Christmas with Anne Lister

Jessica Payne

Published on 24 December, 2020 · Last updated on 24 December 2020

Christmas is most often thought of as a Victorian invention helped along undoubtedly by Charles Dickens who wrote many books on the subject including arguably one of his most famous, A Christmas Carol.

In truth, the Christmas season has been celebrated in a variety of ways long before then. Until now, the most popular insights into a Georgian Christmas have been the lavish parties described in the novels of Jane Austen. Nevertheless, there are several ‘traditions’ of Christmas that we know and love today that had not yet gained popularity during Anne’s lifetime. As things like Christmas cards, Christmas crackers and Christmas trees were not ‘invented’ or were not yet commercially available until the 1840s, we would not expect to see a mention of them in Anne’s journals. Additionally, it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that St Nicholas, or Father Christmas, made a resurgence and became a central figure in celebrations.

We have therefore concentrated our research on those traditions and customs that are widely considered to be observed during the late Georgian period. What can Anne’s journals tell us about Christmas during the early 19th century? Were there any traditions observed that we might recognise today?

In this article, we explore Anne’s journals and letters to provide a glimpse into what Christmas might have been like with Anne and her closest family and friends, from her childhood until her final Christmas with Ann Walker before her untimely death in 1840.

Estimated reading time: 40 minutes.

This article describes active research and the facts and details included have and will continue to be updated as new information is uncovered. If you come across any other relevant information that can help clarify or expand the topics below, please get in touch.

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After being banned by Oliver Cromwell in the mid-seventeenth century, there were no festivities for the Christmas season until it was reinstated by Charles II in the latter half of the seventeenth century. Once we reach the Georgian era, the Christmas season lasts for almost an entire month from St Nicholas Day on December 6th until Twelfth Night on January 5th (or January 6th, depending on who you ask!). We do, however, see the Christmas season reduce considerably towards the end of the Georgian era owing to the industrial revolution and changes to public holidays which shortened the time available for family and friends, particularly amongst the lower classes, to come together for festive celebrations. Often in Anne’s journals, it very much feels as though it is ‘business as usual’ with lots of studying, errand running and estate work mentioned over the years.

When reviewing Anne’s journal entries around the expected Christmas period, the key dates we would expect to see are not necessarily mentioned outright. An example being the lack of an explicit mention of Twelfth Night but instead, several occasions where music was played and quadrilles danced on or around the day itself. In fact, there are glimpses of celebration littered throughout her journals and even the odd ‘Merry Xmas’ but these are relatively inconsistent and often lack sufficient detail to identify any specific traditions that were observed throughout her lifetime. We can however use extracts of Anne’s journals and letters to illustrate how she spent her time over the Christmas period, who it was spent with and what might have been important to her.

Angelica Catalani by Anthony Cardon, after Clara Maria Pope stipple engraving, (1812) NPG D32733 © National Portrait Gallery, London

A family (and friends) affair

One thing we do consistently find in Anne’s journals over the Christmas period is the importance of spending time with her family and friends, whether that is home at Shibden Hall, visiting the Norcliffes at Langton Hall, the Duffin and Belcombe families in York or hosting others whilst living or travelling abroad.

Eliza Raine, Anne’s first girlfriend, records in her own journal that in 1809, when Anne was aged 18, they spent the Christmas season together in York with the Duffin family, that they were introduced at the York Assembly Rooms and attended the theatre to watch Madame Catalani, a well-known Italian opera singer.

York Assembly Rooms c. 1864. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Arguably one of the most important parts of Christmas day for Anne was attending morning church, taking the sacrament, and then reading sermons aloud during the evening. Whilst in Paris in December 1826, there is evident frustration that having to do some last-minute shopping for dinner results in Anne not having sufficient time for prayers.

We must have prayers this morning - I like not having all this to do on Christmas Day - it must not be again - If we rejoice we must have time to say our prayers first -

25 December 1826 [SH:7/ML/E/10/0035]

One of the most consistent mentions in Anne’s journals over the Christmas period is attending church, including the taking of the sacrament, reading prayers and sermons.

