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.
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 wedding celebrations, started a week before Advent and extended all the way through to Twelfth Night in January.
A Regency Christmastide Calendar
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 for 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: St. Stephen’s Day or 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.
Holiday entertaining, the central feature of Christmastide celebrations, began around St. Nicholas Day and extended to Twelfth Night. Small social gatherings, dinner parties, house parties, masquerades, balls, and home theatricals filled the intervening weeks.
In some homes even the servants might be permitted their own festivities, so long as they did not interfere with their employers’ plans.
Large estates and smaller establishments alike welcomed guests for the Christmastide season. Since travel was difficult and expensive, stays were usually measured in weeks, not days.
During the day, gentlemen of the party might form hunting, fishing or shooting parties, play billiards, chess or cards, ride the grounds of the estate, and indulge in manly conversation, discussing topics not appropriate in mixed company, like politics and business. The ladies shared news, patterns and recipes and flaunted their accomplishments to one another. Oftentimes children did not travel with their parents and stayed home with their governess.
Evenings would be spent in mixed company, in the parlor or drawing room, enjoying parlor games, cards, music, conversation and possibly even a little impromptu dancing.
Home theatricals, quite the rage among genteel society who found the increasingly vulgar nature of the theater disturbing, might add additional spice to the house party. On the whole, the activity was well received and even encouraged as a means of entertainment. However, under the guise of the theater, participants might engage in flirtatious and even low, inappropriate behaviors, creating potential moral dilemmas. It behooved the hostess to encourage a prudent choice of theatrical material.
Depending on the weather, hostesses also scheduled outings, picnics, games like pall mall, or skating parties for her guests. Dinner parties, card parties, routs or even a ball brought neighbors in to mix and mingle with the house party guests.
House parties provided an excellent opportunity for young people of equal social status to meet and even for a little match-making to occur. A bit of romance added interest and intrigue to a house party and might even result in a wedding later in the season.
Amidst all the fun and frivolity of the season, kindness and charity to those in need also figured highly in people’s minds. In addition to the normal parish collections and charity baskets for orphanages and neighborhood families, a number of additional seasonal opportunities for charity presented themselves.
St. Thomas’ Day
Elderly women and widows went ‘thomasing’ (also called ‘a-gooding’) at the houses of their more fortunate neighbors on December 21st, the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, hoping for gifts of food or money. The long-standing practice had become even more common since the Napoleonic wars dramatically increased the number of English widows.
‘Mumpers’ would call at the principle houses in the parish and collect small coins or provisions toward Christmas dinner for their families. They often carried two-handled pots in which they received gifts of cooked wheat—a very expensive commodity--to make puddings. In exchange, they offered small gifts of holly sprigs, mistletoe, or handspun yarn and grateful good wishes to their benefactors.
A more elaborate form of begging came in the form of the Mummers Play. Actors traversed the streets, asking at nearly every door if mummers were desired there. If so, the outrageously clad actors performed in the streets and squares. After the performance the audience was encourage to contribute to members of the troop who passed among them collecting contributions.
Morris Teams and Sword Dancers
Like Mummers, Morris teams of folk dancers and sword dancers performed in the streets and collected donations. Morris men executed rhythmic stepping and highly choreographed figures, sometimes with the aid of implements such as sticks, handkerchiefs and swords.
Though many variations of the sword dance existed, they all featured an intricate star maneuver in which the dancers interlocked their swords into a large, multi-pointed star. The sword lock would be placed around one dancer’s neck while the dancers circled around their 'victim'. The performance culminated with the feigned beheading of their 'victim' and his miraculous rebirth, symbolizing the cycle of winter’s death and spring’s rebirth. After the dance, the team members solicited contributions.
Caroling and Wassailing
Groups of working class men and women went house to house, looking for those with a candle in the window to signal a welcome. When welcomed, they would sing and often receive coins, wassail, and food for their efforts. Carolers from the local village often ended their evening of caroling at the local landowner's manor house. Typically, they would sing for the family and be treated to victuals and libations (frequently in the form of punch or wassail) and a warm fire.
