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Victorian Trees and Tudor Pies: Exploring Customs of Christmas Past

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: the holiday season, where we reflect on the year gone by, spend time with friends and family and inevitably indulge in our favourite traditions.

During this festive time of reflection and celebration, have you ever considered how far back Christmas traditions go? I certainly hadn’t, until I went on a Christmas tour of Sutton House in Hackney, East London, last week.

Sutton House
The view from the tall windows would have been very different when Sutton House was built in 1535. (Photo: Rachael Davis)

The beautiful yet unassuming Tudor house was built in 1535 when Hackney was merely a village in the countryside. Its scenic backdrop was not the trendy, busy and thriving central London neighbourhood it is today – indeed, the London we now know and love has grown up around Sutton House.

Home to merchants, Huguenot silk-weavers, Victorian schoolmistresses, Edwardian clergy, First World War soldiers, and 1980s punk squatters, the house has seen centuries of Christmases, with traditions growing within its walls and alongside the capital’s flourishing culture.

The Tudor Kitchen, Sutton House. (Photo: Rachael Davis)

Surprisingly, the iconic Christmas tree has only been a tradition in England for less than 200 years. The humble mince pie, however, can be traced back through centuries of English gastronomy. Inspired by the tour of Sutton House, I began to dig a little deeper into these beloved Christmas traditions.

Deck the Halls with trees and candles

You might already know that the Christmas tree originated in Germany, with roots going back to the medieval period, however, less known is its original name – the ‘paradise tree’. Put in homes to represent the Garden of Eden, candles were often added to the tree to symbolise Christ as the light of the world.

It wasn’t until the Victorian era that the Christmas tree became a fixture in English homes, when German-born Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, popularised the tree. In 1848, this magical illustration of the Royal Family below was published and has since been credited with inspiring the tradition in homes.

‘Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle’, from Supplement to the Illustrated London News, December 1848. British Library Collection.

Candles on the tree were a staple of Christmas decor for middle-class families, though the combination of naked flames, hanging decorations, paper-wrapped sweets and drying tree branches was a dangerous one. After a series of house fires caused by candles falling off Christmas trees, people decided it was not a great idea to light their tree with candles.

The alternative we now use, electric lights, did exist but were not affordable for many until the 1930s. A publicity stunt by the Edison Electric Light Company in New York in 1882 saw the first use of electric lights on a Christmas tree, although it was fifty years before the price of electric lights came down and the decoration became widespread.

While trees for Christmas are a (relatively) recent addition to our festivities, one surprising tradition that has survived throughout the centuries is the mince pie.

‘Best pie you ever made, my dear’, John Rae, 1916. From ‘Story of the Mince Pie’ by Josephine Scribner Gates, 1916.

Where’s the meat in mincemeat?

Sweet, rich, fruity and boozy in a crisp pastry, mince pies go equally well with mulled wine or a cup of tea. But they weren’t always this way: looking back to the early 17th century, the mince pie would be strictly off-limits for vegetarians!

Mincemeat was imagined as a way to preserve meat using spices, avoiding salting or smoking; that’s why early mince pies were a savoury affair. Take this recipe from the famous cookbook, The English Huswife, for example, to see how the delicacy was made in 1615.

Gervase Markham’s recipe includes “a Legge of Mutton, [a] good store of Currants, great Raisins and Prunes, a few Dates sliced, and some Orenge-pils sliced,” topped with sugar and wrapped in pastry. LSE Digital Library.

Gradually, meat in mince pies became less prevalent, though the Georgians (ever the opulent crowd) used to add barely-detectable meat to their fruit pies as a display of wealth. Over the centuries they have become less savoury, and more like the decadent sweet treat we enjoy today.

Rethinking and reliving traditions

Everyone does Christmas a little differently, from the cheerful decorations to the delicious ingredients of Christmas dinner. Traditions are constantly evolving, some new and others carrying on through the centuries – all serving generations of family festivities.

To truly immerse yourself in the customs of Christmas past, be sure to visit the National Trust’s Sutton House in Hackney. Their guided tour ‘500 years of Christmas’ is running every week until the 22nd December. We personally recommend it for an informative, fun and enjoyable evening out!

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