People did themselves well in his era


December 16, 1990|By Lynn Williams

There have been eight kings of England named Edward, but only one gets his name applied to his very own Age.

It's not that Edward VII was the best of the rulers that shared his name. Other Edwards made their way into Shakespearean plays, lived through plagues and the Hundred Years War and got bumped off in creative ways by ambitious usurpers. (And one, we mustn't forget, married a lady from Baltimore.) Our Edward, however, reigned briefly and well from 1901 to 1910, and is remembered mostly for his mistresses and for the glittering society over which he presided. After the dour latter years of his mother, Queen Victoria, Edward impressed his subjects as a monarch who really knew how to party.

Christmas in the Edwardian era was, for those who could afford to celebrate to the fullest, an extraordinarily gala time. Understandably so, as the king had grown up in the heart of a Christmas-loving family, in a Christmas-loving era. In 1841, the year of Edward's birth, his father Prince Albert imported a new tradition from his native Germany: the Christmas tree. Two years later, the first commercial Christmas cards were printed. That same year, 1843, also saw the publication of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," whose phenomenal (and continuing) popularity ensured that the English would always know how to keep Christmas in their hearts.

By the time Edward took the throne, celebrating was elevated to high art. As was dining. Dinners, especially Christmas dinners, were bountiful and luxurious in an age when such portly trenchermen as the king and American industrialist Diamond Jim Brady set the style.

There have been several main dishes traditionally associated with an English Christmas, including roast beef, boar's head (presented with much ceremony, and a cloved lemon in its mouth) and goose, a favorite in Dickens' day. But by the time of Edward's reign the main attraction was likely to be a turkey, festooned with sausage links and decorated with colored paper streamers. The "bread sauce" with which it was invariably accompanied was a cream sauce thickened with bread crumbs and flavored with onion, nutmeg and freshly ground pepper. Brussels sprouts, roasted potatoes and parsnips were served on the side.

Desserts had a decidedly alcoholic tang. Mince pies might be topped with brandy butter, and the holly-decked Christmas plum pudding was well-fortified with rum and set aflame with brandy before serving. The meal would end, of course, with a serving of Stilton or Cheddar and a glass of old port.

Even in households stocked with servants (a la "Upstairs, Downstairs"), the creation of the plum pudding was a collaborative project of the whole family, as it was believed that every member of the family (including the baby) had to stir the pot to receive a share in the New Year's good luck. The pudding was made a month ahead of the great day and stored in the larder to age. When it was cut on Christmas, the diners would search in their piece for the trinkets that had been baked into the batter. A ring meant an imminent marriage, a coin was a sign of riches on the way and a button or thimble meant a life of bachelor -- or spinsterhood -- for the person who received it.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Baltimoreans also celebrated with characteristically Edwardian exuberance.

"It was the beginning of a new age," says Amanda Ohlke, educational outreach specialist at the Maryland Historical Society, and organizer of the society's recent family open house, "An Edwardian Christmas." "There was a lot of the Victorian left over, but it was beginning to move toward a more modern-day celebration. We might feel more at home, a lot of us, if we were invited to an Edwardian Christmas celebration than a Victorian one."

The more mobile Edwardian society did more visiting at Christmastime than their parents, she says. Christmas cards were gaudier, presents more elaborate. The dazzle of electric lights replaced the gentle glow of candles -- and put an electric train under many Christmas trees.

Ms. Ohlke based her version of Christmas past on William F. Stricker's "Keeping Christmas: An Edwardian-Age Memoir," published in 1981 by Stemmer House Press, in which the author (who grew up next door to H. L. Mencken) remembers his childhood holidays in early 20th century Baltimore.

"Thanks to my elders, Christmas was a triple abundance of food, toys and amusements," Mr. Stricker wrote. "In my neighborhood, the emphasis was on great quantities of food. Any parent feeding a child less than three thousand calories at one sitting was courting public consternation and a business call from the asylum."

Holiday dinners at his grandmother's house, which could take all afternoon -- everyone contrived to leave watches behind, and so never knew when it was time to go home -- included "corned beef, cabbage and potatoes . . . hams, turkeys, tongues, beef roast, spinach dishes with hard boiled eggs, mince pies and fruit cakes."

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