Christmas as we know it today is largely a Victorian invention. Traditional yuletide celebrations during Jane Austen’s time were quite different than today, but it was still an important holiday. Part of my second Austen-inspired book, Pemberley to Waterloo, is set during Christmas at Pemberley. I was fascinated to learn more about Regency Christmas traditions.
Santa Claus as we know him today did not exist for English children during the Regency. Saint Nicholas Day was celebrated on December 6, and it was customary to exchange gifts in commemoration. But no one supposed that the gifts were actual from Saint Nicholas or that he slid down anyone’s chimney.
Jane Austen gave one of her friends a gift of a Gingham needle bag for Saint Nicholas day in 1792 and wrote this charming verse:
This little bag, I hope, will prove
To be not vainly made;
For should you thread and needles want,
It will afford you aid.
And as we are about to part,
‘Twill serve another end:
For, when you look upon this bag,
You’ll recollect your friend.
A love for writing humorous poetry evidently ran in Jane Austen’s family. A staple of Regency Christmas celebrations was a Christmas pudding: a dish of breadcrumbs, raisins, eggs, milk and sugar that was sealed in a cloth bag and boiled. Mrs. Austen, Jane’s Mother, was asked to contribute a recipe for a friends’ cookbook, and wrote up a recipe for a pudding in verse:
If the Vicar you treat
You must give him to eat
A pudding to his affection,
And to make his repast
By the canon of Taste
Be the present receipt your direction
First take two pounds of bread
Be the crumb only weigh’d
For the crust the good housewife refuses,
The proportions you’ll guess,
May be made more or less
To the size the family chuses.
There are several more stanzas, describing the addition of all the other ingredients. It’s too long to post here, but I love the image of Jane Austen’s mother, seizing even this small, domestic opportunity to play with language and create humor and magic with words– a trait she must surely have passed on to her daughter as Jane was growing up.
The Austen family also enjoyed putting on family plays at Christmas. The ‘parlor theatricals’ at Mansfield Park are painted in a negative light as being not quite proper and giving too many opportunities for illicit flirtation. But Jane Austen herself wrote small one-act plays for her own family to perform at Christmas time as part of their celebrations. One such play (part of a collection of juvenilia that must have been written when she was quite young) contains the slightly absurd “song” to be sung by one of the characters:
I am going to have my dinner,
After which I shan’t be thinner,
I wish I had here Strephon
For he would carve the partridge
if it should be a tough one.
The Christmas tree is another tradition that only came into vogue in the Victorian era as an import from Germany. Regency Christmases in England did not include decorating a single tree. But Christmas celebrations would include decorating with pine branches, holly, and ivy branches– and of course mistletoe, also. In Persuasion, Anne visits the Musgroves at Christmas and finds the children ‘cutting up silk and gold paper’ to be used for decorations.
At the end of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth famously writes to her Aunt Gardiner and promises, “You are all to come to Pemberley at Christmas.” It’s lovely to imagine what a festive celebration that must have been.
What about you? Do you have any favorite Christmas traditions or memories?