A Bowl of Christmas Cheer

 Modern copy of a Famille Rose Punch Bowl (chipped on the rim just as the real thing often was!)


Christmas as we know it was largely a Victorian invention – Charles Dickens and Prince Albert fixed the white Christmas and the decorated fir tree as a permanent part of British celebrations. Christmas cards were made possible when the penny post was enhanced by the invention of the postage stamp in 1840 and extended to the Empire in 1898. Santa Claus in his red suit achieved his permanent image thanks to Coca Cola in the 1930s. But even in the 1950s in Scotland Christmas Day was not a public holiday and many had to work, celebrating at New Year instead.

In the eighteenth century much of life went on as normal on Christmas Day, children were baptised, people were married and buried, and trade often carried on. Many would have gone to church, but it was not a hugely religious age and many would not have done. Old English customs such as mummers and carol singing were imported. Slaves could expect a doubling of their meagre rations, normally about half a pound of salt fish per day supplemented by whatever they could grow in their provision grounds.

Jamaican colonists by contrast fed extremely well and needed little excuse for socialising. In Jamaica at all times of year a bowl of rum punch was an essential part of any social occasion. Back home in England it had originally been mainly brandy punch. Originating from the East Indies and the Hindi word ‘panch’, it was made from alcohol, sugar, lemons, water and tea or spices. One contemporary recipe called for two pints of claret and half a pint of brandy with grated nutmeg, sugar and lemon juice added and served with a piece of toast floating on the top. A hot punch would be made by plunging a red hot poker from the fire into the bowl.

Barbadian punch was made with “One of Sour, Two of Sweet, Three of Strong, Four of Weak” – instead of lemons it used limes, sugar, rum and water with a dash of bitters or nutmeg. Variations of this recipe used additional fruit juices – pineapple and orange with cayenne pepper, bitters and liqueurs such as Curaçao. Syrups such as Grenadine were also added. The result came to be known as Planters’ Punch.

Punch could be served in a china or porcelain bowl, or a silver or silver gilt one. An online search for eighteenth century punch bowls brings up many beautiful objects, often imported from China before the quality European ceramic industry was established. Old china bowls often have chips on their rims where the punch ladle has made clumsy contact. Later bowls may have sets of matching cups, or were made of glass with individual glasses. Convivial images of the preparation and drinking of punch were created by Gilray, Hogarth and others.


Whatever your preference for Christmas cheer, be it alcoholic or otherwise, may I wish everyone a very Happy Christmas and a Peaceful New Year.

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