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The cold, smelly truth about Victorian Christmas

Looking back fondly to the holidays of yore? Be careful what you wish for

(Vidhya nagarajan for The Boston Globe)

As Christmas approaches this week, Americans dream of a sumptuous Victorian-style feast. A toasty fire, a family clean and neat in their holiday best, a table spread with gleaming white linen and groaning with wholesome food: Even today, households aspire toward this 19th-century ideal.

But as a recent book by historian Ruth Goodman demonstrates, that picture glosses over many realities of the time—which involved far more labor and fewer creature comforts than in our fantasies. Based on "How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life," here are some practical truths underlying the 19th-century Christmas dinner that should make us modern revelers count our blessings.

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(Vidhya nagarajan for The Boston Globe)

A freezing morning

Whether you were rich or poor, the first step out of bed was likely to be an icy one. In addition to rooms with an unlit fire and sparse carpeting, windows were often left open overnight in bedrooms, to allow cool currents of fresh air to circulate and counter Victorian paranoia about lack of oxygen in the home.

(Vidhya nagarajan for The Boston Globe)

Hot shower? Think again

For most of the Victorian period, the stand-up wash was the main form of personal hygiene. All you needed was a bowl, a slop pail, a flannel, some soap, and a single jugful of hot water from the kitchen (cold water was also an option). It worked, but today we have different expectations of cleanliness—especially before a festive holiday meal.

(Vidhya nagarajan for The Boston Globe)

Clean table linens were a precious rarity

Long before washing machines, laundry was a job loathed by Victorian womanhood. Anyone who could afford it paid someone else to do it instead, and some affluent people simply bought enough clothes so they could do laundry just four times a year. Doing the laundry required much of the energy from the hearth fire and tons of space and time, so families had to plan ahead to ensure that everybody ate and that all other jobs could be put on hold.

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(Vidhya nagarajan for The Boston Globe)

Hunger was rampant

Christmas was of course an exception, but many Victorians did not have enough to eat, and food was permanently and exclusively on their minds. The skeletons of the people of Victorian Britain show signs of constant nutritional stress, especially among the poor. Men convicted of a crime in London between 1869 and 1872 were on average just 5 feet 5½ inches tall, 3½ inches shorter than the average height of a man in London today.

(Vidhya nagarajan for The Boston Globe)

What was really in that Christmas dinner?

The range of substances added to food during the Victorian period was astonishing, as was the complacency of both the authorities and the public. Chalk and the mineral alum were found to be almost ubiquitously present in flour and bread. Chalk was also added to milk as a whitener if it was too watery; cider and wine were sweetened with lead; and brick dust was often used to thicken cocoa.

Adapted from "How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life" by Ruth Goodman (Liveright).

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