A Very Victorian Thanksgiving

Inspired by Katy’s amazing post on Tudor Thanksgiving celebrations, I thought I’d look up some information on Victorian-era Thanksgivings! It hasn’t come up in the Cahill Witch Chronicles because the books are set in an alternate version of the 1890s where witches, not Pilgrims, fled religious persecution and colonized New England in the mid-1700s. In their society, there is a sort of combination Thanksgiving + Independence Day celebration on January 10, when the Brotherhood celebrates the fall of the Great Temple of Persephone and the Brothers’ ascension to power. But some of the information I found was quite fascinating (and could doubtless be appropriated for the Cahills’ Christmas celebrations)!

According to Mary J. Lincoln’s 1895 gem of an article “A Thanksgiving Table and How to Set It,” a standard Thanksgiving menu for six or eight might include the following: cream of chestnuts, croutons, fricasee of oysters, roast turkey, giblet stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, diced turnips, new cider, apollinaris (a sparkling water), white velvet sherbet…(take a breath)…and roast duck, currant jelly, hominy, brussel sprouts, apple and celery salad, plum pudding, hard sauce, squash pie, mince pie, fruit, nuts, confectionery, and coffee!

Mrs. (I presume?) Lincoln’s article goes on to suggest covering the table with a silence cloth (a thick felt used beneath the tablecloth to pad and protect from dings and scratches), and assumes you have doubtless “planned to use your finest linen, brightest silver, clearest glass and prettiest china.” She admits one may use fruit or flowers for decoration. Other table-setting instructions include: a piece of embroidery at each of the four corners to hold the dishes of olives, cranberry sauce, and currant jelly; the carving rests, knives, and forks at the host’s place; the soup ladle in front of the hostess; and dainty salts and peppers in between every two guests. One may read the full article for her lengthy take on silverware, though she admits “much depends upon the individual taste of the one who attempts to follow these hints in making the effect elegant yet simple, symmetrical but without stiffness, and convenient as well as harmonious.”

I shall pass over Mrs. Lincoln’s suggestions of the preparatory work, and go on to table etiquette! She suggests re: seating arrangements that “husbands and wives are not seated side by side, that the old ladies have agreeable companions, and that the awkward or infirm guests are seated by her, where she can give them special attention.” After the offering of thanks, the epic meal begins!

Soup comes first, followed by the oysters (which may be served from the kitchen) and olive course while the host carves the turkey (which is first served to the hostess, then passed to her left), followed by the main course of turkey, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, potatoes, turnips, and vegetables. Mrs. Lincoln has rather passionate feelings about cider: “sherry, claret or champagne, even if allowed, can not compare with it on this occasion.” This is followed by the sherbet, which “prepares the way for the full enjoyment of the duck and its accompaniments, the hominy and Brussel sprouts” (second dinner so soon?). And then, if the guests haven’t exploded yet, it’s time for salad, cheese, and wafers, finally followed by puddings and pies. Afterward, the maid serves the coffee in the parlor. I daresay it would be needed to wake the guests from their food-induced stupor!

What amusements might follow? In such a group, playing at the piano and singing might be favored. Victorians were also fond of games like chess, draughts (checkers), charades, and putting on amateur theatricals. A November 1895 article by Rose Seelye Miller explains how forfeits were given for losing a game, and often made a game unto themselves. Some of the penalties for the loser may include bobbing for apples, carving a face onto a potato, blowing out a lighted candle with eyes blindfolded, or blindfolding two people and making them try to shake hands. Miller also suggests several logic puzzles, such as leaving the room with two legs and coming back with six (which may be solved by bringing in a chair), or putting one hand where the other cannot touch it (placing hands upon the elbows of the other arm). Mrs. Miller suggests that forfeits should NOT include kissing, judging it a tasteless country amusement, and admonishing that “a girl makes herself cheap who permits promiscuous kissing.”

Those Victorians had lots of rules, no? Dear Readers, I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving – and despite Mrs. Miller’s qualms, perhaps got in a little kissing, too!

 Jessica Spotswood grew up in a tiny one-stoplight town in Pennsylvania, where she could be found swimming, playing  the clarinet, memorizing lines for the school play, or – most often – with her nose in a book. She’s been writing since fourth grade but studied theatre in college and grad school. Now she lives in Washington, DC with her brilliant playwright husband and a cuddly cat named Monkey. BORN WICKED, Book 1 in The Cahill Witch Chronicles, is herfirst novel. Book 2, STAR CURSED, will be out in June 2013.

2 thoughts on “A Very Victorian Thanksgiving

  1. Great post, Jessica. I’ve been doing a lot of Victorian research lately and it’s fun to find out such interesting details about past lives and people. Thanks!

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