It was also during the Wordsworths’ stay at Dove Cottage, in late 1807, that there was the greatest snow fall in 40 years. Dorothy Wordsworth's letters trace the progress of the snowy weather, practically acknowledging the difficulties it creates, but still revelling in its radiant beauty: ‘I could not but think that during the whole eight years of our residence here we had never before seen these mountain vales in the full possession of their peculiar grandeur, and power over the imagination. The lakes were firm ice, as clear as crystal.’
Now we have to imagine that we are cosily inside, warming ourselves by the fire, whilst outside we can hear music. In his poem addressed to his younger brother Christopher, ‘To the Rev. Dr. W-‘, written at Christmas 1819, Wordsworth celebrates the importance of the old tradition of the minstrels playing outside each house at Christmas:
THE Minstrels played their Christmas tune
To-night beneath my cottage-eaves;
While, smitten by a lofty moon,
The encircling laurels, thick with leaves,
Gave back a rich and dazzling sheen,
That overpowered their natural green.
Continuing the theme of music, Dorothy describes Boxing Day 1805, with Wordsworth’s children John and Dora. Dove Cottage is alive with dancing:
‘I have been summoned into the kitchen to dance with Johnny and have danced till I am out of Breath. According to annual custom, our Grasmere Fidler is going his rounds, and all the children of the neighbouring houses are assembled in the kitchen to dance…It is a pleasant sound they make with their little pattering feet upon the stone floor, half a dozen of them, Boys and Girls; Dorothy is in ecstasy, and John looks as grave as an old Man.’
Games too were an important part of Christmas. The critic William Hazlitt's essay, 'Merry England', for December 1825, lists favourite Christmas games in England: Blindman's-buff, hunt-the-slipper, and snap-dragon. Snap-dragon, which was generally played on Christmas Eve, involved heating up brandy in a bowl, adding raisins, setting the brandy alight, with the aim of the game being to pluck the raisins out and eat them.
But with the skating, dancing and games no doubt the Wordsworths got very hungry, so what did they have for Christmas dinner?
Dorothy tells us that her nephew John ‘is all alive at the thought of two plumb-puddings which are now rumbling in the Pot, and a Sirloin of Beef that is smoking at the Fire. Old Molly and John Fisher are in the kitchen, but when dinner is ready they are to come up stairs and partake with us, and “Johnny and all’. (Dorothy to Catherine Clarkson, 25 December 1805)
Many of these ingredients for a perfect Christmas are included in Dorothy’s portrayal of Christmas day 1811:
‘We had the finest Christmas day ever remembered, a cloudless sky and glittering Lake; the tops of the higher mountains covered with snow. The day was kept as usual with roast beef and plumb pudding, and I instead of going to Church had a pleasant walk with William in the morning. In the evening William and Mary walked by moonlight, and I played at cards with the children, a treat which is to be repeated on New Year’s day.’