A Very Victorian Christmas

When indulging nostalgia for the old fashioned Christmas of velvet-clad children, candle-decked trees and sumptuous festive feasts, it is very easy from a 21st Century perspective to forget that all of this was produced without modern amenities like oh, say, running water. Spare a thought for the labours of scullery maids, cooks and mammies of old – and the snow-bound Ireland of today.

Here at home in 2010, we’re on Day 4 of pipes frozen solid and no running water. My husband equates these conditions to living in a Gulag, but I prefer to stand over the kitchen sink with a kettle and bucket and ponder the household efforts of my fore mothers. Obviously, households were managed with far fewer conveniences for hundreds of years, so it certainly is possible once you get a system going.

For two people, we go through about 15 litres of conservatively hoarded and recycled water a day, meaning a schedule that looks like this:

  • Decant water into kettle, boil
  • Stack dishes, pots, pans in washing-up bowl. (Note: If you do not actually own a washing-up bowl, you can substitute that very nice large salad bowl you received as a wedding gift.)
  • Soak dishes in bowl of boiling water with small amount of dishwashing soap
  • Scrub dishes in still-hot water and whine about boiling water being quite hot
  • Remove sudsy dishes, decant salad bowl water into waiting bucket, and learn exactly why these pourings are called greywater
  • Refill kettle, boil, cool
  • Rinse dishes by holding them over bowl and pouring kettle water over each
  • Decant collected water into bucket
  • Use bucket of greywater to flush loo

This system (and this amount of water), while sufficient to wash dishes, flush toilets, cook dinner and generally keep us in tea and coffees, doesn’t take into account the fact that all of the water we use has to be carried in here from somewhere. Since all of our neighbours are also in the same boat, this is generally from the few local businesses that still have flowing pipes. It also doesn’t account for luxuries like laundry or, you know, bathing.

This year for Christmas my parents got us a room at the nearby Lancaster Lodge, where on Tuesday night we took the longest, hottest, most luxurious and expensive showers in the history of running water. Yesterday I worked out a deal with the local gym for a day-pass rate, which was great except for the fact they’re now closed until the 26th. Which is, as it happens, the very earliest we are expecting a thaw and maybe, maybe the return of running water.

Most problematic really is cooking and particularly baking. Traditionally we make our Christmas gifts, with homemade cookies, candies, and chocolate all swishily packaged up and delivered on Christmas Day. This year, I don’t have the water for filling double boilers, washing up food processors and mix masters, or melting off delicious chocolate, so Christmas presents are just going to have to wait for the occasion of New Year’s Day.

When I have eight people coming for dinner. And hopefully, a flushing toilet.

Dear Santa:

I have been a very good girl this year. Please cancel previous request for pony. All I want for Christmas this year is a thaw.