As we approach the Christmas holiday, I look upon the simpler time in which Austen lived with envy. No commercials. No Black Friday crowds trampling one another for limited deals meant to draw them into the store. No Cyber Mondays and the slow internet. No anticipation and no disappointments. No materialism.
When most people consider a Regency Christmas, they are really envisioning a Victorian one. During the Regency Period (1811-1820), Christmastide began on Christmas Day and ended with a Twelfth Night celebration. There are few references to Christmas traditions in Regency literature other than the occasional wish for a “Happy Christmas” among story characters and real-life accounts. Even Jane Austen made few references to the day as anything other than an acknowledgement of Jesus’ birth.
Religious observances remained the foundation of English Christmases of the time. One must remember that in the 16th Century, to prevent subversion, the government banned Christmas celebrations. According to the Jane Austen Centre Magazine, “We have accounts from early 19th Century journals of Christmas days where the writer mentions the holiday but makes absolutely no fuss about it. Likewise, there are records of newspapers, published on December 25th that do not even contain the word Christmas.”
In Chapter 14 of Austen’s Persuasion, we see how the schoolboys’ return home for the holidays is the most important event, not the celebration of Christmas itself. “Immediately surrounding Mrs. Musgrave were the little Harvilles, whom she was sedulously guarding from the tyranny of the two children from the Cottage, expressly arrived to amuse them. On one side was a table occupied by some chattering girls, cutting up silk and gold paper; and on the other were trestles and trays, bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies, where riotous boys were holding high revel; the whole completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard in spite of the noise of the others.”
The Christmas pudding is traditionally made on Stir Up Day, the last Sunday before Advent. All family members of a household take a turn in the stirring with a special wooden spoon, which represents the Christ Child’s crib and the stable. Stirring in a clockwise direction with his eyes closed, each person makes a secret wish during his turn at the spoon – very much as one might do before blowing out the candles on a birthday cake.
In country houses, the occupants hung decorations on Christmas Eve. These remained in place until the Epiphany on January 6, when they were removed. One might hang holly, ivy, rosemary, evergreen, hawthorn and hellebore (Christmas rose). As for the mistletoe/kissing ball, it became quite elaborate during the Victorian Period. However, many believe the tradition remained below stairs in the servants’ quarters during the Regency Period. Yet, the kissing ball and the removal of the berries for each kiss “stolen” from a lovely heroine is often found in Regency based romances.
A Yule Log to burn throughout the festive days would have been common, as well as a Christmas candle. The kindling from the previous year’s Yule Log would be used to light the current year’s find. Groups – mummers whose origins date back to the Middle Ages – sang and performed short plays, usually on Boxing Day (December 26). The actors often mixed bits of history with the heroes of the British Napoleonic Wars in their tales. Of course, Saint George remained a staple of the plays.
Parlor games entertained houseguests, but there was no caroling (except possibly in Wales), no decorated trees, no stockings hung by the chimney with care, and no Christmas cards. Gifts were few and often took the form of charitable acts by the aristocracy. A landowner’s cottagers might bestow a gift symbolizing their devotion to his generosity or representing the bounty of the estate’s harvest on the main house. A Regency Christmas was a time to reflect upon one’s religious beliefs and to enjoy the companionship of friends and family. It was not the commercialized holiday we of this century would expect.
In creating Christmas at Pemberley, the challenge was to tell a tale of “Christmas” for a modern audience, but to stay true to the Regency Period’s practices. In the novel, Christmas arrives on a Sunday. It is December 25, 1814, the time period between Napoleon’s arrival on Elba and his escape in March 1815. I shifted the story’s emphasis from the expected symbols of Christmas (gifts, carols, trees, etc.) to the birth of two children and how each child’s entrance into this world changes the family into which he is introduced. I used the holiday’s practices as the framework through which the story is told. Remember a copy of “Christmas at Pemberley” is one of the month’s items for the December Giveaway.
A festive holiday novel in which personal rivalries are resolved, generosity rediscovered and family bonds renewed
It’s Christmastime at Pemberley and the Darcys and Bennets have gathered to celebrate. With such a mix of eclectic characters under one roof, bitter feuds, old jealousies, and intimate secrets come to the surface. Stubborn Lady Catherine seeks forgiveness, shallow Caroline Bingley finds love, and immature Kitty pursues a vicar. Forced into playing hostess, Georgiana tries desperately to manage the chaos while wishing Darcy and Elizabeth would return from their trip.
Enroute home, Darcy and Elizabeth are waylaid by a blizzard that forces them to take shelter in a nearby inn. Elizabeth is tormented that they will spend Christmas away from their families, but when a young couple arrives at the inn in need of a place for the night, Elizabeth’s concern turns to the pregnant girl. As Elizabeth and Darcy comfort and soothe her through a long and painful labor, they’re reminded of the love, family spirit, and generosity that lie at the heart of Christmas.