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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. In his 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 happy event. 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 the occasion. 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 seat. 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 lady friends. 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. They 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 tables. 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 a dance."

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. Lieutenants 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."

Similar traditions 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 beer. 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).


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Copyright The Discriminating General 1999

Soldier's had a military heritage christmas which was merry with heritage traditions of all sorts and heritage new years day with the soldiers in the British army, and the French army with a Victorian Christmas with the military doing military things that are heritage today Don't forget , the Wellington's army fighting against Napoleon. They should have bought gifts for each other and world peace. The War of 1812 had some eventful heritage christmas things as well including books, gifts, more books, history, regency and so on.