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Christmas spending has changed a lot since the 18th century. Our modern Christmas spending habits are surprisingly similar to the spending habits of families in the 1700s. We all splurge on food, presents, and parties and things weren’t that much different back then. Although, Christmas traditions were a little bit different back then. 

In the mid 17th century, Christmas and all forms of Christmas celebration were banned by Oliver Cromwell and it wasn’t until Charles II’s restoration that it made a return. Initially, it was a holiday that the puritans strongly disapproved of due to its association with hedonism and extravagance, but the ban had done nothing to deter the Christmas-loving crowds. Some did what they could to keep the festivities alive with a celebration of ‘Twelfth Night’. This celebration had its roots in medieval tradition and was a time of foolery and folly. Party hosts would buy a very expensive and elaborately decorated and often expensive cake. Traditionally, these cakes would have a single dried bean baked into them. At the party, the cake would be cut and distributed to guests and the person whose slice had the dried bean in it became the ‘king’ of the party. They could order people around, decide on the entertainment and would be in charge of the festivities.

Of course, Christmas has never really gone away. Even during the ban, some families would celebrate it in secret. People would throw lavish parties for their family and friends and give generously to their servants and the poor. After the Christmas ban was lifted these two celebrations seemed to merge together in some households to become one big festival that lasted twelve days, combining the traditions of both holidays. People still spent most of their Christmas budget on cakes and sweets, and these desserts only became even more extravagant and expensive after the Christmas ban. Cakes were elaborately decorated in sugar icing, with the white icing being the most expensive, and crowds of people would flock to shop windows where these cakes were displayed to marvel at them.

The proud wealthy would invite almost everyone they knew to their Christmas parties and that often meant that the feasts became the most expensive part of the evening. Initially, Christmas feasts would consist of all of the old winter food stores in order to keep them well preserved over the holidays. Pastry and pie crusts weren’t for eating, but for keeping the food from spoiling and vegetables that might have only lasted a week could keep for a month when baked into a pie. However, because food storage wasn’t as much of an issue during the 18th century, these pies, pastries, and puddings became a more of a means of showing off and flaunting wealth than using food stores sensibly.

Gift giving also became quite a popular Christmas tradition during the 18th century. In acts of charity, the wealthy would award Christmas boxes to their servants that were filled with either filled with money or decorative ornaments. They didn’t have organized giving at Christmas in the 18th century, so it was the head of the household’s responsibility to show appreciation to laborers and the tradesmen they frequented, lest they disrupt their relationship.