She has long been known as one of the nation’s sternest monarchs – and perhaps not the first choice of a Christmas host – but this year English Heritage staff at her seaside retreat on the Isle of Wight will be showcasing a more surprising side to the royal’s Christmas celebrations, with grand dinners, family festivities and party games, including an early forerunner to the mannequin challenge.
Though the festive season was subdued in the years following Albert’s death, her later years at Osborne saw the traditions of Christmas and its festivities begin to reappear, particularly with the appearance of more and more grandchildren. Gifts would be exchanged between staff and family (on Christmas Eve, a tradition still believe to be observed by today’s Royal family) before the day itself was marked by an elaborate Christmas dinner.
Recently translated for the first time, the menu from Victoria’s final Christmas, 25 December 1900, shows items that might be recognised by modern diners, including turkey with chipolata sausages and plum pudding, but also a few things that might not make it onto the 21st Century dining table. These include a fish course, and also a starter of Turtle Consommé, or soup – a famous (but expensive!) Victorian delicacy. [see Appendix for full menu].
All Christmas gatherings need games too, and Queen Victoria’s festive celebrations were no exception. That Mannequin challenge entertainment? It was known as the ‘Tableau Vivant’, and Queen Victoria and her guests would gather in the Durbar Room at Osborne and watch, often for several hours, as family members donned costumes and posed against a backdrop to portray a scene from history or a famous painting.
The curtain would fall, participants would change position, before it rose again, with the tableau repeated several times if the Queen desired it, before different costumes and scenes were selected. Live music could even be performed from the gallery above to accompany the poses.
Like most family celebrations, some guests enjoyed the festivities more than others. The journal of a Lt Gen Calthorpe, a regular dining guest at Osborne, was recently acquired by English Heritage. Attending a festive-season dinner in January 1890, he can be found bemoaning one such experience of the ‘tableaux,’ that lasted until 22:30, complaining “along time we had to wait! About 25 minutes!” between changes of scenery and costumes.
By contrast, the Queen’s own journals from this same occasion record her enjoyment of the spectacle, stating “The Tableaux were really lovely & so well arranged.” and that “The music was excellent, & every one was delighted.” There’s always one who inflicts games on everyone else!
Michael Hunter, Collections Curator for English Heritage at Osborne, said “The common misconception of Queen Victoria as a dour monarch has prevailed for many years, but recently people have begun to challenge that. Our research shows that here at Osborne, particularly in her later years, she enjoyed Christmas festivities with her family filled with feasting and games.”
“Although it is doubtful she participated, she particularly enjoyed the Tableau Vivant, and who’s to say she wouldn’t have looked fondly upon the modern day mannequin challenge?!”
English Heritage offer Festive Guided Tours of Osborne every Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday until 22 December, telling stories of Queen Victoria’s Christmas and touring rooms decorated as they would have been during the royal reign.
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English Heritage cares for over 400 historic monuments, buildings and sites – from world famous prehistoric sites to grand medieval castles, from Roman forts on the edges of empire to Cold War bunkers. Through these, we bring the story of England to life for over 10 million visitors each year. www.english-heritage.org.uk Registered charity no. 1140351
Tuesday 25th December 1900
Her Majesty’s Dinner
American Cream of Barley Soup
Turbot with Mousseline (or Hollandaise) Sauce
Breaded Fillets of Sole with Sauce Ravigote
Herbed Christmas Crêpes
Relevés (Separate Main Course)
Turkey Poult à la Chipolata
Chine of Pork
Entremets (Dishes Served after main course)
Asparagus with Hollandaise Sauce