Celebrating a Jane Austen Christmas
Each year the holiday season seems to begin earlier and earlier. Complaints about holiday excesses and longings for ‘simpler’ and ‘old fashioned’ holiday celebrations abound. But what exactly does an ‘old fashioned Christmas’ really look like?
Many Christmas traditions and images of ‘old fashioned’ holidays are based on Victorian celebrations. Going back just a little further, to the beginning of the 19th century, the holiday Jane Austen knew would have looked distinctly odd to modern sensibilities.
How odd? Families rarely decorated Christmas trees. Festivities centered on socializing instead of gift-giving. Festivities focused on adults, with children largely consigned to the nursery. Holiday events, including balls, parties, dinners, and even weddings celebrations, started a week before Advent (the fourth Sunday before Christmas) and extended all the way through to Twelfth Night in January.
As today, not everyone celebrated the same way or observed all the same customs, but many observances were widely recognized. Some of the traditions and dates that might have been observed included:
Stir it up Sunday
On the fifth Sunday before Christmas, the family would gather to ‘stir up’ Christmas puddings that needed to age before serving at Christmas dinner.
December 6th: St. Nicholas Day
In a tradition from Northern Europe, the day might be celebrated with the exchange of small gifts, particularly for children. House parties and other Christmastide visiting also began on or near this day.
December 21st: St. Thomas Day
Elderly women and widows went ‘thomasing’ at the houses of their more fortunate neighbors, hoping for gifts of food or money. Oftentimes landowners cooked and distributed wheat, an especially expensive commodity, to the ‘mumpers’ who came begging.
December 24th: Christmas Eve
Holiday decorating happened on Christmas Eve when families cut or bought evergreen boughs to deck the house. The greenery remained in place until Epiphany when it was removed and burned lest it bring bad luck.
December 25th: Christmas day
Families typically began the day with a trip to church and might pick up their Christmas goose from the local baker on the way home. Though gifts were not usually exchanged on Christmas, children might receive small gifts and cottagers might give generous landowners a symbolic gift in appreciation of their kindness.
The day culminated in a much anticipated feast. Traditional foods included boar’s head, brawn, roast goose, mince meat pies, and the Christmas puddings made a month earlier.
December 26th: Boxing Day
After receiving their Christmas boxes, servants usually enjoyed a rare day off. Churches distributed the money from their alms-boxes.
Families might attend the opening day of pantomimes. The wealthy traditionally enjoyed fox hunting on this day.
December 31: New Year’s Eve
Families thoroughly cleaned the house before gathering in a circle before midnight to usher out the old year and in the new.
Some Scots and folks of northern England believed in ‘first footing’—the first visitor to set foot across the threshold after midnight on New Year’s Eve affected the family’s fortunes. The ‘first footer’ entered through the front door and left through the back door, taking all the old year’s troubles and sorrows with him.
Jan 1: New Year’s Day
The events of New Year’s Day predicted the fortunes for the coming year, with a variety of traditions said to discern the future like ‘creaming the well’, or the burning of a hawthorn bush.
Jan 6th: Twelfth Night
A feast day honoring the coming of the Magi, Epiphany or Twelfth Night, marked the traditional climax of the holiday season and the time when celebrants exchanged gifts.
Revels, masks and balls were the order of the day. With the rowdy games and large quantities of highly alcoholic punch, they became so raucous that Queen Victoria outlawed Twelfth Night parties by the 1870′s.