Regency Christmas

Over the next two days, I’m sharing an article I wrote about Christmas in Regency England. Hint about the picture. NOT! Though the Christmas tree was known in England, imported by various German spouses, it didn’t become a part of the season until Queen Victoria’s time.
Xmastree

The nature of Christmas during the English regency (1811-1820) is surprisingly difficult to uncover — which might be the clearest sign that it was not made as much of as we expect. Jane Austen hardly mentions it in her frequent letters. In one letter written to her beloved sister Cassandra on December 24th and 25th, she does wish her a “merry Christmas” but does not seem to be bothered by being apart at that time, or make mention of particular festivities. She is invited to dine at a nearby house but does not plan to go because the weather is bad. The weather clears, so she goes after all.

In chapter 14 of Austen’s Persuasion we are given a picture of one family’s Christmas, the main feature of which seems to be the return of schoolboys for the holidays. “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.” This is seen as too noisy by the heroine and her friend Lady Russell, who remarks, “I hope I shall remember in future not to call at Uppercross in the Christmas holiday.”

Washington Irving, in his Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. also records the return home of the schoolboys as a major feature of Christmas at this time. However, this was published in 1820 and can be seen as part of a widespread movement to revive traditional Christmas celebrations, which is evidence in itself of the tepid nature of Christmas observance during the Regency. His description of Squire Bracebridge’s old fashioned Christmas is placed in pointed contrast to the norm.

Frank Bracebridge invites the traveler to spend Christmas at his family home, but says, “My father, you must know, is a bigoted devotee of the old school, and prides himself upon keeping up something of old English hospitality…. He is a strenuous advocate for the revival of the old rural games and holiday observances…” Later in the book, we get:

“As we approached the house, we heard the sound of music, and now and then a burst of laughter from one end of the building. This, Bracebridge said, must proceed from the servants’ hall, where a great deal of revelry was permitted, and even encouraged, by the Squire throughout the twelve days of Christmas, provided everything was done comformably to ancient usage. Here were kept up the old games of hoodman blind, shoe the wild mare, hot cockles, steal the white loaf, bob apple and snapdragon: the Yule log and Christmas candle were regularly burnt, and the mistletoe, with its white berries, hung up to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids.”

This is a good summary of the old traditions, dating back to the middle ages, but mostly lapsed in the early nineteenth century. You can read the rest of the piece to see what Irving thought delightful, but what was clearly also not the norm. The full text is here.

One of the chief proponents of the Christmas revival was Leigh Hunt, the poet, critic, and journalist. (1784-1859) Leigh Hunt was what we would call today a left wing political activist, (he spent two years in jail) so his support of a nostalgic Christmas might seem strange, but in fact this movement had a lot to do with reaching back for a more stable and generous world. This grew because of the suffering and upheaval of the post-Waterloo era. Leigh Hunt was owner and editor of a publication called the Examiner, and it was there he wrote articles, both political and sentimental.

In response to one about Christmas, a lady wrote a letter to the Examiner.
“I feel unwilling to intrude upon your valuable time, yet I cannot refrain from thanking you for your cheering attempts to enforce a due observance of this delightful season.” She goes on to thank them on her own behalf; on behalf of boys released from school for Christmas holidays; and on behalf of the poor who need charity. “I have, under this feeling, been for some days past busily employed in preparing for passing Christmas worthily. My beef and mincemeat are ready, (of which, with some warm garments, my poor neighbors will partake,) and my holly and mistletoe gathered; for I heartily approve of your article, and am of the opinion that to the false refinement of modern times may be traced the loss of that primitive and pure simplicity which characterized “other times.” A wife, a mother, and an Englishwoman. December 21st 1818

This movement gathered steam and reached full speed in the 1830s with Dickens, first with Pickwick. then with A Christmas Carol.

So, what was Christmas like through most of our Regency period? My reading suggests that it was still celebrated in many local, rustic ways, but that among the gentry it was a mostly religious festival marked by a good meal with friends and charity to the poor. In Jane Austen’s Emma, we are told, “At Christmas every body invites their friends about them, and people think little of even the worst weather.” Many of the traditions we now associate with it had been practiced in the past, but were now considered rustic. The “false refinement” referred to above.

