A full month of posts to celebrate the Christmastide season. Stories, traditions, recipes, videos, games and a giveaway to fill your Yuletide with Regency Era fun.
Families put up decorations and greenery throughout the house on Christmas Eve, usually not before. Traditional greenery included holly, ivy, rosemary, evergreen, hawthorn, laurel, and hellebore (Christmas rose). Boughs, garlands and sprigs decorated windows, tables, mantles and stairways with the scents and colors of the season. For those who could not go out and cut their own, greenery could be purchased for the season.
Some households fashioned kissing boughs from evergreens and mistletoe, adding apples and pretty ribbon bows for decoration. Young men might ‘steal’ a kiss beneath the kissing bow and pluck a mistletoe berry for each stolen kiss. When the berries were gone, no more kisses could be stolen. Oftentimes though, the mistress of the house relegated these particular decorations below stairs, inappropriate for proper company.
The greenery remained in place until Twelfth Night when it was removed and burned lest it bring bad luck to the house.
Regency Holiday Lights
Twinkling lights are an iconic emblem of the holiday season and one of my very favorites. I love to turn off all the lights and enjoy the flicker of candle light or the glow of the Christmas tree light. Even before the Christmas tree was widely in vogue, the Regency Christmastide season had its own array of holiday lights.
The Yule log is perhaps the best known of the traditional holiday lights. The Yule Log, an enormous log of freshly cut wood, would be gathered by teams of farmhands and hauled to the house with great ceremony and merriment. Once on the hearth, the log might be anointed with oil, salt and wine, with suitable prayers made. The log was lit on Christmas Eve with splinters saved from the log from the previous year. The fire was to last at least until the end of Christmas Day and was kept smoldering until Twelfth Night. The Yule Log was believed to bring prosperity and protection from evil. Families kept a remnant of the log all the year long so protection would remain across the seasons. Even the ashes were believed to hold power. They would be scattered over fields to promote fertility.
Christmas or Yule Candle
At the end of the 18th century, it became the custom for chandlers and other merchants to present regular customers with the gift of a large candle at Christmas. This Yule candle would be lit at sunset on Christmas Eve and burn until Christmas service (or dawn) the next day. Traditional superstitions said that dire consequences, ill fortune or even the death of a family member, would ensue if the candle should burn out too soon, that is before Christmas morning. Typically the Yule Candle would be place at the dining table and lit a sunset by the head of the household who would also be the one to extinguish it, should that be necessary.
Once lit, it was not to be moved nor any other candle lit from its flame. Christmas Eve supper was served in the light of the Yule Candle. To prevent bad luck, an even number of people had to sit down to the meal and all leave at the same time after the meal ended. Servants might be pressed to join the family at the table to ensure a desirable number of diners.
The light of the Yule Candle was thought to convey special blessings to anyone touched by it. Holiday breads were stacked around it, so they would be kept fresh by its light. Precious possessions might also be place within its glow so that they might be protected from harm. The stub of the Yule Candle and any drippings were also thought to offer protection and healing. The wax might be used on cuts and sores or to mark the backs of farm animals to ensure their health and productivity in the coming year.
Candles in the widow
By the start of the 19th century, candles flickering in the windows were a symbol of charity and good will. Groups of working class men and women would go house to house looking for those with a candle in the window to signal they were welcome. If welcomed, they would sing and often receive coins, wassail, and food for their efforts. During the Regency, groups of carolers from the local village often ended their evening of caroling at the local land owners manor house. Typically they would sing for the family and be treated to victuals and libations (frequently in the form of wassail) and a warm fire. Candles and small oil lamp often lit the windows of confectioners shops displaying Twelfth Night cakes during Christmastide. The cakes were elaborate creations with sugar frosting, gilded paper trimmings, and sometimes delicate plaster of Paris or sugar paste figures. In towns, confectioners would place these cakes in their shop windows so the displays could be admired during winter evenings.
The last Sunday in November was known as Stir Up Sunday, the day for plum puddings to be made. All the family participated in making the plum puddings, stirring up the13 ingredients (to represent Christ and the 12 apostles) with a special wooden spoon (in honor of Christ’s crib). After the family stirred the pudding, tiny charms might be added to the pudding to reveal their finders’ fortune. The trinkets often included a thimble (for spinsterhood or thrift), a ring (for marriage), a coin (for wealth), a miniature horseshoe or a tiny wishbone for good luck, and an anchor for safe harbor. (Read a Stir it Up Sunday scene here.)
The pudding was steamed in a cloth bag, then hung up to age until Christmas Day. When served, a sprig of holly was placed on the top of the pudding as a reminder of Jesus’ Crown of Thorns that he wore when he was killed. It was then doused with brandy and lit. A portion of the pudding was saved for New Years to assure good luck.
Snapdragon is a parlor game. Raisins were piled in a bowl, topped with brandy and lit on fire. Players would try to snatch raisins out of the blue brandy-flames and eat them without getting burned—or lighting anything else aflame. While brandy burns with a relatively cool flame, I’m not sure I would suggest this for the next family Christmas party. Though my sons would very much like to try it, this mom is not convinced it is a good idea!
Ayto, John. An A-Z of Food & Drink. Oxford University Press:Oxford. 2002
Broomfield, Andrea. Food and Cooking in Victorian England: A History. Praeger:Westport CT. 2007
Davidson,Alan . Oxford Companion to Food, Oxford University Press:Oxford. 2000
Glasse, Hannah .The Art of Cookery made plain and easy, 1784.
Godey’s Lady’s Book, Dec. 1860
Griffen ,Robert H. and Ann H. Shurgin editors. The Folklore of World Holidays,Second Edition. Gale:Detroit.1998
Knightly, Charles. The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain. London:Thames and Hudson. 1986
Revel ,Rachel. Winter Evening Pastimes or The Merry Maker’s Companion. 1825
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