Often times, the average reader or those not familiar with the early 1800s in England, think that Christmas was celebrated in the same manner as it is today, or at the very least something from the Victorian era. I once had a publisher provide me with a wonderful cover for my novel, Christmas at Pemberley, but it had a lighted Christmas tree, a no-no for the Regency Period. So what might we find in the Regency?
If you read yesterday’s story from Washington Irving, you hold a bit of knowledge of the time. But is that what we should expect from our Regency characters in the novels we read? In truth, it is very difficult to come across even the briefest mention of “Christmas” or “presents” or “holiday decorations” in pieces written during the actual Regency period.
In Persuasion, Jane Austen (chapter 14) describes the arrival of the Musgrove children, who have been away at school. “Immediately surrounding Mrs. Musgrave were the little Harvilles, whom she was sedulously guarding from the tyranny of the two children from the Cottage, expressly arrived to amuse them. On one side was a table occupied by some chattering girls*, cutting up silk and gold paper; and on the other were trestles and trays, bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies, where riotous boys were holding high revel; the whole completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard in spite of the noise of the others.” This is seen as too noisy by the heroine and her friend Lady Russell, who remarks, “I hope I shall remember in future not to call at Uppercross in the Christmas holiday.”
In a letter to her sister Cassandra that holds the dates of 24 December and 25 December, our beloved Austen does wish her sister a “Merry Christmas,” but that is the extent of the mention of the day. Austen tells her sister of being invited to supper at a nearby house, but does think she can attend because the weather was too bad to be out. Ironically in Austen’s Emma, we are told, “At Christmas every body invites their friends about them, and people think little of even the worst weather.” So, what was Christmas like through most of our Regency period? From what I gather from the simple mentions of the celebration among the gentry, Christmas was still very much a religious holiday. Many of the traditions we now associate with Christmas were practiced in the past, but by the Regency period, they were considered rustic and unrefined, which if one thinks of the “hype” now associated with Christmas, “vulgar” and “unrefined” are appropriate words.
Part of the problem for a lack of celebrations dates back to the 1640s and 1650s. History Extra tells us: “As the year 1645 limped towards its weary close, a war-torn England shivered beneath a thick blanket of snow. A few months earlier, parliament’s New Model Army, led by Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, had routed the forces of Charles I at the battle of Naseby. Although that defeat had struck the king’s cause a mortal blow, the royalists still refused to surrender, and the bloody Civil War which had divided the country ever since 1642 continued to rage.
‘Under constant pressure from the armies of both sides to supply them with money, clothing and food, few Englishmen and women can have been anticipating a particularly merry Christmas. Yet, for those who lived in the extensive territories which were controlled by the king’s enemies, there was to be no Christmas this year at all – because the traditional festivities had been abolished by order of the two Houses of Parliament sitting at Westminster.
“Following parliament’s victory in the Second Civil War and the execution of Charles I in 1649, demonstrations in favour of Christmas became less common. There can be no doubt that many people continued to celebrate Christmas in private, and in his pamphlet The Vindication of Christmas (1652), the tireless John Taylor provided a lively portrait of how, he claimed, the old Christmas festivities were still being kept up by the farmers of Devon.
“Nevertheless, recent scholarship has shown that, as time went by, Christmas effectively ceased to be celebrated in the great majority of churches. It was ironic, to say the least, that while the godly had failed to suppress the secular Yuletide festivities which had vexed them for so long, they had succeeded in ending the religious observance of Christmas!
“Following Cromwell’s installation as lord protector in 1653, the celebration of Christmas continued to be proscribed. While he had not been personally responsible for ‘cancelling Christmas’ in the first place, it is evident that both Cromwell and the other senior members of his regime were behind the ban, frequently transacting government business on 25 December as if it were a day just like any other. Only with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 was ‘old Christmas Day’ finally brought back in from the cold, to widespread popular joy.”
Some “decorating” appears to have occurred during the Regency. A Yule log is likely and the use of greenery. BBC History tells us, “The tradition of decorating the home with native evergreens is a truly ancient one. Since pagan times evergreens have been valued for their ability to retain signs of life in the middle of winter – even in some instances producing berries and flowers.
“Early Christians displayed evergreen plants in the home to symbolise everlasting life. Holly, ivy and evergreen herbs such as bay and rosemary were the most commonly used, all with symbolic meanings that were familiar to our ancestors. Rosemary, for remembrance, and bay, for valour, are still well known. Holly and ivy were a particularly popular combination, the holly traditionally thought to be masculine and ivy feminine, giving stability to the home.
“A kissing-bough was often hung from the ceiling. This would consist of a round ball of twigs and greenery, decorated with seasonal fruit, such as apples. It was the precursor to the bunch of mistletoe, under which no lady could refuse a kiss. Mistletoe was sacred to the Druids and was once called ‘All Heal’. It was thought to bring good luck and fertility, and to offer protection from witchcraft.
“In the medieval period, the Yule log was ceremoniously carried into the house on Christmas Eve, and put in the fireplace of the main communal room. Often decorated with greenery and ribbon, it was lit with the saved end of the previous year’s log and then burnt continuously for the Twelve Days of Christmas, providing much needed light and warmth.”