William Holland, a rural parson, kept a diary from 1799 to 1818. His records of Christmas show a pattern. Apart from his presiding over two or more services in his different local parishes, he and his family were woken early in the morning by musicians (wassailers – see below), then held a kind of open house in their kitchen for various local people who were perhaps charity cases, as well as hosting a meal for friendly neighbors. Charity was an important feature of the day for Holland, and it seems to have been traditional for him to give a gift to each person attending service. Later in his period this was wheat, perhaps because of the high price of wheat then. Christmas Eve was also a time for widespread charity to the poor.

It is hard, however, to decide quite how most people celebrated Christmas, for perhaps some did hold to older ways like Squire Bracebridge and, particularly after 1815, some would have been in the forefront of the Christmas revival. From Jane Austen above, we have “silk and gold paper”, which suggests decorations, and the “Christmas fire” which might have been a Yule log.

Tomorrow, I’ll list some of the Christmas traditions that might have been present in some places at Christmas in the Regency.Santa

(Another NOT! St. Nicholas was known, but not familiar in England. Father Christmas and Santa Claus with sacks of toys are, again, Victorian.)

Best wishes for the season, howevery you enjoy it,

Jo 🙂

44 thoughts on “Regency Christmas”

  1. Good morning, Jo! I see you’ve been busy already so I need to nothing else, thank you. This is a fascinating start to the Christmas season–as with most history, it kind of leaves writers free to do as they wish depending on their protagonist’s character.
    Sorry to be absent for so long but our phone/internet/TV cable suffered a mishap while tilling our spring garden. And since the cable people didn’t bother moving the cable, it most likely will occur again. I’ll not say bah humbug so early in the season. “G”
    Happy Holidays, everyone!

    Reply
  2. Good morning, Jo! I see you’ve been busy already so I need to nothing else, thank you. This is a fascinating start to the Christmas season–as with most history, it kind of leaves writers free to do as they wish depending on their protagonist’s character.
    Sorry to be absent for so long but our phone/internet/TV cable suffered a mishap while tilling our spring garden. And since the cable people didn’t bother moving the cable, it most likely will occur again. I’ll not say bah humbug so early in the season. “G”
    Happy Holidays, everyone!

    Reply
  3. Good morning, Jo! I see you’ve been busy already so I need to nothing else, thank you. This is a fascinating start to the Christmas season–as with most history, it kind of leaves writers free to do as they wish depending on their protagonist’s character.
    Sorry to be absent for so long but our phone/internet/TV cable suffered a mishap while tilling our spring garden. And since the cable people didn’t bother moving the cable, it most likely will occur again. I’ll not say bah humbug so early in the season. “G”
    Happy Holidays, everyone!

    Reply
  4. Good morning, Jo! I see you’ve been busy already so I need to nothing else, thank you. This is a fascinating start to the Christmas season–as with most history, it kind of leaves writers free to do as they wish depending on their protagonist’s character.
    Sorry to be absent for so long but our phone/internet/TV cable suffered a mishap while tilling our spring garden. And since the cable people didn’t bother moving the cable, it most likely will occur again. I’ll not say bah humbug so early in the season. “G”
    Happy Holidays, everyone!

    Reply
  5. I think we all long for a more stable and generous world. I find the Christmas history lesson fascinating. Who knows how our modern crazes will be interpreted 200 years from now? Imagine someone trying to explain the desirability of plastic trees, Bratz, Barbies, Tickle Me Elmo and Cabbage Patch Kids.

    Reply
  6. I think we all long for a more stable and generous world. I find the Christmas history lesson fascinating. Who knows how our modern crazes will be interpreted 200 years from now? Imagine someone trying to explain the desirability of plastic trees, Bratz, Barbies, Tickle Me Elmo and Cabbage Patch Kids.

    Reply
  7. I think we all long for a more stable and generous world. I find the Christmas history lesson fascinating. Who knows how our modern crazes will be interpreted 200 years from now? Imagine someone trying to explain the desirability of plastic trees, Bratz, Barbies, Tickle Me Elmo and Cabbage Patch Kids.

    Reply
  8. I think we all long for a more stable and generous world. I find the Christmas history lesson fascinating. Who knows how our modern crazes will be interpreted 200 years from now? Imagine someone trying to explain the desirability of plastic trees, Bratz, Barbies, Tickle Me Elmo and Cabbage Patch Kids.

    Reply
  9. Thank you so much for this article. I had taught a class a couple of years ago regarding medieval yuletide and its a shame how many traditions have come and gone and which ones prevailed. One thing I had a question on was that I remember seeing some years ago that Yule was a special day for the gentry because it marked some certain tax day or something and it had a special name, but for the life of me, I can’t find the info. I also remember reading that during one night, the servants and those “above stairs” traded places. That always intrigued me.
    Thanks again and happy holidays to all of you!

