Christmas in the Regency

Christmas Traditions in the Regency, by Jo Beverley

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.

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.

So, here are some of the Christmas traditions that might have been present in some places at Christmas in the Regency.

One feature that crops up often in many sources is the traditional use of greenery, and this seems to have been retained by many.

The traditional greenery of Christmas, going back to the middle ages, were rosemary, bay, holly, laurel, and mistletoe. Along with the aspects of fire and light in the darkest days, evergreens were either fertility symbols, or symbols of eternal life, or both.

A poem from 1825 goes as follows.

"Bring me a garland of holly,
Rosemary, ivy, and bays;
Gravity's nothing but folly,
Till after the Christmas Day.

1825 is after the regency, but Louis Simond, a traveler in England in 1810 noted the greenery in all the cottages at Christmas, so it was a custom among the simpler people. It was, however, apparently considered unlucky to bring greenery into the house before Christmas Eve, so this would have been a Christmas Eve or Christmas Day ceremony for those who observed it.

Mistletoe, of course, was the other traditional plant with roots back into the Dark Ages and Druid magic, but I have a picture of kissing under the mistletoe which dates from 1794, so did it become vulgar during the regency and confined to servants’ hall and cottage, or not? I don’t know.

This poem is from December 1826

The Mistletoe.

Sweet emblem of returning peace

The heart's full gush and love's release

Spirits in human fondness flow

And greet the pearly mistletoe

Many a maiden's cheek is red

By lips and laughter thither led;

And fluttering bosoms come and go

Under the Druid mistletoe

Dear is the memory of a theft

When love and youth and joy are left;--

The passion's blush, the rose's glow,

Accept the Cupid mistletoe

Oh! Happy tricksome time of mirth

Giv'n to the stars of sky and earth!

May all the best of feeling know,

The custom of the mistletoe.

Spread out the laurel and the bay,

For chimney piece and window gay:

Scour the brass gear -- a shining row,

And holly place with mistletoe.

Married and single, proud and free,

Yield to the season, trim with glee:

Time will not stay -- he cheats us so --

A kiss? -- 'tis gone -- the mistletoe.

The last line refers to the custom of plucking a berry every time a kiss was stolen beneath the kissing bough. Once the berries were gone, the practice was over.

*By Victorian times, the kissing bough was quite a complex construction. Five circles of wire were joined together to form a globe, and evergreens were bound around the wires. Apples were hung in the center and there could also be candles fixed. A large bunch of mistletoe was hung beneath. It could also be decorated with paper flowers. As there would be few flowers available in December in England, paper flowers might have been popular Christmas decorations. The mistletoe bough from 1794, however, is simply tied up and hung from the ceiling.

I've not found any mention of an actual Yule log in a regency source, though as I said, it's possible that Jane Austen's "Christmas fire" referred to it. Most Regency fireplaces would not be big enough for a real Yule log, which was brought in on Christmas Eve and lit, and was expected to last through the twelve days of Christmas. It was lit from a piece of last year's log and is a clear remnant from the pre-Christian festival of Yule, the midwinter ceremony of fire and light. As we can see from Austen, however, the connection of Christmas with a roaring fire was alive and well.

Candles link into this. There was a tradition of a Christmas candle that was lit on Christmas Eve and was supposed to last throughout Christmas Day. Again, this is not something I've seen specific reference to in a Regency text.

Snapdragon was one of those good old traditions -- even if it is one that would be banned today as highly dangerous! Raisins were soaked in brandy in a large shallow bowl. The lights were turned out, and the brandy lit. People had to try to grasp a raisin and eat it without burning themselves. I gather speed is the key. Don't try this at home!

And what of Christmas carols? Well, they don't seem to have been popular in the Regency. There certainly are ones that predate the period, but if sung at all then, it was in church as hymns. The other sort of singing was the wassail, where groups would go around to houses singing what were usually frank begging songs, hoping for some food, some drink, and some money.

A variant on this was the mummers, an ancient tradition. Groups of lower class men dressed up in traditional costumes to sing or perform a short play, again hoping for money. Some of the plays were traditional, and perhaps went back to the middle ages, but they were also generally updated with recent heroes such as General Wolfe and Nelson.

Here is one description of these traditions in Whitehaven, Cumberland during the Regency. "The comedians, of which there are many companies, parade the streets and ask at almost every door if the mummers are wanted. They are dressed in the most grotesque fashion; their heads adorned with high paper caps, gilt and spangled, and their bodies with ribbons of various colours, while St. George and the Prince are armed with ten swords. The "mysterie" ends with a song, and afterwards a collection is made." The "mysterie" these groups performed was Alexander and the King of Egypt. (Whose son is Saint George, an almost essential character in these mumming plays.)

And that might be connected to one English Christmas tradition that was present in the Regency and is still alive today – the Christmas pantomime. The pantomime usually opened* on Boxing Day. Joseph Grimaldi, the famous clown who lived from 1779 to 1837 regularly performed in one at Drury Lane, and Astley’s *Amphitheater also usually had a special Christmas spectacular.

However it was celebrated, Christmas in the Regency was Christmastide, which is the period from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night, and Twelfth Night itself seems to have been more celebrated than Christmas. Twelfth Night is January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany, and the official end of Christmas.

On Epiphany Eve, men would gather round a tree with cider and guns. In an obviously ancient ceremony, they would drink to the tree and fire the guns to drive away evil spirits and promote the vigor of the trees. Horn-blowing was an alternative to firing guns. They also sometimes lit fires and tended them through the night. (It all sounds like an excuse for a rollicking all-male party, to me!)

The day and night of the 6th – Twelfth Night – was a time for masks and playacting. Cakes were part of this day, not Christmas. Twelfth day cakes were light and covered with coloured sugar, and they contained a bean and a pea. The man who found the bean would become king for the night, and the woman who found the pea would become queen. I have no idea what happened if the wrong sex found the bean or pea! There are variants of this wherein the king and queen could choose a partner for the night, which could provide a situation for a romance.

Another similar Twelfth Night tradition was for the ladies to pick a man’s name from a hat, and he would be her partner for the night.

Again, I have reference to these practices in the late 18th century, but none in the Regency, so it is up to the author to decide if they fit in the Regency.

Of course, the things that were not present in the Regency are the Christmas Tree, Santa Claus*, stockings, and toy-making elves.

At the end of Twelfth Night, all the decorations should be taken down, and the greenery burned or the house risked bad luck.

And that is the end of Christmas. Until the next time.

Jo Beverley is the bestselling author of 40 regency and historical romance novels and a number of novellas. She is a member of the Romance Writers of America Hall of Fame and Honor Roll, and has been described as “...arguably today’s most skillful writer of intelligent historical romance.” (Publishers Weekly.)

Jo Beverley’s Christmas stories are as follows.
WINTER FIRE, (Georgian)

Novellas in anthologies.
THE WISE VIRGIN (medieval)

Stand alone e-book.

MISTLETOE KISSES AND YULETIDE JOY - A collection of Jo Beverley Christmastide novellas, containing:

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