Greenery, such as holly and ivy and mistletoe were used in the Winter Solstice Festival to ward off spirits. The greenery stood true even in winter, so the greenery represented a renewal of life. When Christianity reached Western Europe, some people held onto these pagan rituals and presented the greenery with Christian symbolism. The was especially true in Germany and the countries that now constitute the United Kingdom.
Holly’s prickly leaves came to represent the crown of thorns that Jesus wore upon the cross. The berries are the color of the blood he shed. In Scandinavia, the holly bush/tree is sometimes referred to as the “Christ Thorn.” In medieval times, the holly was the male plant and the ivy the female plant. Whichever plant was brought in first would indicate whether the male or the female of the house would rule the household for the year. The fact that ivy must cling to something to survive and grow is meant to remind Christians that they must “cling” to God’s teachings. From the Roman days, men have worn a laurel wreath upon their heads to symbolize victory over an enemy. To Christians, it was God’s victory over Satan. Pagan’s thought that rosemary could protect a person from evil spirits. It was used to garnish the boar’s head eaten by the rich at the main “Christmas” meal celebrated in the Middle Ages. Rosemary is sometimes referred to as the “remembrance herb.” Do you not recall the Simon and Garfunkle tune? Are you going to Scarborough Fair/ Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme/ Remember me to one who lives there/ She once was a true love of mine.” For Christians, it is used at Christmas for we must remember the birth of Jesus. “In the late 1700s a special Christmas Rosemary Service was started in Ripon Cathedral School where a red apple, with a sprig of Rosemary in the top of it, was sold by the school boys to the members of the congregation for 2p, 4p or 6p (depending on the size of apple!).” (Why Christmas)
You might also check out this article from Jo Beverley on a Regency Christmas. I keep it in a file as a reference to the day.
Christmas at Pemberley: A Pride and Prejudice Holiday Sequel
(Inspirational Romance; Fiction/Historical Fiction; Classics)
2011 Booksellers’ Best Award Finalist, Inspirational Romance
2012 New England Book Festival, 2nd Place, General Fiction
To bring a renewed sense joy to his wife’s countenance, Fitzwilliam Darcy secretly invites the Bennets and the Bingleys to spend the Christmastide festive days at Pemberley. But as he and Elizabeth journey to their estate to join the gathered families, a snowstorm blankets the English countryside. The Darcys find themselves stranded at a small out-of-the-way inn with another couple preparing for the immediate delivery of their first child, while Pemberley is inundated with friends and relations seeking shelter from the storm.
Without her brother’s strong presence, Georgiana Darcy desperately attempts to manage the chaos surrounding the arrival of six invited guests and eleven unscheduled visitors. But bitter feuds, old jealousies, and intimate secrets quickly rise to the surface. Has Lady Catherine returned to Pemberley for forgiveness or revenge? Will the manipulative Caroline Bingley find a soul mate? Shall Kitty Bennet and Georgiana Darcy know happiness?
Written in Regency style and including Austen’s romantic entanglements and sardonic humor, Christmas at Pemberley places Jane Austen’s most beloved characters in an exciting yuletide story that speaks to the love, the family spirit, and the generosity that remain as the heart of Christmas.
Barnes & Noble http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/christmas-at-pemberley-regina-jeffers/1101005215?ean=9781569759912
Ulysses Press http://ulyssespress.com/?books=christmas-at-pemberley
Mr. Darcy’s Present: A Pride and Prejudice Vagary
[Fiction; Romance; Regency; Austenesque; vagary; Christmas; holiday]
The Greatest Present He Would Ever Receive is the Gift of Her Love…
What if Mr. Darcy purchased a gift for Elizabeth Bennet to acknowledge the festive days even though he knows he will never present it to her? What if the gift is posted to the lady by his servants and without his knowledge? What if the enclosed card was meant for another and is more suggestive than a gentleman should share with an unmarried lady? Join Darcy and Elizabeth, for a holiday romp, loaded with delightful twists and turns no one expects, but one in which our favorite couple take a very different path in thwarting George Wickham and Lydia Bennet’s elopement. Can a simple book of poetry be Darcy’s means to win Elizabeth’s love? When we care more for another than ourselves, the seeds of love have an opportunity to blossom.
Words of Praise for Mr. Darcy’s Present…
Jeffers takes a familiar story and reinvigorates it with humor, warmth, and wisdom. – Roses and Lilacs Reviews
Reblogged this on Sharon E. Cathcart and commented:
Reblogging this nicely researched post about Christmas in Regency England. If you’re a fan of Regency-era tales, you’re sure to enjoy the excerpts from the author’s work at the end.
Thanks for the lovely share, Sharon. Happy Holidays!
Fascinating post Regina. Not much like today’s Christmas. I took my Mum food shopping today and some people had more than one trolley. One year when I went with my daughter there was a man queuing at the till with 7 trolleys and his companion was running backwards and forwards getting more stuff!!! I think there is a lot to be said for the simpler times.
MY!! 7 trolleys??? I cannot imagine requiring so much food for one family. I am an only child, you see.