SUNDRIES: An eighteenth century newsletter

N° 10 - December 24, 2005

inter text THE CHRISTMAS EDITION inter text

LINKS: 18th c Christmas links inter text ACCOUNTS: Christmas

inter cooking 18th CENTURY RECIPE: Talmouse

fleur de lysFOR READERS OF FRENCHfleur de lys
POPULAR CULTURE: a history of NOELS inter text INTERMEDIAIRE DES CHERCHEURS: Noel references

LINKS: 18th c Christmas links

Here's just a few links concerning Christmas in our era: - An article on colonial Christmas customs: "Christmas in colonial Virginia was very different from our twentieth-century celebration." - "Another Look at Christmas in the Eighteenth Century" - this is done like a FAQ, with a list of questions. - Christmas Traditions of the Shenandoah Valley Dutch - Christmas in Cooperstown and Templeton: The Coopers and the Invention of an American Holiday Tradition About James Fenimore Cooper and his daughter, and their writings on Christmas, including glances at the 18th century. - A history of the Christmas pudding, including some 18th century notes from Northern Rural Life in the Eighteenth Century - this discussion of entertainments in general includes mention of a Christmas celebration involving football:
Has ne’er in a’ this countra been
Sic shouderin’ an’ sic fa’in’,
As happen’t but few ouks sinsyne
Here at the Christmas ba’in’.
The Making of America includes some items on Christmas in our era:

- A history of New York with details on Dutch Xmas and St. Nic
- Early Christmas on Long Island

The French photographic agency for the United National Museums has some images of nativities (click on each to see larger image), and of a creche.

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ACCOUNTS: Christmas

It would be easy, after trying to find firsthand descriptions of Christmas in our period, to think that the holiday was primarily either medieval French or 19th century English. The latter, in particular, seems to be the Christmas by which all others are measured.

For England, I can offer this brief observation from the Spectator (Monday, January 7, 1712):

Mr. Spectator,

I desire to know in your next, if the merry Game of The Parson has lost his Cloak, is not mightily in Vogue amongst the fine Ladies this Christmas; because I see they wear Hoods of all Colours, which I suppose is for that Purpose: If it is, and you think it proper, I will carry some of those Hoods with me to our Ladies in Yorkshire; because they enjoyned me to bring them something from London that was very New. If you can tell any Thing in which I can obey their Commands more agreeably, be pleased to inform me, and you will extremely oblige

Your humble Servant

And this slightly longer one (Tuesday, January 8, 1712):

Sir Roger, after the laudable Custom of his Ancestors, always keeps open House at Christmas. I learned from him that he had killed eight fat Hogs for the Season, that he had dealt about his Chines very liberally amongst his Neighbours, and that in particular he had sent a string of Hogs-puddings with a pack of Cards to every poor Family in the Parish. I have often thought, says Sir Roger, it happens very well that Christmas should fall out in the Middle of the Winter. It is the most dead uncomfortable Time of the Year, when the poor People would suffer very much from their Poverty and Cold3, if they had not good Cheer, warm Fires, and Christmas Gambols to support them. I love to rejoice their poor Hearts at this season, and to see the whole Village merry in my great Hall. I allow a double Quantity of Malt to my small Beer, and set it a running for twelve Days to every one that calls for it. I have always a Piece of cold Beef and a Mince-Pye upon the Table, and am wonderfully pleased to see my Tenants pass away a whole Evening in playing their innocent Tricks, and smutting one another.....

...He then launched out into the Praise of the late Act of Parliament for securing the Church of England, and told me, with great Satisfaction, that he believed it already began to take Effect, for that a rigid Dissenter, who chanced to dine at his House on Christmas Day, had been observed to eat very plentifully of his Plumb-porridge.

Otherwise, Captain Cook's account of how, in 1774, he and his crew cobbled together an English Christmas is interesting, if not - to a modern reader - exactly brimming with Christmas charity:

About seven, in the evening, we got on board, where Mr Pickersgill had arrived but just before. He informed me that the land opposite to our station was an island, which he had been round; that on another, more to the north, be found many _terns_ eggs; and that without the great island, between it and the east-head, lay a cove in which were many geese; one only of which he got, beside some young goslings.
This information of Mr Pickersgill's induced me to make up two shooting parties next day; Mr Pickersgill and his associates going in the cutter, and myself and the botanists in the pinnace..... There being a great surf, we found great difficulty in landing, and very bad climbing over the rocks when we were landed; so that hundreds of the geese escaped us, some into the sea, and others up into the island. We, however, by one means or other, got sixty-two, with which we returned on board all heartily tired; but the acquisition we had made overbalanced every other consideration, and we sat down with a good appetite to supper on part of what the preceding day had produced. Mr Pickersgill and his associates had got on board some time before us with fourteen geese; so that I was able to make distribution to the whole crew, which was the more acceptable on account o the approaching festival. For had not Providence thus singularly provided for us, our Christmas cheer must have been salt beef and pork.
I now learnt that a number of the natives, in nine canoes, had been alongside the ship, and some on board. Little address was required to persuade them to either; for they seemed to be well enough acquainted with Europeans, and had, amongst them, some of their knives.
The next morning, the 25th, they made us another visit. I found them to be of the same nation I had formerly seen in Success Bay, and the same which M. de Bougainville distinguishes by the name of Pecheras; ......They had with them bows and arrows, and darts, or rather harpoons, made of bone, and fitted to a staff. I suppose they were intended to kill seals and fish; they may also kill whales with them, as the Esquimaux do. I know not if they resemble them in their love of train-oil; but they and every thing they had smelt most intolerably of it. I ordered them some biscuit, but did not observe them so fond of it as I had been told. They were much better pleased when I gave them some medals, knives, etc.
They all retired before dinner, and did not wait to partake of our Christmas cheer. Indeed I believe no one invited them, and for good reasons; for their dirty persons, and the stench they carried about them, were enough to spoil the appetite of any European; and that would have been a real disappointment, as we had not experienced such fare for some time. Roast and oiled geese, goose-pye, etc. was a treat little known to us; and we had yet some Madeira wine left, which was the only article of our provision that was mended by keeping. So that our friends in England did not, perhaps, celebrate Christmas more cheerfully than we did.

December 1774 - A Voyage Towards the South Pole and Round the World

On the French side, one would think there'd be all kinds of delightful accounts from court memoirs, but if so, I have yet to find them. For now, here are some excerpts from a mid nineteenth century article on "La Christmas" which ends the Magasin Pittoresque (no 18) of 1850. The author begins by telling of an act of charity on Christmas Day, but then points out that the same people who offered it would avoid the poor in church that day. He then says, perhaps sentimentally, that in (unspecified) former times this was different in France and that now only the English preserve some echo of how things were:

Once it was different. Religious holidays joined all the classes. Expansive gaiety radiated from the faces of the laborers, the apprentices, the employees, the clerks, on those of bosses, of superiors: one same laugh broke out in the eyes of the servant and the eye of the master. On the same ground where the noisy wooden shoes beat rustic entrechats, ermine and satin traced gracious labyrinths of the dance; from every side were exchanged wishes for happy Christmas; the hospitable banquet preserved the share of the poor; the spit and the flaming bûche de Noël (the Christmas yule, as they call it in England) was offered to the stranger. Spreading one's happiness was to make it grow; why then so close one's hand and one's heart?...
A thirteenth century carol remains, memory of these joys where everything was mixed together, tongues as well as ranks. Pilgrimages, conquests and wars led people to come together, Providence having arranged things so that from an evil comes a good.

Anglo-Normand Carol
[NOTE: The original - more Normand than Anglo - is given with a translation in French on page 407]

Lords, listen to us now;
We come from afar to you
To ask Noël;
Because it's said that in this great house
It's the custom each year to hold this feast.
Ah! It's the day.
God give here joy of love
To all those who honor Christmas Day!

Lords, I tell you truly
That Christmas day demands
Only joy;
And fills its house
With bread, flesh and fish
To do honor.
God give here joy of love
To all those who honor Christmas Day!

Lords, it is cried out in the crowd
That he who spends well, and fast,
And freely,
And does great honor, often
God gives him double what he spends
To do honor.
God give here joy of love
To all those who honor Christmas Day!

Christmas is for drinking English wine,
And Gascon, and French,
And Angevine,
Christmas makes one's neighbor drink
So well that often he nods off
In the day.
God give here joy of love
To all those who honor Christmas Day!

Lords, I tell you by Christmas,
And by the masters of this house
Who drink well,
And me, first, I'll drink mine,
And after each his own
At my word.
God give here joy of love
To all those who honor Christmas Day!

Now still, in England, Christmas is a time for bringing people together. The gifts which among us are given on New Year's Day are exchanged among our neighbors on the day of the Savior's birth. It is the time of banquets and of a free and open hospitality across the isle. On every side chimneys smoke; the baker's ovens overflow with meats brought by modest households; there the least rich cook their Christmas treat; spits turn; streetlights, torches, lamps, candles shine in the foggy night; from midnight, servants, the suppliers of great houses go, singing to present the Christmas box where offerings fall.
Ah, let all men come to understand that he whose misery one eases may see in you a benefactor, but one only becomes the brother of those whose joys we share!
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18th CENTURY RECIPE: Talmouse

I first knew the word 'Talmouse' as the name of a Left Bank restauarnt where the two waiters would respond to particularly satisfying tips by performing an ornate choreography, all the while chanting, "Sup-er! Sup-er! Su-per!" It was years before I learned it was the name of a cheese pastry which has existed for hundreds of years, starting as a primitive cheesecake before taking on a distinct three-sided form, variously described as having three horns, like a three-corner hat or like a priest's bonnet. Modern versions (see the Larousse Gastronomique) do not always have this shape, however. For an image of one modern version, visit Chef Simon's excellent recipe site:

The Encyclopedie unhelpfully says: "It is a piece of pastry, made with a cheese filling, butter and eggs." It was well-known enough in 1788 for Mirabeau to use it as a reference: "I don't see that a pastry maker can object to what we want for our child, nor have any opinion on inoculation; it's all she could do if we were talking about a talmouse." Mirabeau - Letter to Sophie from Vincennes 12/8/1788

It's also sometimes used as a slang term, meaning a good solid blow.

