A Regency Holiday

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.  

Important Dates

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 & Family at Windsor Castle

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

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).

Holiday Fare

“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

plum pudding

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.)

Christmas pudding

  • 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,
Peck-fulls, bushel-bag-fulls.”

– “Wassailing”

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.

New Years

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.


Happy 242nd birthday, Jane!

Happy birthday Jane!

On December 16, 1775, Jane Austen was born in the rural village of Steventon, England. Not many concrete details are known about birthday traditions in Austen’s time, but it seems that, unless you were royalty (see: national holiday), celebrations were modest affairs—some well wishes shared between family, perhaps the exchange of flowers and/or a gift.

We’ll be feting Jane’s illustrious legacy with a special birthday performance! Even if you can’t join us, we encourage you to raise a little toast to one of the most influential voices in English literature, whose wit and astute assessment of society resonates to this day.

Performances of the Primary Stages production of Pride and Prejudice run through January 6 at the Cherry Lane Theatre. For tickets and additional information, please visit our website.

Jane Austen: What’s Streaming

In an earlier post, we introduced several film and television adaptations of Jane Austen’s beloved texts. With the holiday season looming, what better way to fill your travel days and evenings at home than with any one of these universally appealing stories. While it’s far from an exhaustive list of the myriad adaptations (and inspirations) that have been made from Austen’s singular voice, you’ll have many enrapturing hours to look forward to.

Mansfield Park (1999)

Mansfield Park (1999)

Emma (1996) — Gwyneth Paltrow stars as the charming and eponymous protagonist who spurns love and marriage for herself, but delights in interfering in the romantic lives of others. Her machinations begin to unravel when she attempts to play matchmaker for a protegee, Harriet Smith.

Stream on: Amazon / Google Play / iTunes / Netflix

Emma (1996) — Adapted by Andrew Davies (of the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice fame) for British television network ITV in the same year as Gwyneth Paltrow’s film adaptation, Kate Beckinsale is, in one critic’s words, “the best [Emma] of all.”

Stream on: Amazon / iTunes

Mansfield Park (1999) — The film departs from the original novel in a number of ways and also incorporates aspects of Jane Austen’s life; the result is, in Roger Ebert’s words, “… an uncommonly intelligent film, smart and amusing too, and anyone who thinks it is not faithful to Austen doesn’t know the author but only her plots.”

Stream on: Amazon / Google Play / iTunes

Felicity Jones in Northanger Abbey

Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey (2007)

Northanger Abbey (2007) — Felicity Jones and JJ Feild are a captivating Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney in Austen’s satire of the Gothic genre. The coming-of-age story has the teenaged Catherine confusing her real life romantic entanglements with those in her favorite novels.

Stream on: Amazon / iTunes

Persuasion (1995) — Director Roger Michell wanted to be as faithful as possible to his source material, which extended to the production’s approach to makeup and costumes: the actors wore little to no makeup and clothing was made to appear lived-in, all which contributed to a sense of realism that many period dramas lacked.

Stream on: Amazon / Google Play / iTunes

Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Pride and Prejudice (1995) — The most successful and lauded adaptation to date, the 1995 BBC miniseries—directed by Andrew Davies—elevated Colin Firth (Mr. Darcy) to stardom and began a wave of “Austen-mania.” (Jennifer Ehle went on to join the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as to win Tonys for her work on Broadway.)

Stream on: Amazon / Google Play / Hulu / iTunes

Pride and Prejudice (2005) — In order to escape from under the shadow of the 1995 series, the creative team behind the film made an effort to distinguish their interpretation of Austen: the time period was changed from 1813 to the late 18th century (which, in turn, influenced the costuming—hardly an empire waist to be seen!), dialogue was altered to feel more natural and idiomatic, and there was a heightened romanticism to the entire project.

Stream on: Amazon / Google Play / iTunes

Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson as the Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility

Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson as the Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility (1995)

Sense and Sensibility (1995) — With three awards and 11 nominations at the 1995 BAFTAs and seven Academy Award nominations, Sense and Sensibility not only revitalized Austen’s works in popular culture, but is also recognized as one of the best Austen adaptations of all time. Ang Lee directed and Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay—and stars—in this story of the Dashwood Sisters and their journey through love and loss.

Stream on: Amazon / Google Play / Hulu / iTunes

Becoming Jane (2007) — A biographical drama that portrays a younger Austen (Anne Hathaway) and her fictionalized romance with Thomas Langlois Lefroy (James McAvoy), whose presence in her life some say inspired the dynamics in Pride and Prejudice.

