English Winter Fare


In the still largely agrarian world of the early 1800’s, autumn and winter became a time to relax after harvest. Gentry and yeoman alike could take advantage of old feasting customs that had long ago mingled with the Christian holidays.

In autumn, Parliament opened again and some of society returned to London. St. Michael’s and All Angel Day, or Michaelmas, at the end of September, marked the end of a quarter year. The Celtic calendar also wove itself into English holidays, with one of the main events on November 1 becoming All Saints Day or All Hallows and October 31 therefore set as All Hallows Eve. It should be noted that Saman (also Samana, Shamhain, and Samhain) a minor Celtic guardian of herds, and so important to a herding society, played a part in the celebrations, but modern lore has turned him into an ancient god of death and mixed up several Celtic customs along with imported Christian beliefs to give us Halloween.

October was a month when land owners ate pheasant, partridge, duck and grouse. Fish for meals included perch, halibut, carp, gudgeons, and shell fish. Poachers also looked to snared hares for their pot. Beans were still fresh, and the fruits of summer gave way to pears, apples, nuts and the last harvest of grapes.

On November 5 bonfires burned in mockery of Guy Fawkes and memory of the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament. The Feast of St. Martin, or Martinmas, fell on November 11, and St. Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland, had his day on November 30. St. Andrew’s day also marked the beginning of Advent to celebrate the four weeks before Christmas. In November, the landed gentry still dined on wild foul as well as domestic poultry—which was now getting a bit old and aged (meaning tough and needing sauces to make the meat palatable). They also had beef, venison and pork with their meals. Fish could still be caught and served, and winter vegetables graced the dining room, including: carrots, turnips, parsnips, potatoes, leeks, cabbage, celery and lettuces. With November, walnuts and chestnuts came into season.

More celebrations lead to Christmas Eve when the Lord of Misrule danced and the Mummers traveled to perform their pantomimes. Then came Christmas Day, and Boxing Day on December 26, which was St. Stephen’s Day. Boxing Day did not get its name from gift boxes, for the exchange of gifts was a German custom still new to Regency England. Instead, Boxing Day got its name from the older tradition of it being a day in which pleadings could be placed in a box for a judge to privately review. In December, besides beef and mutton to eat, pork and venison were served. Goose was cooked for more than just the Christmas meal, and there would be turkey, pigeons, chicken, snipes, woodcock, larks, guinea-foul, widgeons and grouse to eat. Cod, turbot, soul, sturgeon and eels joined the list of fish in season. Forced asparagus added a delicacy to the usual winter vegetables. Stored apples, pears and preserved summer fruit appeared on the better, richer tables. Mince pies made from mincemeat, which has no meat in it, were another traditional fare, with the tradition being that everyone in the household should stir, for luck, the mix of dried fruit and spices before it was baked.

Households also celebrated not just according to the season, but also to the customs of the area. In the Regency, local customs in the countryside might well hold to the old ways.

Under the Kissing BoughFor one of my books, Under the Kissing Bough, I needed a Christmas wedding and customs that suited the countryside around London. In ancient days, a Christmas wedding would have been impossible for the English Church held a “closed season” on marriages from Advent in late November until St. Hilary’s Day in January. The Church of England gave up such a ban during Cromwell’s era, even though the Roman Catholic Church continued its enforcement. Oddly enough a custom I expected to be ancient—that of the bride having “something borrowed, something blue, and a sixpence in her shoe”—turned out to be a Victorian invention.

For Christmas customs, I relied on those that have carried down through the ages: the Yule log from Viking winter solstice celebrations (which gives us Yule Tide celebrations), the ancient Saxon decorations of holy and ivy, and the Celtic use of mistletoe on holy days, which transformed itself into a kissing bough. Carolers might well travel from house to house, offering song in exchange for a wassail bowl—a hot, spiced or mulled drink, another tradition left over from the Norse Vikings.

The holidays were a time of games as well, and the game of Snapdragon is a very old one. It’s played by placing raisins in a broad, shallow bowl, pouring brandy over them and setting the brandy on fire. Players then must show their courage by reaching through the spirit-flames to snatch up raisins. And the game even comes with its own song:

Here comes the flaming bowl,
Don’t he mean to take his toll,
Snip! Snap! Dragon!
Take care you don’t take too much,
Be not greedy in your clutch,
Snip! Snap! Dragon!

Celebrations continued to mix tradition and religion when the Twelfth Night feast arrived on January 5, which combine the Roman Saturnalia with the Feast of the Epiphany, when the three wise men were said to have paid tribute to the Baby Jesus. Deep in winter, there was still plenty of game to eat. Beside those wild and tame birds available in December, lobster came into season in January, as did crayfish, flounder, plaice, smelts, whiting, prawns, oysters and crab. Broccoli made a welcome change from the other winter vegetables, as did cress, herbs, cucumbers, beets and spinach. Preserved fruits would be running low in all but houses with large orchards, and stored apples and pears would have to serve guests until the expensive force strawberries of February appeared.

For the Celtic year, winter ended February 1 with the celebration of Imbolc or Oimelc. This is the time when ewes begin to lamb and lactate for their offspring, and life begins to return. For the ancient Celts, this was the celebration for Brigid (also Brigit, Brighid or Bride), the Light-Bringer, one of the main Celtic goddesses. She was strong enough to survive and be transformed by early Catholics into Saint Bridget, who was celebrated, along with the Virgin Mary, on February 2, Candlemas Day.

Another ancient tradition, this one of law, was to ignore leap year days—February 29 did not exist. This became the day when the world could be out-of-order. Tradition held that St. Bridget complained to St. Patrick about women having to wait so long for proposals, and Patrick answered that women could propose on Leap Day. In Scotland, their tradition added on that any man who declined a proposal in a leap year must pay a fine, which could be anything from a fine silk dress to a kiss given to the disappointed female.

St. David’s Day the Welsh patron saint came on March 1, and tradition held that all good Welshmen should wear a leak—a vegetable readily available from winter fare. March also brought Lent, and in Shropshire and Herefordshire, Simnel Cakes made with saffron were made for the season.

With March 21, the spring officially arrived, but for most of England, it would still be some time before warm weather and spring flowers arrived, and even longer until the return of the lush abundance of summer fruit and foods.

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