It’s easy to forget how different Christmas was before the Victorians imported so many customs from Germany. We owe them Christmas trees, for example, though apparently we owe one of our traditions to the Regency Duchess of York, wife of the Prince Regent’s brother, Frederick.
She first introduced the German custom of giving Christmas presents. She used to turn her dining room into a kind of Christmas fair, with decorations and piles of presents. She would invite all her servants and local children, too, to see the spectacle and share in the gifts.
For the army out in the Peninsula, Christmas doesn’t seem to have been particularly special. Often the army was in winter quarters and pretty bored. The only entertainment they had was what they made for themselves, much of which involved quite a lot of drink!
Leach recounts a horse race where the animals were such nags that horses and riders ended up in a floundering heap. It was followed by a performance of a makeshift play where everyone had so much wine and grog that "they all forgot their parts, and it was a toss-up whether our attempt at horse-racing, or at play-acting, was the most ludicrous."
August Schaumann, one of Wellington’s commissaries, recounts his experience of that same Christmas in 1810 in Torres Vedras (Portugal):
"I spent Christmas at Rio Mayor. Before dinner we often rode to a small river where our outpost was stationed. Across the river was a bridge which was barricaded. On the opposite bank stood the French sentries, on this side our own. On these occasions the French officers would come down and have a chat with us. They admired our beautiful English horses, spoke of our good King George… and they also sang the praises of Lord Wellington and the Portuguese troops.
They told us that they had a theatre in Santarem at which every night a piece entitled “The Entry of the French into Lisbon” was acted. We retorted smartly that very soon they would act the piece called “The Flight of the French” at which they all laughed.
We also gave them all the news, and they would throw their water bottles over to us to be filled with wine, and we would exchange our English newspapers for their French ones, by tying them round a stone and flinging them across the river.
But Lord Wellington put a sudden end to this fraternisation—and rightly, too."
Sounds a pretty tough way to spend Christmas, though they clearly went to huge lengths to keep their spirits up.
Best wishes to everyone for a wonderful holiday season.