Feasts, festivities and decorations: Georgian Christmas traditions

Today is St Nicholas’ Day, marking the start of the Georgian Christmas, which ran for a whole month until Twelfth Night (6 January). Here, our volunteer archivist, Cluny Wells, treats us to a flavour of how Chiswick House residents would have celebrated in style. 


In Georgian times, aristocratic families like the Burlingtons and the Devonshires, would have decorated their homes in greenery sourced from the gardens. Holly, evergreens, mistletoe, ivy, apples, oranges and spices were favoured. It was considered unlucky to decorate the house until Christmas Eve, and if the greenery wasn’t burned once Twelfth Night was over, it was believed to bring bad luck for the New Year. Sometimes a ‘kissing bough’ was hung up, consisting of mistletoe and greenery. 

A log was brought in on Christmas Eve, and this yule log was wrapped in hazel twigs and put on the fire to burn throughout the Christmas season. A piece of the yule log was used to light the following year’s log, bringing blessing and prosperity to all those in the house. 

In the later Georgian era, Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, had a tree brought indoors with some decoration on it. It was unveiled on Christmas Day 1800 for her children at Windsor. 


Wealthy families would have enjoyed a lavish Christmas feast consisting of the finest food including meats such as venison, turkey, goose, duck, mutton and savoury mince pies. At Chatsworth, the Devonshires also varied their diet with river fish from the Derwent and eels, oysters and crayfish. Much fine drink was consumed, including sherry, wine, brandy, cider and their home-brewed beer. And oranges, lemons, olives and desserts such as plum pudding, jellies and Twelfth Cake.                

The traditional drink given to all was the Wassail Bowl – a spicy sweetened ale, made with sugar, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg imported from the colonies. When the hard work was over, the servants could settle down to celebrate the day too with a hearty supper. 

The day after Christmas Day, St Stephen’s Day, was the day that the staff of the nobility and landed gentry were presented with their ‘Christmas Boxes’ and, over time, became known as ‘Boxing Day’. 


Playing games such as cards, blind man’s buff, hunt the slipper and shoe the wild mare were popular. Shoe the wild mare involved a player (the ‘farrier’) sitting astride a wooden beam (the ‘mare’) suspended from the roof and hammering the underside of the beam (as if shoeing the mare) until he fell off! Carol singing, charades, parties, balls and visiting friends and family were also part of the Christmas jollities. 

Twelfth Cakes were an integral part of the Feast of Epiphany (on 6th January). It was a riotous night of feasting, dressing up as characters, and of course consuming a Twelfth Cake. Inside the cake were hidden a pea and a bean. The person whose slice contained the bean was King for the night, whilst the slice with the pea indicated the Queen. The winners were seen as the evening’s King and Queen, ordering others around, whatever their status in the family. 

Christmas songs were sung in Georgian times. Families might gather round and sing carols such as ‘Joy to the World’ and ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’. ‘Joy to the World’ was based on Psalm 98, and the melody was composed by Handel, one of Lord Burlington’s great friends. 

Christmas for the Burlingtons and the Devonshires 

In the early 1750s Lord and Lady Burlington may well have attended a pantomime at David Garrick’s Theatre Royal in Drury Lane – a new venture, and not his favourite genre, but it was becoming a popular Christmas entertainment. Lord and Lady Burlington would probably have been visited by their great friends: William Kent ‘little Signor’, Alexander Pope, Handel and perhaps Garrick and his wife the dancer La Violette over the festive period. 

We know from the archive that in 1797 the Devonshire family spent their Christmas at Hardwick Hall with Lady Spencer, the Duchess’ mother. After a ball on 16 December the house was so full that the Duchess’s daughters had to share their grandmother’s room. During that Christmas, 34 sheep and 7 oxen were slaughtered at Chatsworth for the festive season at Hardwick Hall.  

But it seems likely that the family spent Christmas 1798 at Chiswick, and possibly the following Christmas too. When in Chiswick for Christmas, they may have visited attractions such as Astley’s Circus. 

During Christmas 1802 the family were at Chatsworth with extended family and friends. They kept an open house throughout. 

In 1814, towards the end of the Georgian era, was the last ever ‘Frost Fair’ in London on the frozen River Thames. It may have been visited over the Christmas period by the last Duke of Devonshire ever to live in Chiswick House – the 6th Duke, great-grandson of Lord Burlington. By coincidence, one of the highlights of that Fair was the presence of an elephant, being led across the ice. And, as we know, an Indian elephant, Sadi, lived at Chiswick until her death in 1829.

Sources: Georgians Revealed British Library, Celebrating Georgian Christmas National Trust, Duchess Georgiana Lyndsey Porter, Bath Preservation Trust. Courtiers Lucy Worsley, Georgian Christmas The Digital Recipe Books Project.