If you'd like to see the different forms the pastry has taken over the centuries, I've added several centuries of recipes to this page:

Otherwise, here's a recipe from Massialot's Cuisinier Roial et Bourgeois (1705) which, unusually, recommends adding pepper to the cheese. The Dictionary of Food (Dictionnaire des Alimens, 1750) largely cribs from this version, but adds the editorial remark that the filling makes these "heavy on the stomach" (literally, 'indigestible' or 'hard to digest'.):

To make talmouses, take nice fatty white cheese, and crush it well in a mortar, with butter the size of an egg, and a little pepper. Once well crushed, you must put in a handful of flour, a little milk and two eggs; and be careful not to knead the filling too much. Make a fine dough, and make from it little bases, depending on how big you want your Talmouses: put this filling on your bases, and lift the edges on three sides, like Priests' bonnets; pinching the corners with the fingers, so that they do not come apart while cooking. Gild them with a beaten egg, and cook them in the oven, and you can use them for garnishing.

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fleur de lysFOR READERS OF FRENCHfleur de lys

POPULAR CULTURE: history of Noëls

Among the many meanings of the word Noël is that of a (generally) satirical verse about Christmas. These, written from medieval times on, are sometimes devout:

Let your beasts graze,
By mountains and by valleys
Let your beasts graze
and come sing Noël.

But more often have the kind of snarky humor English readers may recall from the Cherry Tree Carol ("Let he gather cherries who got you with child.")

Tell us, Saint Joseph,
How did you feel
WHen you saw the pregnancy
of the great Princess?
Weren't you at all jealous?
Tell us, Saint-Joseph..

Or another that quotes two passing 'galants':

Saying: It's a pity
That this greybeard
Has in marriage
The prized Virgin.

An article (by Gabriel Vicaire - 541-547) in the Revue Encyclopedique of 1894 discusses these "Vieux Noëls". It includes some from our era, though it's hard to tell, since the author glides frustratingly over dates. He offers a discreet but distinct point of view on these, as when he quotes one that starts:

Between the cattle and the grey donkey,
Sleep, sleep, sleep, the little son.
A thousand angels divine
A thousand serpahim
Fly all about
This great God of love.

The same refrain ("A thousand angels", etc.) continues until the last verse:

Between the thieves upon the Cross
Sleep, sleep, King of Kings:
A thousand wicked Jews
Cruel murderers,
Spit all about
This great God of love.

Says Vicaire, drily, "There, unless I'm sadly mistaken, is a masterful reversal, that of an artist. But let's go on."

For those with an interest in popular culture, satire or Christmas lore, there's lots more in the article (available on Gallica), including a tune.

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The French Notes and Queries naturally has touched on various Christmas related subjects over the years. Here's a few references:

  • 1883 Year 16 - Noël:139 303 - A discussion of how the Church decided on December 25th as Christ's birthday.
  • 1884 Year 17 - Noël sur la cour de France. 325, 379, 405, 497. This is explores one of the Noëls mentioned above, this one was published in 1764 and satirized members of the Court. (Most of it's in Bachaumont somewhere, but j'ai la phlegme to go look it up now.) The last reference discusses the whole tradition of Noëls as satires of the Court. Not entirely accurate, per Vicaire's info, but interesting.
  • 1886-Year 19 739-741 - This issue starts a long discussion of the origin of the Christmas tree, which continues through 1889. Ultimately, the conclusion seems to be the modern way, that it was an adaptation of northern pagan practices, but en route raises some interesting hypotheses, for instance, that the chandelier which hung in the Tabernacle had the approximate form of a tree and might have represented the tree of Life, leading to the Christian symbol. It's also said that the Christmas tree isn't mentioned before our era. The last year's article tells how poor Iranians would decorate a tree with bits of cloth. 1887 Year 20 - 57; 1888 year 21 - 717;1889-22-135
  • 1900 year 36 147- a crêche for the King of Rome - This starts with an account by Mme. de Genlis of a crêche made for Napoleon's son (? "the King of Rome"). It's amusing, in the item before it, to see a French writer protest the possession of French artifacts by the Austrians (meanwhile, back in the Louvre...)
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End quote

"If a guy takes his lady to see it, he's pretty likely to get laid afterwards."

"Pride and Prejudice"'s Keira Knightly (from London)
on the KTLA Morning News

LA host (jaw dropping): "This is a MORNING show!"
KK: "Oh. Sorry. It's afternoon over here."

FROM CHEZ JIM BOOKS Three works on eighteenth century subjects:

For some sample 18th century vegetarian recipes, click here.

copyright 2006 Jim Chevallier.
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(NOTE: Most translations, except where otherwise noted, are by Jim Chevallier and are copyrighted as such.)
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