Christmas in the Georgian period was an elaborate affair running from St Nicholas’s Day (6th December) to Twelfth Night (6th January). Presents were exchanged between friends and family on St Nicholas’s Day, whilst the wealthy would also give gifts to their servants, staff and the deserving poor on St Stephen’s Day. These Christmas boxes gave rise to the name ‘Boxing Day’. However, for those in the Poor House Christmas did not feature heavily in the early days, where Hallowe’en was the main festival. On Hallowe’en the poor were provided with apples and nuts. It was not until the Victorian period that the Christmas holiday became a main feature in the Poor House’s calendar of events.

The first record of Christmas occurs in December 1777 when permission was granted by the Board for the religious poor to attend their place of worship, but they had to return by dinner time. By 1792 the Belfast Charitable Society was providing a ‘flesh meat dinner’ on Christmas day, alongside the usual meat dinner during the week. At Christmas the Georgian gentry would have dined on venison and those who had some wealth would have turkey or goose. The staple meat for Christmas dinner in the Poor House was roast beef. In 1848 the Poor of the House, including the children, were each given a bun each for supper on Christmas Day as a special treat. The Poor House was decorated in ‘appropriate greenery’, including holly, pines, firs and ivy. Our archives show that the Belfast Charitable Society paid for a lot of the greenery to decorate the house but it is likely that the poor would have also gathered foliage from the grounds to decorate their own rooms.

Although Christmas Day was widely recognised as a national holiday, this was not the case in the Poor House.  The Minute Books record in 1830 the children of the Poor House successfully petitioned the committee to accept Christmas Day as a holiday.  As a result of this success the children were given the day off school- it seems the board were very generous with their Christmas gifts to the children! In December 1869 the children who requested leave of absence over Christmas were refused due to the presence of Scarlet Fever and other infectious diseases in town. This may seem harsh, but in the crowded conditions of the Poor House, diseases and infections could spread quickly. The Committee needed to take appropriate steps to prevent this. The one exception was that the poor could attend church, as both their spiritual and physical wellbeing were deemed important.

Murray Suffern, a local business man and politician provided a dinner for the occupants at his own expense from 1850 until his death in 1864. The dinners would have been very fine and lively affairs with around 230 inmates receiving a dinner including a roast beef, plum pudding, ale and a supper of tea.

Provisions for Christmas Dinner in 1851

Beef 210 lbs Raisins 28 lbs Edinburgh Ale 228 gallons
Suit 16 lbs Currants 28 lbs Knives & Forks 12 dozen
4lb Loaves 10 Sugar 14 lbs Eggs 6 dozen
2lb Loaves 55 Crush sugar 12 lbs Butter 32.5 lbs
1/2 lb Buns 240 Tea 2.25 lbs Sweetmilk 26 quarts
Flour 12.5 stones   Total cost: £12:9:0

 

By 1863 the Poor House residents were receiving Christmas Dinner generously funded by Murray Suffern, and Mr William Lindon of Corn Market paid for a supper of tarts, pies, almonds and raisins for New Year’s Eve celebrations. Both men attended these festive events and delighted in seeing the inmates enjoying themselves. Following the death of Murray Suffern in 1864 and William Lindon in 1866, their families continued to provide Christmas dinner.

In 1882 George Benn, renowned historian of Belfast, passed away and bequeathed to the Society a sum of £1000 to provide a special dinner for residents of the Poor House at Easter and Christmas.  The first Benn dinner did not go to plan with both committee members and the residents of the Poor House complaining about the quality of meat provided by John Gaffikin. The committee agreed that representatives should meet Mr Gaffikin and he was subsequently chastised for this short coming. Thankfully the meat in the following years was of a good quality and the custom of the Benn dinner is still observed to this day. In this 134th year, the residents of Clifton Care Home will be treated to the annual event on Wednesday 14 December 2016. The Junior Chamber of Commerce will provide the gifts, with entertainment by Little Flower Girls’ School. As is tradition the Lord Mayor of Belfast shall also be in attendance. We very much expect this year will successfully carry on this fine tradition.