An American’s English Christmas

An American’s English Christmas

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.”

Bracebridge Hall.

Irving populated his fictional Hall with a typical squire and a number of neighbors and guests who gather together to celebrate Christmas.

Squire Bracebridge

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.

The Yule Log.

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.

The Christmas candles, arranged 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.

A breakfast of toast and tea.

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! 

16 Responses to An American’s English Christmas

    • I had to Google “sand tarts,” Darcy, because I’d never heard the term before. Thanks for pointing me in the direction of some simple but delicious-sounding cookies! I plan to bake a batch this weekend (since I already have the ingredients on hand) and add them to my Christmas day menu. Merry Christmas to you!

  1. Such a nice post! We got british Christmas crackers one year just for fun and everybody loves them and now every year they want to know if we got the crackers!lol

  2. This was a lovely post. The one thing we have to have at Christmas dinner is the stuffing my mam used to make. We loved it and I’ve been making it myself now for years. Wouldn’t be Christmas without it. Last Christmas was Mam’s last (even though we didn’t know it then) and she still made the stuffing herself for her own dinner. Memories are everywhere.

  3. I remember there was always a box of fruit, candy and nuts under our tree. We would get new cloths and usually something that we especially wanted. I always enjoyed the citric and fruity smells from the oranges, grapefruits, apples and pears. I love that smell to this day. It makes me smile. This was a delightful post and those sketches were amazing. It just brought the story to life.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post! I can identify with your memory of the smells of fruit and citrus at Christmas. Santa always left us an orange in the toes of our stockings, and we sometimes added cloves to oranges to make pomanders. Thanks so much for sharing your memory!

  4. ‘Bubble lights” – we had them too! Remember Dad would carefully string them on the tree so they would stay upright. We would have to sit and wait until he had strung all the lights and garlands before we could place the ornaments.Did you have silver icicle strands? We put them on just before the star tree topper. Each year Dad would try to show us how to place the strands, bit by bit. Every year, it would end up the same – we would start throwing them at the tree and each other – icicle fight!

    • Oh, my goodness, Patricia, yes!! 🙂 My father was very particular about how we kids placed the tinsel on the tree strand by individual strand. It must have been a dad thing! But as much as we complained about it, the tree did look beautiful when we were done. Thanks for reminding me of a special memory I’d forgotten!

      • No outstanding Christmas food memories other than good food and family but New Year’s Day – that’s something different! As a sansei, third generation Japanese American, I grew up eating traditional food especially at New Year’s. My young friends would turn up their noses at what we ate but those foods considered exotic and strange are commonplace now – sushi, teriyaki, sashimi, various other seafoods, sweet rice confections, etc. My nephew and niece’s friends now all gather at my sister’s to eat and make mochi on Jan 1st. Unfortunately mochi making has been modernized. We use a mochi making machine which pounds the sweet rice instead of our “men folk”. Families and friends would get together prior to the New Year to make mochi – food and drink would be plentiful. Image this – two railroad guys, one wielding a mallet and the other holding the spike but in our case, instead he’s moving the dough between strikes – hoping the guy with the mallet hadn’t drunk too much sake and whiskey!

        • What a wonderful way to usher in the new year, Patricia, with family, friends and food! I love that you’re carrying on the tradition with a new generation. (p.s. It sounds like the traditional way of making mochi was very labor intensive, and you needed some good muscles to mash the rice!)

  5. We share some traditions… bubble lights and cinnamon rolls. We also add a new HallMark ornament every year. We use decorations passed down from my husbands family some dating back to the 40s. It’s our favorite time of the year.

    • I love that you blend decorations from both your and your husband’s families, Stephanie!. At our house we always enjoy watching reactions of people who have never seen bubble lights before. 🙂 Thanks for commenting!.

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