In 2022, Christmas is recognised and celebrated in many ways across the richly diverse communities of Greater Manchester and Salford, but take a look back to Tudor and Victorian times, and festive celebrations and traditions looked quite different. Devoutly Christian eras, people across the region celebrated Christmas very differently according to how rich or poor they were but some long-established traditions are still here today.
Victorian and Tudor times in English history are represented perfectly by two of Salford’s museums; Ordsall Hall, the Tudor manor house, which is just a stone’s throw from MediaCityUK and Salford Museum & Art Gallery, which is devoted to the history of Victorian Salford and this article examines what festive life was like back then and how people celebrated Christmas living in and around these venues.
We may think that our modern-day Christmas traditions stem from the Victorians, who brought us Christmas cards, trees, crackers and Father Christmas, but we have the Tudors to thank for a lot of the festivities that we still enjoy today. Putting the F into feast, the Tudors loved to party and following a month of fasting getting ready for Christ’s return (Advent) 12 days of celebrations or more commenced on Christmas Day. Tudors also brought us mince pies, mulled wine, carol singing and kissing under mistletoe.
Salford’s Ordsall Hall was the seat of the Radclyffe family for over 300 years. Parts of the house date back as far as 1251. The Radclyffes took residence around 1335 and would have enjoyed opulent Christmas celebrations in the many years that followed. A Tudor Christmas was all about rest, eating and drinking. Work would stop (except taking care of animals) across all corners of society, from the wealthy residents of Ordsall Hall to the poorest corners of Salford and celebrations would take place for 12 days, until January 6th.
On Christmas morning the well-off occupants of Ordsall Hall and everyone in the local community would most likely to have attended church before tucking into a traditional big dinner featuring game pies with a boars head as a centrepiece after which there will have been the opportunity to watch events, pageants and other festive ceremonies. Tudor homes were decorated on Christmas Eve with mistletoe, holly, ivy, yew and laurel and carols were sung. Another Tudor festive custom was to select a large log from the local woods on Christmas Eve which would be decorated with ribbons and laid on the hearth burning for days (yule log). Gifts were given on New Year’s Eve rather than Christmas morning and wealthy families such as the Radclyffes will have exchanged grand gifts such as food, expensive spices, items made of gold, paintings and money, meanwhile poor Tudor families usually gave nothing at all.
Tudors loved a drink and a toast and had a custom called wassailing, which was toasting and singing to ‘good health’. Popular with everyone, people enjoyed sipping from the wassailing bowl (the most important person got to drink first!) which was filled with hot ale, beer or cider plus apples, sugar, spices, some herbs such as rosemary, and a crust of bread was passed around with each person receiving it shouting ‘wassail!’
Tudors followed the Christian faith, and as good Christians festivities were wholly dedicated to the coming of Jesus which was also indicated by the creation of (rectangular) mince pies decorated with a pastry baby Jesus containing 13 ingredients (including meat, spices and fruits) representing Jesus and his disciples. Christmas pudding evolved from puddings containing grain, fruits, meats, and spices, like a haggis, cooked in animal intestine or stomach linings, as well as furmenty- or porridge-type dishes. Like mince pies, over time, the meat was removed, except for the suet. Rag pudding bags also replaced animal-based linings, becoming more like the steamed version we know today. Feasts continued throughout the twelve days of Christmas, with three major celebration high-points at Christmas Day, New Years Day, and Twelfth Night, instead of our emphasis on the 25th December. At Twelfth Night (6th January) they had another special cake called Twelfth Night cake, where the tradition of burying coins in the Christmas pudding comes from. Those who got a dried bean in their slice of cake was the party games organiser for the night – ‘the Lord or Lady of Misrule!’
These days, Christmas at Ordsall Hall is a much more laid-back affair where visitors from all around the country can come and take a look around the warm attraction which tells the stories of the people who occupied the hall for many years including the significant Tudor Radclyffe family. The hall looks incredibly festive when dressed up and visitors can take part in many festive activities including wreath making and a winter festival.
Skipping the 17th century when everything good was banned by the Puritans, enter the Victorian period which brought back carols and introduced turkey as the meat of choice for Christmas dinner, as well as Christmas crackers, Christmas trees and Father Christmas as we know him today. The Victorians loved Christmas, making it all about the family coming together, but people experienced Christmas very differently in Victorian times depending on whether they were rich or poor.
Salford Museum & Art Gallery, which is located on The Crescent adjacent to The University of Salford, is key to learning about the Victorian era in Greater Manchester and beyond. For the poorest in the region, the Victorian period was incredibly hard and saw people, including children, living and working in workhouses where Christmas was not celebrated, and dying young. Later on thanks to reform, people in workhouses were provided with Christmas meals but time off was just for the middle classes to visit family and rest. Boxing Day stemmed from when the poor and working class would open the boxes of presents and money gifted to them by the rich.
In poorer areas such as Salford with its many mills and factories, Victorians would have celebrated a low-key Christmas, if at all. Poor families on the breadline would have tried to save a little money to buy Christmas meat (usually rabbit) but often would struggle. Richer families ate beef because chicken was too expensive, and turkey was introduced later in the century in the South of England.
Later on in this era, influenced by authors such as Charles Dickens and Manchester’s Elizabeth Gaskell, people made Christmas about charity and donating money and food to those less fortunate, which are themes that we still believe in today.
Not all doom and gloom, the Victorians invented Christmas cards to mark the season portraying entertaining, bizarre and creepy illustrations such as murderous mice and feisty frogs, and the sending of cards became big business in 1870 thanks to the penny post when everyone from all corners of society sent greetings cards.
The Christmas tree came to the UK in Victorian times via the north of England where people were arriving from Germany to work in factories in places like Salford. Decorated trees had been a part of Christian German celebrations since the 16th century, and the workers brought these traditions with them including the German Prince Albert who married Queen Victoria and was keen for his own children to enjoy a decorated Christmas tree. Victorians also invented Father Christmas as we know him today. A personified symbol for hundreds of years, in Victorian times Father Christmas was evolved to symbolize what Victorian Christmas had become; a kind jolly person giving gifts to children.
There’s arguably nowhere more authentically Christmassy in Salford and central Manchester than a visit to Lark Hill Place, a cobbled street with original Victorian shop fronts located within Salford Museum & Art Gallery. Delighting visitors for more than 60 years now, the street comes complete with a pub, shops and houses which are depicted at tea time on a winter’s evening.
If you are interested in English history, visit Ordsall Hall and Salford Museum & Art Gallery during the festive period – visiting is free and there are activities and exhibitions on for families and people of all ages.
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