Christmas is very much upon us and with it a vast amount of different customs and traditions across households, counties and countries. However, what was Christmas like in the Regency, and how different was it from today’s festivities? Nancy Lawrence recently told us about Washington Irving and his experiences in 1815 England, but Jane Austen also gives us a fair deal of information in her works.
A Time for Friends and Family
Christmas was a time for family and friends to gather around and enjoy some time together. In Pride and Prejudice, the Gardiners go to Longbourn to spend their Christmas with the Bennets “as usual.” In Northanger Abbey, James Morland is said to have spent Christmas at the Thorpes. In Emma, Isabella, her husband and their five children, very much settled in London, spend a few days at Hartfield over Christmas. In Sense and Sensibility, Mrs Palmer invites the Misses Dashwood to “spend some time at Cleveland this Christmas,” an invitation they decline.
As pompous Mr Elton puts it in Emma, “This is quite the season indeed for friendly meetings. At Christmas, everybody invites their friends about them, and people think little of even the worst weather.” Happily, the custom has not changed much since the Regency, and most of us continue to get together with our loved ones to celebrate together.
Deck the Halls
Although the Christmas tree as such did not become widespread until Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, brought the custom from his native Germany, English people during the Regency adorned their homes in a way that most of us would recognise as definitely Christmassy. As well as the gentle glow of candles, then a practical necessity, it was very popular to decorate the house with evergreen boughs indoors, such as holly with berries, ivy and laurel. The custom went back to pre-Christian celebrations of the winter solstice and a reminder that the good weather would return.
As with any gathering and celebration, during a typical Regency Christmas, there would have been music and singing. Some of the tunes were specific to the season, such as “Green Groweth the Holly”, supposedly composed by none other than Henry VIII, although carol singers as we know them today were a Victorian invention. Charades and theatrical performances by the young ones would have also featured heavily. In Mansfield Park, Tom Bertram says that “I am sure, my name was Norval every evening of my life through one Christmas holidays.” The words refer to the most famous lines of an XVIII century play titled Douglas, by John Home:
My name is Norval; on the Grampian Hills
My father feeds his flocks; a frugal swain,
Whose constant cares were to increase his store.
And keep his only son, myself, at home.
Douglas, II, i
Mass on Christmas Morning
Christmas was observed with a church service, but many churches at the time were damp and very cold, with no heating of any kind, so going to Christmas morning mass would have involved getting dressed as warmly as possible and avoiding the slippery ice and frozen mud that was likely to be encountered in the way to church.
In Emma, the heroine is much relieved by “the sight of a great deal of snow on the ground” on Christmas morning. The lousy weather gives her the perfect excuse not to go to church, and therefore avoid Mr Elton, the Highbury vicar, who the previous night, as they are returning from dinner at Randalls, makes her an embarrassing and unwanted marriage proposal.
Plum Pudding, Mince Pies and Presents Galore
With food being at the heart of the celebrations, it was also traditional for some charitable individuals to invite the poor for a meal. Charitable clergymen like Mr Tilney or Mr Edmund Bertram would have most certainly welcomed the least fortunate into their homes, although Mr and Mrs Elton would perhaps have been less inclined to do so. They would have served them plum-pudding, the ancestor of today’s Christmas pudding, and mince pies. In Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Lucas is “wanted about the mince pies” sometime in November, which suggests that the ladies at Lucas Lodge were busy preparing the filling, made with fruit and spices (by the XIX century the recipe no longer included meat).
Christmas is synonymous with presents. Jane Austen would have exchanged gifts with her friends and family around this time of year, but not on Christmas day, but rather on Twelfth Night, on January 5th. The date marks the Feast of the Epiphany, which celebrates the arrival of the Three Kings and their offerings of frankincense, gold and myrrh to the Christ child. Twelfth Night parties, with music and dancing, were frequent during the Regency. Everyone in the household, from the master to the lowliest of servants, was served a piece of special Twelfth Cake. Hidden in the dough of the cake were a dried bean and a dried pea, and the lucky finders would be the King and Queen for the night.
A Jane Austen Christmas
As you can see, a great deal of the spirit of Christmas during the Regency would be entirely recognisable to most of us, and as proof, allow me to quote a paragraph in Persuasion, one of the most touching family scenes in Austen’s works, depicting Christmas at Uppercross:
Immediately surrounding Mrs Musgrove 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 tressels 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 all the noise of the others. Charles and Mary also came in, of course, during their visit, and Mr Musgrove made a point of paying his respects to Lady Russell, and sat down close to her for ten minutes, talking with a very raised voice, but from the clamour of the children on his knees, generally in vain. It was a fine family-piece.
Persuasion, Chapter 14
I anticipate that my Christmas will not be vastly dissimilar from the Musgroves’ this year. There will be mountains of food, evergreen decorations, Christmas carols playing in the background, dozens of presents, excited children running around and many adults speaking at the same time. Two centuries may have passed, but certain things remain the same, and may they never change.
Have a wonderful Christmas, wherever you are!
Which one of the Regency traditions above will you be embracing in the coming weeks?