One of the best descriptions we have of English Christmas traditions during Jane Austen’s life comes—ironically—from an American.
You probably know about Washington Irving, the American author who wrote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle.
But in 1815, at the age of 32, Washington Irving arrived in England to conduct some business on his father’s behalf. He stayed for three years, and during that time, he wrote a series of essays about Christmas celebrations in England. Soon, he turned those essays into a book titled Old Christmas.
The story takes place at a fictional Yorkshire estate called Bracebridge Hall, “an irregular building of some magnitude.”
Irving populated his fictional Hall with a typical squire and a number of neighbors and guests who gather together to celebrate Christmas.
For me, the best part about the story is reading the descriptions of describes the many traditions and Christmas observances, beginning on Christmas Eve.
He describes the great fireplace filled with a giant Yule log . . .
. . . glowing and blazing, and sending forth a vast volume of light and heat.
At dinner, he describes the dining room decorated with holly and ivy:
Beside the accustomed lights, two great wax tapers, called Christmas candles, wreathed with greens, were placed on a highly-polished buffet among the family plate.
On Christmas morning the squire served his guests cold meats, wine, and ale, at the same time he lamented the modern habit of taking only tea and toast for the morning meal.
After breakfast, the squire and his guests walked to church. The parson gave “a most erudite sermon on the rites and ceremonies of Christmas.”
When church services were over, everyone returned to the Hall to find . . .
. . . a band of country lads without coats, their shirt-sleeves fancifully tied with ribbands, their hats decorated with greens, and clubs in their hands, were advancing up the avenue, followed by a large number of villagers and peasantry. They stopped before the hall door . . . and the lads performed a curious and intricate dance. One, whimsically crowned with a fox’s skin, kept capering round the skirts of the dance, and rattling a Christmas-box with many antic gesticulations.”
When the dance was done, the squire rewarded them “with brawn and beef, and stout home-brewed.”
On Christmas night dinner was served in the great hall.
The parson said grace. Then, amid much fanfare, the butler entered, attended by a servant on each side carrying a large candle, and bearing a silver dish on which was an enormous pig’s head decorated with rosemary, with a lemon in its mouth, which was placed with great formality at the head of the table.
Another delicacy on the table was a pheasant pie, magnificently decorated with peacocks’ feathers, in imitation of the tail of the bird.
After everyone had feasted, and the cloth was removed, the butler . . .
. . . brought in a huge silver vessel of rare and curious workmanship, which he placed before the squire. Its appearance was hailed with acclamation, being the Wassail Bowl, so renowned in Christmas festivity.
After dinner, some of the guests sang Christmas carols, and the children performed a Christmas masque for the adults. Later, by the light of the Yule log burning in the great fireplace, the guests gathered to hear the parson tell stories of strange accounts of popular superstitions and legends of the surrounding country.
Washington Irving ends his tale with a fond nod to fast fading Christmas traditions, by writing:
It was inspiring to see wild-eyed frolic and warm-hearted hospitality breaking out from among the chills and glooms of winter.
There was a quaintness, too, mingled with all this revelry that gave it a peculiar zest; it was suited to the time and place; and as the old Manor House almost reeled with mirth and wassail, it seemed echoing back the joviality of long-departed years.
I love reading Washington Irving’s descriptions of the old English customs at Christmas; but what I especially appreciated was the way he depicted the Squire Bracebridge’s love for Christmas traditions. From yule log to ghost stories, the squire not only enjoyed the old traditions, he did his best to honor them and make sure they were passed down to new generations.
If you’d like to read Washington Irving’s full account of an old-fashioned English Christmas, you can read “Old Christmas” for free on the Internet Archive. Just click here to start reading.
Re-reading Washington Irving’s story reminded me of some of my favorite Christmas traditions. At my house we decorate our tree with ornaments and “bubble lights” that my parents bought new in 1962; and our traditional breakfast on Christmas morning is coffee, juice, and enormous cinnamon rolls!
Do you have a favorite Christmas tradition that’s part of your celebration every year? Please share it with us!