Stream on: Amazon / Google Play / iTunes

Aishwarya Rai in Bride and Prejudice

Aishwarya Rai (second from left) as Lalita Bakshi in Bride and Prejudice (2005)

Bride and Prejudice (2005) — Many of the themes Austen writes about—marriage, dowries, the family as a social unit—are relevant issues in India and Pakistan (both countries have large Jane Austen societies), making Bollywood adaptations incredibly popular. Filmed primarily in English and featuring dialogue in Hindi and Punjabi, this Bollywood-style adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is set in modern India and features Aishwarya Rai as Lalita Bakshi.

Stream on: Amazon / Google Play / iTunes

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) — Director Ang Lee has referred to his sweeping wuxia (a genre of Chinese art concerning the adventures of martial artists) film on various occasions as ‘Sense and Sensibility with martial arts’ and ‘Bruce Lee meets Jane Austen.’ One of the most successful and influential foreign language films in the United States to this day, there isn’t anything explicitly Austenian about it, but it makes a compelling case for a film where “Jane Austen [as a code word is] a wonderful way of living one’s life at its most rhythmically amiable.”

Stream on: Amazon / Google Play / iTunes

The Primary Stages production of Pride and Prejudice is currently playing through January 6, 2018 at the Cherry Lane Theatre. For tickets and additional information, please visit our website.

Peek inside the world of Pemberley with costume designer Tracy Christensen

Tracy Christensen’s costume designs have appeared in the recent Broadway revival of Sunset Boulevard, starring Glenn Close, and in the HBO film Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, starring Audra McDonald, not to mention her work with countless shows Off-Broadway, regionally, and in concert and dance presentations. Christensen also dresses the madcap and quick-changing players of Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice here at Primary Stages. 

Tracy Christensen's costume designs for Pride and Prejudice

A sketch of Elizabeth “Lizzy” Bennet alongside a swatch of windowpane-checked fabric, featuring the characteristic Empire silhouette that was fashionable in women’s clothing during the Regency period (specifically, 1811-1820, but the term was also used to loosely refer to various periods prior to the Victorian Era).

Tracy Christensen's costume designs for Pride and Prejudice

In contrast to Lizzy’s simpler attire, Mr. Darcy is much more buttoned up (literally and figuratively). He’s shown here alongside the olive green fabric of his jacket and a subdued brown for his waistcoat (note the subtle floral details on his lapels!).

Tracy Christensen's costume designs for Pride and Prejudice

Our production of Pride and Prejudice features a cast of eight actors, but the story has nearly double the amount of characters—you can imagine there’s some creative juggling in terms of the doubling (and tripling!) of roles.

Jane’s romantic ensemble here is humorously contrasted by a shrouded and overstuffed Miss de Bourgh.

Tracy Christensen's costume designs for Pride and Prejudice

How bright-eyed Mr. Bingley and acerbic Mary Bennet could possibly be played by the same actor is a surprise you’ll have to experience for yourself, but an immediate difference can be seen in Bingley’s earthy and approachable ensemble, whereas Mary is nearly monochromatic in severe purples.

Performances of the Primary Stages production of Pride and Prejudice run through January 6 at the Cherry Lane Theatre. For tickets and additional information, please visit our website.

Primary Stages Annual Gala 2017

The annual Primary Stages Gala was held at Tribeca 360° on October 16, 2017. This year, we celebrated Artistic Honorees Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (the Tony-winning songwriting team behind Ragtime, Once On This Island, and Anastasia); Producer Honorees, Janet B. Rosen and Marvin Rosen (In Transit on Broadway); and Corporate Honorees Jose Mendez and Katie Graziano (The Excel Group and MIC Floor Covering, LLC).

It was a beautiful evening filled with good food, fun conversation, and showstopping performances (Liz Callaway, the cast of In Transit, Ramin Karimloo, and Quentin Earl Darrington, among others). Thank you to all of our featured guests and attendees for making it such a warm and festive event, and to everyone for supporting the work and vision of Primary Stages as we continue building an off-Broadway home for American theater creators.

For more information about supporting Primary Stages and our extensive education programs, visit our website.

Kate Hamill’s Pride and Prejudice: Suggested Reading

In Kate Hamill’s new adaptation of Jane Austen’s beloved Pride and Prejudice, the classic story gets a modern sensibility with a hearty dose of quirk. As a companion to the production, we’ve put together the following additional resources for your pleasure, whether you’re already a die-hard Janeite or have your own prejudices towards the oft-cited story.