    Reply
  10. Thank you so much for this article. I had taught a class a couple of years ago regarding medieval yuletide and its a shame how many traditions have come and gone and which ones prevailed. One thing I had a question on was that I remember seeing some years ago that Yule was a special day for the gentry because it marked some certain tax day or something and it had a special name, but for the life of me, I can’t find the info. I also remember reading that during one night, the servants and those “above stairs” traded places. That always intrigued me.
    Thanks again and happy holidays to all of you!

    Reply
  11. Thank you so much for this article. I had taught a class a couple of years ago regarding medieval yuletide and its a shame how many traditions have come and gone and which ones prevailed. One thing I had a question on was that I remember seeing some years ago that Yule was a special day for the gentry because it marked some certain tax day or something and it had a special name, but for the life of me, I can’t find the info. I also remember reading that during one night, the servants and those “above stairs” traded places. That always intrigued me.
    Thanks again and happy holidays to all of you!

    Reply
  12. Thank you so much for this article. I had taught a class a couple of years ago regarding medieval yuletide and its a shame how many traditions have come and gone and which ones prevailed. One thing I had a question on was that I remember seeing some years ago that Yule was a special day for the gentry because it marked some certain tax day or something and it had a special name, but for the life of me, I can’t find the info. I also remember reading that during one night, the servants and those “above stairs” traded places. That always intrigued me.
    Thanks again and happy holidays to all of you!

    Reply
  13. You rather have to figure that Christmas became big once it really became commericalized — then you have cause for it to be all around you and in every commerical and every ad, etc. At least something like that. LOL 🙂
    Lois

    Reply
  14. You rather have to figure that Christmas became big once it really became commericalized — then you have cause for it to be all around you and in every commerical and every ad, etc. At least something like that. LOL 🙂
    Lois

    Reply
  15. You rather have to figure that Christmas became big once it really became commericalized — then you have cause for it to be all around you and in every commerical and every ad, etc. At least something like that. LOL 🙂
    Lois

    Reply
  16. You rather have to figure that Christmas became big once it really became commericalized — then you have cause for it to be all around you and in every commerical and every ad, etc. At least something like that. LOL 🙂
    Lois

    Reply
  17. Vikki – I think you are probably referring to the fact that Christmas Day is one of the four Quarter Days in England, Wales and Ireland (Scotland is different).
    The Quarter Days were the days on which payment of rents and leases fell due and certain taxes were collected. Though based on the Church calendar, they still apply in many leasehold contracts and the like. They are:
    March 25 (Lady Day)
    June 24 (Midsummer)
    September 29 (Michaelmas)
    December 25 (Christmas).

    Reply
  18. Vikki – I think you are probably referring to the fact that Christmas Day is one of the four Quarter Days in England, Wales and Ireland (Scotland is different).
    The Quarter Days were the days on which payment of rents and leases fell due and certain taxes were collected. Though based on the Church calendar, they still apply in many leasehold contracts and the like. They are:
    March 25 (Lady Day)
    June 24 (Midsummer)
    September 29 (Michaelmas)
    December 25 (Christmas).

    Reply
  19. Vikki – I think you are probably referring to the fact that Christmas Day is one of the four Quarter Days in England, Wales and Ireland (Scotland is different).
    The Quarter Days were the days on which payment of rents and leases fell due and certain taxes were collected. Though based on the Church calendar, they still apply in many leasehold contracts and the like. They are:
    March 25 (Lady Day)
    June 24 (Midsummer)
    September 29 (Michaelmas)
    December 25 (Christmas).

    Reply
  20. Vikki – I think you are probably referring to the fact that Christmas Day is one of the four Quarter Days in England, Wales and Ireland (Scotland is different).
    The Quarter Days were the days on which payment of rents and leases fell due and certain taxes were collected. Though based on the Church calendar, they still apply in many leasehold contracts and the like. They are:
    March 25 (Lady Day)
    June 24 (Midsummer)
    September 29 (Michaelmas)
    December 25 (Christmas).

    Reply
  21. Snapdragon is one of the “old fashioned” games mentioned that is still alive and well in many English homes. A skillet is warmed and raisins and almonds (whole with skins removed) are added. Enough brandy is added to cover the bottom the pan. The brandy is then set alight and the company gather around and try to snatch the flaming nuts and raisins and eat them. Give it a try!

