Every year Christmas seems to be getting bigger and bigger with decorations in the shops from September and the introduction of Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales from North America. However, a Georgian Christmas was an equally, if not more elaborate affair, based around saints and feast days. The Georgian Christmas period began on St Nicholas’s Day (6th December) and continued until Twelfth Night (6th January). However, in the early years of the Poor House it was Hallowe’en, and not Christmas, which was the main festival. It was the Victorian period before Christmas became a main feature in the Poor House’s calendar of events. Our archives illustrate this, as the first mention of Christmas is not until 1777 when the Committee agreed that the residents should attend their respective places of worship. By 1792 the Belfast Charitable Society was providing a ‘flesh meat dinner’ on Christmas day, alongside the usual meat dinner during the week.
Christmas in 1817 was a sombre occasion. Belfast was still rife with fever caused by the famine conditions due to poor harvests in 1816 and 1817. The archives show that children as young as 2 years old had to spend Christmas in the ‘Convalescent Home’ as the Belfast Charitable Society feared if they immediately brought patients from the Fever Hospital back to the Poor House that this would continue the spread of the disease. However, the food in 1817, even with the famine conditions in parts of the country, was beyond what the residents of the Poor House had known in previous years. Mr W.H. Ferrar sent eight ducks to the Poor House and the Society “ordered that shins, necks and haughes be purchased in preference to cows heads” for the 363 inmates. Over the years additional food and drinks were added to the residents Christmas diet. In 1848 each person in the Poor House, including the children, were given a bun each for supper on Christmas Day as a special treat.
By the 1850s local philanthropists were providing food for special occasions as a donation to the Belfast Charitable Society. Murray Suffern, a local businessman and politician, provided the Poor House Christmas dinner at his own expense from 1850 until his death in 1864. The dinners would have been extremely lively affairs with around 230 inmates receiving a dinner including roast beef, plum pudding, ale and a supper of tea. In 1863 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 residents enjoying themselves. Following the death of Murray Suffern in 1864 and William Lindon in 1866, their families continued to provide Christmas dinner.
The Poor House was decorated throughout in a range of what was termed ‘appropriate greenery’. This would have included holly, pines, firs and ivy. The archive records the money paid for decorations and it is likely the residents would have gathered green foliage from the grounds to decorate their own rooms. The use of greenery indoors as Christmas decoration was typical of homes throughout Ireland in the Georgian and Victorian period.
In 1882 George Benn, a renowned philanthropist and historian, 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’, as it became known, did not go as anticipated with both the committee members and the residents complaining about the quality of meat provided by John Gaffikin. Thankfully, the meat in the following years was of good quality and the custom of the Benn dinner is still observed to this day. This month will mark the 135th year of the Benn Dinner for the residents of Clifton Care Home and as is tradition, the Lord Mayor of Belfast will be in attendance. We very much expect this year will successfully carry on this fine tradition.
If you would like to hear more about Christmas in the Poor House come along to our weekly tours every Friday before Christmas in December starting at 3pm.