In some villages, people joined together to sing carols from the church towers. Sellers provided broad-sheets of the most popular carols to assist in the singing. At times, these public celebrations could become boisterous.
On the Twelfth Night or its eve, wassailers blessed orchards and fields and sometimes even cows. A wassail King and Queen led the singers in a tune as they traversed from one orchard to the next. In Herefordshire, wheat fields were lit with bonfires and wassailed similarly to orchards.
Decorations and Holiday Lights
Families put up decorations and greenery throughout the house on Christmas Eve. 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. The greenery remained in place until Twelfth Night when it was removed and burned lest it bring bad luck to the house.
Would Jane Austen have had a Christmas tree? Possibly, but not likely.
The royal family had Christmas trees as early as 1800. Non-royal families with German connections were the most likely commoners to have Christmas trees prior to the mid-1800’s. For the rest of the country, Christmas trees only became popular after The Illustrated London News published a picture of Victoria and Albert with a family Christmas tree in 1848.
In the country, an enormous, freshly-cut Yule log might arrive at the manor house amidst great ceremony and merriment. Hauled by teams of farmhands to the hearth, the family would anoint it with oil, salt and wine, and make suitable prayers prior to lighting it.
On Christmas Eve the Yule log would be lit with splinters saved from the previous year’s log. The flames consumed personal faults, mistakes and bad choices, allowing everyone in the house to start the year with a clean slate.
The fire was supposed to last until the end of Christmas Day, at least, and keep smoldering until Twelfth Night. If the Yule fire extinguished too early, the house would face bad luck.
Tradition declared the Yule Log brought prosperity and protection from evil. Families kept a remnant of the log all year so the protection remained across the seasons. Even the ashes protected the house from lightning strikes and the power of the devil. Those who believe in their power scattered the ashes over fields, mixed them into livestock feed to promote fertility, and added them to wells to assure good water.
At the end of the 18th century, chandlers and other merchants often presented regular customers with a large candle at Christmas. This large candle would be lit at sunset on Christmas Eve and burn until Christmas service (or dawn) the next day.
The head of the household placed the Yule Candle on the dining table and lit it at sunset. Once lit, it could not be moved nor any other candle lit from its flame. If it needed to be extinguished, the one who lit it must be the one to perform the service by snuffing, not blowing it out.
As with the Yule log, superstitions said that dire consequences, ill fortune or even the death of a family member, could ensue should the candle burn out too soon.
Christmas Eve supper was served in the light of the Yule Candle, which represented Christ as the Light of the World. 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 the desirable even number of diners.
Tradition said the light of the Yule Candle conveyed special blessings to anyone it touched. Cooks stacked holiday breads around it, so they would be kept fresh by its light. Precious possessions might also be placed within its glow to protect them from harm.
The stub of the Yule Candle and its drippings offered 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.
Young and old alike anticipated the Christmas feast, and the ensuing celebration that would often include many guests. Hostesses prepared a wide variety of dishes, depending on the tastes and budget of the family, but a few dishes were particularly favored and iconic for the season.
Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding were mainstays of a Christmas dinner, but a typical Regency era dinner menu sported multiple meat dishes. Cookery books of the period suggested boar’s head, brawn and roast goose as complementary choices for the Christmas meal.
Sometimes, cooks made a Yorkshire Christmas pie with the goose. The dish resembled a modern turducken (turkey stuffed with duck stuffed with chicken). The pie called for a turkey, a goose, a fowl, a partridge, and a pigeon, boned, seasoned, and stuffed into each other, then wrapped inside a generous pastry crust and baked. Families often sent these to friends and relatives as the thick crusts enabled them to travel well.