My Uncle Aunt father and myself went to Church in the morning and staid the Sacrament – in the course of the day read to myself from pages 294 to 364 or the end of Volume 1 of Edmonston’s view of the Zetland isles – After tea read aloud Sermons 5. 6. 7. and 8. of Bishop Horsley – a remarkably fine frosty winter’s day -

25 December 1816 [SH:7/ML/E/26/3/0014]

We all went to morning church and staid the sacrament – Assisted my aunt in reading prayers in the afternoon. In the evening read aloud sermons 8 and 9 Hoole -

25 December 1817 [SH:7/ML/E/1/0066]

Anne did however continue to ‘rate’ the services as she often did in her journal and her mind on occasion was elsewhere rather than concentrating on the service itself.

we all walked to morning church (Mr West of Southowram) preached a rigmarole of 36 minutes from Isaiah chapter 60 verse one the first beginning ‘Like the moon, the church has her waxing and and waning Deacons’ - afterwards wishing us ‘a Merry Xmas’ etc. etc. All staid the sacrament I fear I never received it with less feeling of reverence was thinking more of Miss Brown than anything else she was there opposite to me at the altar table In the afternoon my aunt and I read prayers - In the course of the day copied into this book 7, 8, 9, 10 November In the evening read aloud sermons 9 and 10, Warren -

25 December 1818 [SH:7/ML/E/2/0093]

Ann so tired last night I literally carried her to bed. At 12 1/2 read the prayers in 25 minutes and one of Paley’s sermons in 1/4 hour ... We not at church till 2 3/4 – Mr Wilkinson did all the duty – better than last Sunday – preached 16 minutes from Isaiah XI i -

25 December 1836 [SH:7/ML/E/19/0172]

off to church Ann impatient to be off tho’ I knew we had near 1/2 hour to spare ... sat in the church reading a little Glasgow 18mo. [octodecimo] manual of banking and commerce – Mr Younge did all the duty – preached 26 minutes Galut iv.4,5 staid the sacrament = about 1/2 hour -

25 December 1837 [SH:7/ML/E/21/0018]

At church in 20 minutes at 10 1/2 – the curate read prayers and Mr Wilkinson preached inaudibly 20 minutes from i corinthians i.30 – staid the sacrament Ann and I, and Oddy and John footman – the communion service took 35 minutes -

25 December 1838 [SH:7/ML/E/22/0087]

In 1835, when Aunt Anne was too ill to attend church, Anne delivered the service herself.

then in 23 minutes (at 12) read the prose and lesson and collect, epistle and gospel and part of the morning service in my aunt’s room to her (in bed) and Oddy and Mary and John and George -

25 December 1835 [SH:7/ML/E/18/0150]

Anne also ensured that she wrote to those friends and family that she was not spending time with over the main Christmas period. Mariana Lawton wrote every year, even apologising for not writing on Christmas day ‘as usual’ in 1819 due to illness.

affectionate letter from Mariana (Lawton) Illness prevented my hearing from her on Saturday as usual -

27 December 1819 [SH:7/ML/E/4/0016]

We would also expect to see that gifts were exchanged over the course of the Christmas period although the exact date of exchange did vary over the course of the late Georgian period. Whilst there aren’t any explicit mentions of Christmas gifts in Anne’s journals, it was still customary for gifts to be exchanged, usually between Christmas day and Twelfth Night.

Mariana arrived here at 5 by the kitchen clock, 3/4 past 4 by Halifax, and 1/4 past 4 by Leeds and York – She brought me a small parcel from Nantz, containing a very kind note from herself and one from Lou, and a pair of cambric muslin sleeves with broad wristbands to be worn as linings, which she (Nantz) had made, and another pair which she had altered for me and a tassie seal – a new moon rising over the sea – motto – je ne change qu'en appearance -

26 December 1817 [SH:7/ML/E/1/0067]

my aunt and I set off to Halifax at 2 1/2 she having just before gathered out of the garden for my aunt Lister a nosegay of 15 different sorts of flowers - Laurustinus, Chrysanthemum, yellow jasmine, pink-tree flower, dwarf passion-flower, heart’s-ease, double primrose, purple stock, auricula, sweet Allison, Venus’ looking glass, gentianella roses, larkspur, and phesant’s eye - and 3 or 4 more sorts might have been added -

28 December 1818 [SH:7/ML/E/2/0093]

Jerry "Woody" from Edmonton, Canada, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

my father gave my aunt and myself each of us a new crown piece of last years coinage - a beautiful coin Saint George and the dragon on the reverse -

5 January 1820 [SH:7/ML/E/4/0020]

finished our bottle of mead of yesterday – drank to us a merry xmas and the like to Madame Ouroussoff and thanks for the excellent little loaf of home made white bread she had given us -

25 December 1839 [SH:7/ML/E/23/0160]

A Christmas feast

Another important element of a Georgian Christmas was a celebratory meal on the day itself, often several courses and grossly extravagant depending on the social status of your family. A popular source of reference for households was John Simpson’s ‘A Complete System of Cookery’ which suggested menus for communal feasting and included recipes for key elements of a traditional Georgian era Christmas feast, including roast beef, plum pudding and mince pies.