    Reply
  22. Snapdragon is one of the “old fashioned” games mentioned that is still alive and well in many English homes. A skillet is warmed and raisins and almonds (whole with skins removed) are added. Enough brandy is added to cover the bottom the pan. The brandy is then set alight and the company gather around and try to snatch the flaming nuts and raisins and eat them. Give it a try!

    Reply
  23. Snapdragon is one of the “old fashioned” games mentioned that is still alive and well in many English homes. A skillet is warmed and raisins and almonds (whole with skins removed) are added. Enough brandy is added to cover the bottom the pan. The brandy is then set alight and the company gather around and try to snatch the flaming nuts and raisins and eat them. Give it a try!

    Reply
  24. Snapdragon is one of the “old fashioned” games mentioned that is still alive and well in many English homes. A skillet is warmed and raisins and almonds (whole with skins removed) are added. Enough brandy is added to cover the bottom the pan. The brandy is then set alight and the company gather around and try to snatch the flaming nuts and raisins and eat them. Give it a try!

    Reply
  25. Great post, Jo! I’m looking forward to the second half.
    It’s interesting that the period where so many Regency romances are set is in a sort of limbo between the jolly old Christmases and the Christmas revival.
    Vikki, I’m unfamiliar with a British custom of upstairs and downstairs changing places, but that was an aspect of Roman Saturnalia, a major festival held around the winter solstice. There was indeed changing places there, within careful limits. For more on this, check out:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saturnalia
    Lois, that’s an interesting point about Christmas getting big when it became more commercial! The two things do seem intertwined.
    Mary Jo

    Reply
  26. Great post, Jo! I’m looking forward to the second half.
    It’s interesting that the period where so many Regency romances are set is in a sort of limbo between the jolly old Christmases and the Christmas revival.
    Vikki, I’m unfamiliar with a British custom of upstairs and downstairs changing places, but that was an aspect of Roman Saturnalia, a major festival held around the winter solstice. There was indeed changing places there, within careful limits. For more on this, check out:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saturnalia
    Lois, that’s an interesting point about Christmas getting big when it became more commercial! The two things do seem intertwined.
    Mary Jo

    Reply
  27. Great post, Jo! I’m looking forward to the second half.
    It’s interesting that the period where so many Regency romances are set is in a sort of limbo between the jolly old Christmases and the Christmas revival.
    Vikki, I’m unfamiliar with a British custom of upstairs and downstairs changing places, but that was an aspect of Roman Saturnalia, a major festival held around the winter solstice. There was indeed changing places there, within careful limits. For more on this, check out:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saturnalia
    Lois, that’s an interesting point about Christmas getting big when it became more commercial! The two things do seem intertwined.
    Mary Jo

    Reply
  28. Great post, Jo! I’m looking forward to the second half.
    It’s interesting that the period where so many Regency romances are set is in a sort of limbo between the jolly old Christmases and the Christmas revival.
    Vikki, I’m unfamiliar with a British custom of upstairs and downstairs changing places, but that was an aspect of Roman Saturnalia, a major festival held around the winter solstice. There was indeed changing places there, within careful limits. For more on this, check out:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saturnalia
    Lois, that’s an interesting point about Christmas getting big when it became more commercial! The two things do seem intertwined.
    Mary Jo

    Reply
  29. There is a local theater group who put on a reenactment/celebration of Christmas/Solstice traditions. Every year it’s something different. I had the pleasure to attend in 2004 when it was Scotland and Hogmanay. Check out the website, click on Archives to see Revels past.
    http://www.calrevels.org/

    Reply
  30. There is a local theater group who put on a reenactment/celebration of Christmas/Solstice traditions. Every year it’s something different. I had the pleasure to attend in 2004 when it was Scotland and Hogmanay. Check out the website, click on Archives to see Revels past.
    http://www.calrevels.org/

    Reply
  31. There is a local theater group who put on a reenactment/celebration of Christmas/Solstice traditions. Every year it’s something different. I had the pleasure to attend in 2004 when it was Scotland and Hogmanay. Check out the website, click on Archives to see Revels past.
    http://www.calrevels.org/

    Reply
  32. There is a local theater group who put on a reenactment/celebration of Christmas/Solstice traditions. Every year it’s something different. I had the pleasure to attend in 2004 when it was Scotland and Hogmanay. Check out the website, click on Archives to see Revels past.
    http://www.calrevels.org/

    Reply

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