Soldier's Accounts of
Christmas in Victorian Times
by Robert Henderson
British Militia returning from Christmas Drill, 1865
Below are accounts of Christmas from two soldiers in the British Army.
One of the more detailed accounts of how a Victorian Christmas was celebrated by
the common soldier comes from a soldier in the 17th Regiment of Foot in 1850.
published memoirs Stirring Incidents in the Life of a British Soldier (Picton,
1888), Thomas Faughnan recounted the expectations of a bountiful Christmas party sponsored
by his company's Captain who had just returned with his bride:
"On his arrival, he
intimated that he would entertain his company to a Christmas dinner, and a barrel of ale
to wash it down.
This glad tidings of great joy
spread like wild-fire through the company, which soon after assembled in one of the
largest barrack-rooms to deliberate on the preparations compatible with the forthcoming
The meeting was presided over by the colour-sergeant of the company,
supported by the other non-commissioned officers; when resolutions were passed and
committees formed for the purpose of decorating the company's barrack-rooms with
evergreens, mottoes, and numerous devices of swords, bayonets, ramrods and other
paraphernalia of military trappings and armorial bearings emblematic of the festive
season, joy, thankfulness and loyalty.
Accordingly we set to work, one party
deployed into foraging order in search of evergreens, other were forming stars and crowns
by means of bayonets, swords and ramrods; others were employed in cutting out emblems and
mottoes form fancy paper, while many artists were employed painting on white calico
appropriate epithets, to adorn the spaces between the mottoes and evergreens.
At last the decorations were
accomplished to the entire satisfaction of the many critics who volunteered their
suggestions as the artists were giving the coup de grace to the scenery.
The long tables fairly groaned with abundance of good things which had been provided for
Two lage epergnes filled with fresh flowers, which had been kindly
supplied by some of our fair friends, graced each table.
Everything being ready, we all
sat down to dinner, dressed in shell jackets, white waistcoats, and black neckties.
Every fellow who did not appear in this style of wedding-garment had to take a back
Just as the president stood up to say grace, in walked our captain with his
fair yound bride on his arm, accompanied by the subalterns of the company and one or two
As they entered the large hall, the first thing that commanded their
attention was a reciproal epithalamium. fancifully painted in coloured letters in honour
and praise of himself and his young bride.
This caused a great amount of badinage
and merriment among the chosen few.
As the distinguished party entered, we all stood
up, and the band, which we had in readiness for the occasion, struck "Behold the
Conquering Hero Comes" followed by a wedding march.
After which the president
proposed the health of the captain and his bride, which was cheerfully drank form flowing
goblets of sparkling ale, to the appropriate tune of "He's a Jolly Good Fellow,"
the company joining in the chorus.
Then the captain responded in a few well
chosen words, which drew forth three hearty cheers for himself and his wife.
then vouchsafed to walk through the barracks rooms, eulogizing and admiring the ability
and skill displayed in the decorations, as well as the taste manifested in ornamenting the
They then retired amidst hearty cheers from the company; leaving us in our
glory to enjoy the abundance of substantials placed before us.
After dinner, the
evening passed off most agreeably with songs, toasts and sentiments, and was wound up with
Faughnan went on to briefly
recount the Christmas of 1853 while in Ireland:
"At Christmas, our captain,
John Croker, treated the company to a barrel of Guiness's XX porter.
Coulthurst adn Earle looked after the sergeants and married men, in the way of several
substantials to cheer their hearts on the festive occasion, when the usual decorations of
the company's rooms with evergreens, mottoes and emblems were tastefully arranged and
carried out under the supervision of the non-commissioned officers, and a happy convivial
evening was spent with songs, toasts and sentiments, with a hop to wind up with."
were practiced as well in the cavalry.
In his autobiography, From Private to
Field Marshall, William Robertson his first Christmas in a British cavalry regiment:
On Christmas Day 1877, I was
detailed for my first military 'duty' that of stable-guard or looking after the
troop-horses out of stable-hours.
The custom was to employ the most recently joined
recruits on this particular day, so that the old soldiers might be free to make the most
of their Christmas dinner, which was provided by the officer commanding the troop, and
included a variety of eatables never seen on any other day, as well as a liberal supply of
The casks containing the beer were brought some time before to the
barrack-room where the dinner was to be held, and were placed under charge of a man who
could be depended upon to see that they were not broached before the appointed hour.
Had this happened - as it sometimes did - rather awkward incidents might have
occurred when the officers visited the room just previous to the dinner to wish the men a
merry Christmas and to receive similar wishes in return.
If any individual did, by
some means or other contrive to start his festivities too early, efforts were made to keep
him in the background until the officers had left.
It wsa the practice to see that
all members of the troop who were absent on duty should be specially well cared for, and
in my case the dinner brought to the stable consisted of a huge plateful of miscellaneous
food - beef, goose, ham, vegetables, plum-pudding, blankmange - plus a basin of beer, a
packet of tobacco, and a new clay pipe!"
In addition to a fine meal,
singing, dancing and elaborate decorations, some soldiers of regiments applied themselves
in the acting profession, presenting amateurs plays like "The Mistletoe Bough"
and "Visions of Christmas" (a version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol).
Copyright Access Heritage Inc (formerly The Discriminating General) 1999