Anne doesn’t often record what she has eaten on Christmas day but in 1826 we do get an insight into what she may have eaten in other years, when she records a Christmas dinner (albeit, a disappointing one!) that she was hosting in Paris for Maria Barlow and her daughter, Jane.

ate a mince-pie by way of tasting what sort of things they were (very good) ordered 4 for Xmas Day, 2 three lb. very rich plum cakes meaning to send one of them to Madame Galvani -

18 December 1826 [SH:7/ML/E/10/0032]

at the fruiteriers over the way not choosing to give 0/80 for a cauliflower bought a lb [pound] (at 0/70) Brussels which on seeing them at [the] table, found would have been enough for twice - In returning along the rue Saint Honoré bought 10 at two sols, flat sausages (8 would have been quite enough) and 2 little round Neu[f]chatel cheeses, and brought all these things home under my shawl - then went back to Michel’s, and got wine a glass of madeira (at 0/50) for pudding sauce to which, said he, add a tablespoonfull of brandy (just give it a warm and shape-up in the sauce but dont let it boil) and it will give it the taste of almonds and make it very good -

25 December 1826 [SH:7/ML/E/10/0035]

waited till 6 50/60 then summonsed [sic] the soup - ... - had down all the sausages, and all the Brussels sprouts, and thus filled the dishes to absolute vulgarity - the pudding so stiff I could scarce get the spoon into it - the sauce like a thin batter - the soup ordered to be gravy soup looking like hare soup, thick, and anything but what it ought to be - ... - the bottle of Champaigne [sic] after getting the porter’s pliers to untwist the wire, was perfectly dead - the bottle of Lafitte tolerable merely tolerable - the Dessert could not fail to be good - 32 roasted chesnuts [sic], plum cake (on the top of which I had stuck the very pretty and excellent 5 branches of artificial sugar strawberries and raspberries on stalks with green leaves) stewed pears, 6 oranges, plate of Craesanne and Saint Germain pears, 1 lb raisins, 1/2 lb almonds in the shell, 3/4 lb bonbons, and 1 lb (all but 2 or 3 cakes) of abricots baignés - the dinner MacDonald was so long about was merely soup, roast beef, sausages upon mash potatoes potatoes browned under the meat, and Brussels sprouts - having waited so long, the cheese and cold butter were never put upon the the table - we left the dining room at 9 25/60 - had tea at 10 - and the plate came and macarons and cold bread and butter -

25 December 1826 [SH:7/ML/E/10/0036]

Anne was also a fan of roasted hot chestnuts, which in many countries are still popular today and eaten predominantly over the Christmas period.

saw a man put down 2 sols for roasted chesnuts [sic] - I never spoke, but did the same, and the man gave me 1/4 litre very nice and hot and good -

23 December 1826 [SH:7/ML/E/10/0035]

Twelfth Cake was also a popular custom of the time period but unfortunately, we are yet to find a mention of this in Anne’s journal. An elaborately decorated cake, very similar to today’s Christmas cake, it would be the centrepiece of parties to celebrate Twelfth Night.

'The Regency twelfth cake not cut up'

by James Sayers, published by Thomas Cornell, etching and aquatint, published 19 February 1789, NPG D12252 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Anne does mention Christmas cake in 1838 when she ordered some for the Mann brothers, suggesting that it would have featured in the festivities at Shibden Hall. On this occasion, Anne ordered the Christmas cake alongside cheese, which from background research appears to be a Yorkshire custom.

Deck the halls

In the early nineteenth century, decorations for the festive season were not brought into the home until Christmas Eve as it was thought that doing so any earlier would be unlucky. Additionally, they would be removed from the house by Twelfth Night. Typically they would be relatively simple and consist of mostly greenery such as holly, ivy and mistletoe. As far as we know, there aren’t any specific mentions of this in Anne’s journals but a letter written by Anne to Isabella ‘Tib’ Norcliffe in 1810 does suggest that at Shibden Hall, the tradition of the burning of the ‘Yule Log’ was still very much kept, despite a decline of other customs.

