold weather with London’s poor freezing to death in their homes due to the cold weather and the lack of availability of coal due to it not being able to reach London as it normally was brought via by boat along the Thames. The stalling of London’s maritime economy therefore was another victim of the frost fairs. Not only were a number of goods prevented from reaching London such as coal but also those who worked on the Thames were left out of work. Many were forced to find other work with some allowing access and escorting people onto the ice.

The last frost fair was in 1814; with even contemporaries realising it would be the last on the Thames due to the gradual warming weather. This along with the new London Bridge means we are highly unlikely today to ever see another frost fair on the Thames. The landscape of the river has also changed, becoming narrower and deeper as well as the introduction of the sewage system beneath the Thames, all of which contribute to the Thames being less likely to freeze. While a relic of our past, the frost fairs are an interesting time for London’s history that we can easily understand today.

J. P., Ward, ‘The Taming of the Thames: Reading the River in the Seventeenth Century’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 71 (2008), 55-75
T. de Castella, Frost fair: When an elephant walked on the frozen River Thames :
The Thames Frost Fairs:
C., Milmo, When winter really was winter: the last of the London Frost Fairs:
The Frost Fairs:

Late Medieval and Early Modern European Celebrations and Festivities

Festivities and celebrations have always been cultural aspects of every civilization. People have traditionally used them to express an idea, to remember something that happened or to celebrate a glorious event. Feasts are somehow part of the collective identity, they are important and frequent, and so they were in the pre-modern world. Celebrations were meant to bring the whole town joy, honour and unity. Obviously we have to consider that these festivities would be different depending on their location and the people who performed them. For example, in Poland and Lithuania, royal celebrations like birth or marriages were less significant than in other countries, because they did not mean anything for succession as they were elective monarchies. Also, different celebrations had different purposes. In Christian Europe, many of them were celebrated in dates that matched the liturgical calendar, so it is reasonable to assume that these would have some sort of religious connections. But there were many reasons for these celebrations: fear and gratitude being some of the most common ones. For example, the Bavarian and Tyrolese Passion plays were performed for the first time due to the end of a wave of plague in 1633. Entries and marches of aristocratic figures into towns were also occasions to celebrate, as well as jousting tournaments, feats of fools, student plays and, of course, carnivals.

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