Our contemporary experience of the holiday season is now largely secular festive fervor (dinner parties, gift hunting, all of that tinsel and pine). Holiday practices in Jane Austen’s England were, however, predominantly Christian, and for our purposes, that is what we’ll be exploring.
So much of our current holiday madness hinges on Christmas Day (December 25th) and while certain traditions have been carried down and adapted for contemporary ways of life through the years, the additional dates* that Austen and her countrymen would have observed in their time—some of which held even more importance than Christmas Day—have largely been left to history. The spirit of the season, though, remains:
“A casual search on the internet will tell you that Christmas during the Regency was not what it had once been or what it is today. To most minds the Christmas’s [sic] of the 18th century and early 19th century occupies a void, a dull patch, between the excesses of the middle ages and the reinvention of the Victorian period. Yet Christmas at the turn of the 19th century comprised an exciting mixture of old and new, of strange rural customs and brand new ‘traditions’.
Prior to [Oliver] Cromwell’s Protectorate, Christmas had been a highly boisterous affair, with much drinking and the celebration of raucous traditions, some of which had become linked to paganism in the mind of the church, whether this was true or not. Ollie being the grouchy old puritan he was, actually banned Christmas as a result, along with other frivolous pastimes like attending the theatre or playing football. As a result Christmas lost much of its debauchery and its central position in the ritual calendar until the Victorians took up its cause and created the celebratory behemoth we know today. That said, many of the old traditions survived and Christmas remained an important and magical time of year for most the people [sic]. It was a time of high celebration with visiting, gift and charity giving, balls, parties, masquerades, play acting, games and always lots of food.” (Hazzard)
* “Christmastide” refers to the season of celebrations observed by most Christian churches, which begins with Christmas Day and ends with Twelfth Night (the evening of January 5th) and Epiphany (January 6th). (For many Christian denominations, Christmas Eve is not a part of Christmastide, but of Advent, the preceding season on the liturgical calendar.)
Twelfth Night and Epiphany were greeted with even more gusto than Christmas Day. The former often celebrated the temporary suspension of social norms—popular games during the evening incorporated intrigue, theatricality, and social role reversal—and the latter was a feast and gift-giving day to mark the end of the Christmas season (decorations were also taken down then, lest you run the risk of facing bad luck for the remainder of the year!).
Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their family at Windsor Castle. From an engraving in the Illustrated London News (1848).
You’ll be hard put to walk around Manhattan at this time of year without running into a sidewalk Christmas tree stand perfuming a little stretch of street with the welcome scent of pine. While bringing in greenery to warm up the home likely predates any organized holiday traditions, the Christmas tree synonymous with the season wasn’t popularized in Britain until the later Victorian Era, when an engraving of Queen Victoria and her family around a tree was printed in an 1848 issue of the Illustrated London News.
Mistletoe balls were a common sighting on chandeliers, doorways, and hanging from ceilings—it was customary for a berry to be plucked each time a kiss was stolen and for the ball to be taken down once all the berries were gone.
Twelfth Night characters from The Illustrated London News (1842), illustrated by Alfred Crowquill.
There would be no Twelfth Night without the Twelfth Night cake. The rounds of charades and copious punch bowls were all well and good, but the expensive and elaborate cakes—decorated with sugar paste garlands and crowns—were indispensable players in the evening’s most important game. In one version of the proceedings, a dried bean and a dried pea were baked into the cake: slices of cake would be distributed to all the guests and the man who received the slice with the bean would be the “Bean King” for the night and his Queen would be the woman with the dried pea, allowing for a “topsy-turvy world where the ‘king’ and ‘queen’ could be the lowest members of the household, empowered to give out orders to their betters…” (Austen Only).
During Austen’s time, the choosing of Twelfth Night characters was done by drawing paper slips from a hat, not so much slices of cake, but the intricate confection maintained a prized position at the table.
Fire, it seems, was always a good idea in Jane Austen’s day. A brandy-soaked Christmas pudding not being enough, 16th to 19th century party guests arrived at snap-dragon. The parlour game was most popular during the winter, namely Christmas Eve: brandy was poured into a wide, shallow bowl and then heated, at which point raisins were put in and the whole thing set aflame. The point of the game was to pluck the raisins out of the flaming dish and eat them, at risk of being burnt (lights were usually extinguished or dimmed to heighten the drama of the moment and to emphasize the blue flames licking across the surface of the bowl).
“Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding!”
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
Illustration by Edmund C. Brock (1905) from A Christmas Carol. Scanned by Phillip V. Allingham of Victorian Web.
“Stir-up Sunday” marked the unofficial start to the season, when all manner of desserts that needed aging time would have to be prepared in order to be ready by Christmas.
(“Stir-up” refers to the opening prayer given at church service that day—“Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people…”—as well as to the culinary traditions. In some families each member took turns stirring the pudding with a special spoon, and other customs encouraged the stirrers to stir clockwise with their eyes shut, while making a wish.)
- An assortment of Christmas pudding recipes, from Godey’s Lady’s Book (1870)
- A modern publication, but a traditional recipe. (Be sure to go through the comments for tips and tricks from others who have succeeded with this ambitious and unusual dessert! For many people, it’s not a traditional Christmas pudding unless there’s suet involved.)
Holiday dinner spreads were as extravagant as families could afford and included:
- Goose was traditional, but other meats included turkey, mutton, and most prized of all, venison
- Potatoes, squash, carrots, and other hearty vegetables
- Old-fashioned mincemeat pie / a fruitier modern version
- Syllabubs and possets / a recipe from BBC Good Food
- Gingerbread, butter shortbread, sugar plums, and ginger nuts
Derived from the Old English word was hál, meaning “be healthy” or “be well”, wassailing referred to both door-to-door caroling and the pre-Christian practice of wassailing apple trees in cider-producing areas to ward off evil spirits and bless the coming year’s harvest. Apple wassailing usually took place on Old Twelfth Night (January 17th) when farmers would splash the largest tree in their orchards with cider while circling it and singing “The Wassail Song”:
“Health to thee, good apple-tree,
Well to bear, pocket-fulls, hat-fulls,
The “wassail bowl” was the mulled cider integral to door-to-door wassailing (and generally drunk within the home during Christmastide to toast the health of friends), when a drink of the hot beverage was offered in exchange for gifts.
The “first-foot” in Scottish and Northern English folklore was the first person to cross the threshold of the house, and he or she determined the family fortune in the coming year. An adult male with dark hair was the most desirable [Helloooooo, Mr. Darcy!] and women were generally unlucky if they were the first-foot (though in some regions, barefooted girls took precedent). Whoever the lucky individual was came with plenty of ceremony and often had gifts and/or drink in hand to welcome the New Year.
Add a little Regency flair to your holiday this year. The Primary Stages production of Pride and Prejudice runs through January 6, 2018. Visit our website for tickets and more info.