The old customs of the night are gradually losing ground: they are little attended to here - I know of none in present use but burning the yewl clog, and playing at cards, the latter of which I have been doing from conformity rather than inclination -

25 December 1810 [SH:7/ML/39]

A log large enough to burn from Christmas Eve through to Twelfth Night would be selected by the family, brought into the house and lit using a piece of the log saved from the previous year. Over the last two centuries, the tradition of the Yule Log has evolved and you may be familiar with an edible version!

Robert Chambers, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

We do not know for sure where at Shibden Hall the Yule Log would have been burnt, but it is highly likely that it would have been in the Savile Room as this had the largest fireplace prior to Anne’s renovations. You can now access a virtual tour of Shibden Hall, which includes the Savile Room.

The Savile Room, Shibden Hall, with part of the panelling opened to show the original large fireplace which Anne Lister replaced with the smaller one. Source: Malcolm Bull’s Calderdale Companion

A season of generosity

In the late Georgian period, it was traditional to give gifts in sealed ‘Christmas Boxes’ to servants on St Stephen’s Day, now known more widely as Boxing Day. Whilst we have not yet come across any evidence of this in Anne’s writings there are several instances where Anne mentions buying things for servants, them going off to a party or gala, or Anne giving them time off to spend with their own families. George was given a week of leave to visit his mother at Christmas in 1837.

hurried to leave the servants at liberty – they have a gala tonight – allowed till 12, midnight -

24 December 1836 [SH:7/ML/E/19/0171]

w[e]nt up the r[ue] des augustins alm[o]st to the end of the st[reet] then turn[e]d b[a]ck and g[o]t right - ord[ere]d 2 doz[en] macon for the serv[an]ts at 1/05 -

22 December 1826 [SH:7/ML/E/10/0034]

A further example of the generosity of the Christmas season is seen in a letter written by Ann Walker, from Moscow after Anne’s death, to David Booth, Hipperholme, in December 1840.

Moscow Thurs[day] 17 Dec[embe]r 1840

Booth -

Be so good as tell Mrs Oddy to provide a shirt and stockings for Mr Green at

Xmas as she did last year and to give him five shillings. Also to let the woman at Dove House have flour as she had last year. If the widow Taylor of Light[cli]ffe be living be so good as give her three shillings and Betty Hodgson of Hipp[erhol]me five shillings at Xmas. Your letters are very satisfactory, go on, fearlessly do your duty, and bear in mind that “To the faithful reward is sure”

Ann Walker

Letter from Ann Walker [SH:7/LL/406]

We also know that in her will, Ann Walker left a legacy of £10 to be distributed to the poor people of Lightcliffe on Christmas Day every year, as a substitution for a similar bequest made by her uncle, William Walker. As further discoveries are made in the archives and we hear more of Ann’s voice, we may even find further examples of the charitable actions of both Anne Lister and Ann Walker during the years they spent together.

A ver. merry Annemas

Anne’s journals surprisingly don’t provide as much detail of Christmas festivities as one might expect given the nature in which she recorded things like the temperature, her bowel movements, her studies and her letter writing in considerable detail. It is therefore not possible to conclude from our current research quite how much she participated in celebrations and observed traditions of the time period or indeed whether Anne enjoyed the Christmas celebrations. A review of letters between her close family members may provide further insight than was possible for this article, particularly as the early years of Anne’s journal are incomplete and comprised of loose pages. Anne only began writing her journal at age 15 and therefore we do not have a complete first-hand account of the Christmas period from Anne herself during her early childhood.

We have so much more to discover but hopefully you have enjoyed this insight into what Christmas with Anne might have involved. As we reach the end of our #12DaysOfAnnemas, we wish you a ver[y] merry Christmas. We leave the final word to Anne herself.

Image courtesy of West Yorkshire Archive Service - SH:7/ML/E/2/0093



As usual, this is a team effort. A huge thank you to the entire Packed with Potential team for their support and encouragement. In particular, special thanks go to the following:

Chloe Nacci for assistance with the transcription of Anne’s journals.

Amanda Pryce for her advice and proofreading.

Marlene Oliveira for assistance with formatting and proofreading.

Jude Dobson for generously sharing various references in relating to Eliza Raine.

In Search of Ann Walker for their generosity sharing their research into Ann Walker.

Cover photo ©Calderdale Museums Service

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