Sweets also played a role on the Christmas table, though they might not be served as a separate course. Towering jellies molded in fancy shapes might be placed alongside fish and poultry. Almond paste (marzipan), sugar cakes (shortbread), trifles, rice puddings and apple dumplings often appeared among dishes brought out for the second course of the meal. Another perennial favorite, gingerbread often appeared with the Christmas pudding at the end of the meal.
Jane Austen mentioned black butter in one of her letters. Containing no butter at all, it resembled apple butter of today. Various recipes included different fruits, along with sugar, lemon and spices. These were cooked over long periods to reduce the fruit to a dark colored, sweet spread.
Decadent fruit cakes appeared for special occasions like Christmas. As with the Yule log and Yule candle, saving a portion of the holiday fruit cake for the following year brought good luck. The quantities of alcohol and dried fruit in the cake made it quite possible for it to last that long.
Special beverages graced the sideboards as well including punch, wassail and syllabub.
Punch usually contained large amounts of alcohol. Prior to the 19th century, drinkers shared from a communal punch bowl, usually made of imported ceramics. During the Regency era, smaller, individual punch cups, served from the larger bowl, replaced the communal vessel.
Though the recipes varied, they generally included spirits (rum, brandy, and port), fruit juice, citrus peels and sugar. Wassail, a close cousin to punch, contained apple cider, spice, sugar, rum and brandy, and would be served hot.
Syllabub also took several forms, but in all preparations it contained a mixture of alcohol, cream, sugar and citrus, and was somewhat less potent than eggnog. Some recipes called for making it nearly solid, even dried for a day before consuming. No matter the recipe, like punch, syllabub was relatively expensive and reserved for special occasions.
Though gift giving did not occupy the forefront of the Christmastide season, people did give gifts. St. Nicholas Day, Christmas Day and Twelfth Night were the most likely days for gift exchange, although old traditions called for gifts to be presented on New Year’s Day.
Custom required certain gifts of obligation between unequal parties. Landowners and the well-off presented charitable gifts to beggars and the poor of the community. They also provided favors to their tenants, servants and the tradesmen they patronized. These tokens might be coins, food, particularly expensive foodstuffs, or cast-off clothes and goods.
Gifts might also be presented from those lower in status to those above them. Beggars offered songs, holly sprigs or simple handicrafts to their benefactors. Tradesmen sent special goods like Yule candles to their best patrons. Tenants might bestow gifts of their harvest to the landowner in recognition of his generosity and possibly to encourage him not to raise their rents.
Social equals like friends and family also indulged in gift giving, though men and women did not exchange gifts unless they were married, engaged or related by blood. These gifts tended to be far more thoughtful and personal than obligatory gifts.
Ladies often gave items that showcased both their accomplishments and the tastes of the recipient. Skilled hands prepared embroidered handkerchiefs, slippers and other fine accessories for loved ones. Clever needles could create scarves, shawls, laces, trims and similar items. Paintings, drawings and other decorative arts graced boxes, screens and even small furniture items.
Givers could, and often did, purchase gifts, with clothing and jewelry pieces (especially those made with locks of hair) among the most common items for both sexes. Books, sheet music, fancy boxes and supplies for activities like writing or handicrafts enjoyed great popularity as holiday presents.
Traditionally a day for fox hunting, the day after Christmas, St. Stephen’s Day, also served as an important day for distributing gifts and charity.
Servants often enjoyed a rare day off on Boxing Day. This may not seem like much to modern sensibilities, but servants had very little time off, much less coordinated time off with other family members. The day off on Boxing Day often meant that families could visit together even though they might work at different establishments.
Employers and patrons handed out ‘Christmas boxes’ containing old clothing and extra items to servants and tradesmen on Boxing Day. Landowners and the well-off were expected to be especially generous on Boxing Day. Many held a kind of open house for tenants and less fortunate neighbors, often giving food or money so the needy might celebrate on their own.
Churches collected money in alms-boxes during the season and distributed it to the needy after Christmas, often opening the boxes on Boxing Day.