Pride and Prejudice, Mary Evans Picture Library


  • The Annotated Pride and Prejudice (2012) by Jane Austen and David M. Shapard: With thousands of annotations to accompany the full text (explanations of historical context, citations from Austen’s other writings, etc.) as well as maps and illustrations, this exhaustive edition is indispensable to first time readers of Austen and lifelong devotees alike.  
  • Jane Austen: A Life (1999) by Claire Tomalin: Many biographies on Austen have reinforced the popular idea of a sheltered and untroubled spinster. Tomalin upsets that narrative by abstaining from embellishment and gossip in favor of piecing together the more serious and tumultuous moments in the author’s life.
  • Jane Austen: The Complete Works (2015) by Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, and Love and Friendship. These iconic novels have had generations of readers in a swoon.  Even in our modern age, her mastery of the English language leaps off the page.   

Still from the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, starring Keira Knightley.

Film & TV

  • Pride and Prejudice (1995): Seen by many as the definitive Pride and Prejudice adaptation, the BBC/A&E’s co-production—starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth—was a cultural phenomenon and one of the most popular programs in the history of both networks.
  • Pride and Prejudice (2005): In the most recent film adaptation of the book, director Joe Wright encouraged some marked deviation from the original text. It was a commercial success and found a loyal and lasting following through its aesthetic vision and in leading actors Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen.
  • Death Comes to Pemberley (2014): This PBS and Masterpiece Mystery! mini-series—adapted from P.D. James’ novel of the same name, which was written as a continuation of Pride and Prejudice—is Austen meets Agatha [Christie]. Taking place six years after the marriage of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett, ball preparations at Pemberley are halted abruptly when a corpse is discovered.
  • Clueless (1995): Loosely based on Emma and set in Beverly Hills, high school it girl Cherilyn “Cher” Horowitz plays matchmaker to two of her high school’s teachers. When she tries to do the same for a new student, affairs of the heart turns her world upside down.
  • Love & Friendship (2016): The recent film adaptation of Austen’s epistolary novel (a novel structured as a series of documents, most commonly letters), Lady Susan, features a cast that includes Kate Beckinsale and Stephen Fry. Though it uses the title of another Austen work, the story follows the escapades of the recently-widowed Lady Susan and her crusade to secure wealthy husbands for herself and her daughter.
  • “Furst Impressions”, Wishbone (1995): The Peabody and Emmy Award-winning series broadcast on PBS Kids in the 1990s sparked young imaginations and introduced an entire generation of children to some of the greatest works of literature from around the world, as told by its title character: a daydreaming Jack Russell Terrier.
  • The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012-2013): A multiplatform adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries was the first YouTube series to win a Primetime Emmy Award. Reimagined as a series of vlogs, our “Lizzie” here is a grad student who decides to start documenting the trials and tribulations of her life on video as a part of her thesis.


  • The Divine Jane: Reflections on Austen (2010) by Francesco Carrozzini: Originally commissioned for an exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum, this series of short films features six leading writers, scholars, and actors and engages with each individual on Austen’s lasting legacy.
  • Jane Austen: Behind Closed Doors (2017) by Lucy Worsley: English historian, author, curator, and television presenter Lucy Worsley guides audiences through Austen’s life by way of the different houses where she stayed and how each residence left a lasting impression on the celebrated author and the fictional worlds she created.

Illustration by Susie Hogarth


  • “The Word Choices That Explain Why Jane Austen Endures” by Kathleen A. Flynn and Josh Katz: If you love linguistics and visualizing data this article is the cherry on top for any Austen fan—her acute perceptiveness of her fellow human beings has met few equals.   
  • “Reading Jane Austen’s Final, Unfinished Novel” by Anthony Lane: Jane Austen died four months after writing the last line of her final, unfinished manuscript (now known as “Sanditon”). Reviews were mixed, with many questioning whether Austen was experimenting with new directions in her writing, or whether no consensus could be made with death hovering over the author.     
  • “How Jane Austen’s Emma changed the face of fiction” by John Mullan: “Revolutionary” and “Jane Austen” rarely share the same sentence, but Mullan makes a compelling case for Emma’s stylistic triumphs.

Performances of the Primary Stages production of Pride and Prejudice start November 7 at the Cherry Lane Theatre. For tickets and additional information, please visit our website.

First Look: Inside the Pride and Prejudice Rehearsal Room

The company of Kate Hamill’s Pride and Prejudice came together on October 17 at Primary Stages for the first read through of the show. Enjoy a glimpse of this joyous cast, featuring Mark Bedard, Kimberly Chatterjee, Kate Hamill, Jason O’Connell, Amelia Pedlow, Chris Thorn, John Tufts, and Nance Williamson.

Photography by Ashley Garrett

Performances of the Primary Stages production of Pride and Prejudice start November 7 at the Cherry Lane Theatre. For tickets and additional information, please visit our website.