Rather than marking the end of the holiday season, Boxing Day marked the beginning of festivities which would culminate on Twelfth Night.
For some, New Year’s Eve meant thoroughly cleaning the house to start the new year clean. Old superstitions required ashes, rags, scraps and anything perishable to be removed from the house so that nothing carried over from one year to the next. In this way, the family would preserve their good luck and banish the bad.
Some celebrated with the family or a party gathering in a circle before midnight. At the stroke of the midnight hour, the head of the family would open the front and back doors to usher the old year out the back and welcome the new year in the front.
Some Scots and residents of northern England believed the first visitor to set foot across the threshold (the first-footer) after midnight on New Year’s Eve affected the family's fortunes. Ladies, in particular, wished for a tall, dark, and handsome male stranger without physical handicap, especially if his feet were the right shape.
High-insteps implied that water would run under—that is bad luck would flow past. A flat foot meant bad luck, as did women in most cases. Not all agreed on these omens. For some, blonde or red-headed, bare-foot girls brought good luck.
The first-footer entered through the front door, ideally, bearing traditional gifts: a coin, a lump of coal, a piece of bread or shortbread, whiskey, salt and a black bun—representing financial prosperity, warmth, food, good cheer, and flavor in the new year. Tradition held that no one spoke until the ‘first-footer’ wished the occupants a happy new year.
Once inside, the first-footer would be led through the clean home to place the coal on the fire and offer a toast to the house and all who lived there. Then the first-footer might be permitted to kiss every woman in the house. The first-footer would leave through the back door and take all the old year's troubles and sorrows.
Dark haired young men often made the rounds of the neighborhood houses, bringing good luck to the homes and to themselves when invited in for a holiday toast.
A variety of traditions for New Year’s Day suggested how one might discern or influence fortunes for the coming year.
In one, a farmer hooked a large, specially-baked pancake on one of a cow’s horns. Others gathered about to sing and dance around the unsuspecting bovine and encourage it to toss its head. If the cake fell off in front of the cow, it foretold good luck, if behind, bad.
In Hertfordshire, at sunrise on New Year's Day, farmers burned a hawthorn bush in the fields to ensure good luck and bountiful crops.
In some regions, young women raced to draw the first water from the well, a practice known as ‘creaming the well.’ Possession of this water meant marriage within the coming year if she could get the man she desired to marry to drink the water before the end of the day.
Others believed the water had curative properties and even washed the udders of cows with it to ensure productivity.
The climax of the Christmastide season came on the twelfth night after Christmas, on Epiphany or Twelfth Night. A time for putting away social norms, and a feast day to mark the coming of the Magi, it was the traditional day to exchange gifts.
Revels, masks and balls filled the day and night. Elaborate and expensive Twelfth Day cakes covered with colored sugar frosting, gilded paper trimmings, and sometimes delicate plaster of Paris or pastillage figures made impressive centerpieces for the party. Alongside the cakes, revelers might find white soup, mince pies, jellies, and marzipan to be washed down with alcoholic punches. Guests would don costumes and portray outlandish characters during parlor games and dancing, leading to potentially raucous celebrations.
By midnight, decorations had to be taken down and burned or one would face bad luck for the rest of the year. Some believed that for every branch that remained a goblin would appear.
Twelfth Night revels frequently involved guests randomly selecting a character to play for the evening by drawing a slip of paper at the start of the party. Some hostesses would send characters' assignments around to her guests so that they could come already dressed to play their part. Others might provide dress-up items for their guests to don after characters had been chosen. Guests had to remain in character for the entire evening or pay a forfeit.
The end of Twelfth Night Revels
Although Twelfth Night revelry could be peaceable and even family-friendly, the combination of good humor, spirited games and large quantities of highly alcoholic punch often made for riotous festivities.
In the 1870′s, Queen Victoria outlawed the celebration of Twelfth Night in fear the parties had become out of control.
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