I am often asked questions on tidbits of information I have accumulated over the years on this subject or that concerning the Regency era in which Jane Austen lived. Sometimes I have volumes of information to share and others not so much so. Unfortunately, Christmas as we think of it is more a product of the Victorian era rather than that of the Regency. I recall when I was still writing for Ulysses Press they sent me the cover for “Christmas at Penberley.” It was beautiful, but I quickly rejected it for it has a Christmas tree, which, again, was more Victorian than Georgian in tradition.
First, we must remember there was NO Christmas celebrations, from around 1645 to 1666 in England. After the Restoration, some vestiges of religion were still attached to certain Holy days, Christmas being one of them. It was Christ’s Mass at first and was a Quarter day. It was celebrated except during the rule of the Puritans.
The three days people were supposed to go to church to prove they were members of the Church of England and not Catholics or Dissenters were Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, also called Whitsunday. Whitsunday has been called the day the Christian church came into being.
Actual information about the celebration Christmas during the Regency period is hard to find.
Jane Austen mentions Christmas in a couple of books but gives no details, just scenes of children making decorations or family gatherings.
Also, while we say “Christmas” and often mean Christmas day, most of the Regency accounts mean anytime within a fortnight, basically what is sometimes referred to as “Christmastide” or “Twelfth Night.”
The weeks before Christmas and Advent were often treated in the same manner as was Lent as to restrictions of weddings and balls.
“Christmastide” is a season of the liturgical year in most Christian churches. It is sometimes referred to a Twelvetide (for the Twelve Days of Christmas).
For those in the Anglican Church, Catholic Church, Lutheran Church and for many in the Methodist Church, Christmastide begins at sunset (or Vespers) on December 24. Therefore, December 24 is not considered part of Christmastide, but rather part of Advent, the season of the Church Year that precedes Christmastide. Christmastide ends at sunset on January 5 (Twelfth Night) by the related season known as Epiphanytide. It begins on Epiphany Day, and ends at various points as defined by those denominations. The typical liturgical color for the day of Epiphany is white, and the typical color for Epiphany season is green.
Christmastide includes these celebrations: December 25 (Christmas Day); December 26 (St. Stephen’s Day); December 28 (Childermas or Children’s Mass or Holy Innocents’ Day); December 31 (New Year’s Eve); January 1 (the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ or the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God Day); the Feast of the Holy Family day varies. The Twelve Days of Christmas finish with Epiphany Eve or Twelfth Night on January 5.
December 26 was originally called “Boxing Day” or “St Stephens Day,” a Catholic holiday. It was the second day of Christmastide. Originally it was a holiday to give gifts to the poor. However, in the present, it is, generally, a shopping holiday.
Boxing Day originated in Great Britain and is celebrated in a number of countries once part of the British Empire. The bank holiday or public holiday can occur up to December 28, if necessary, to ensure it falls on a weekday.
The origin of “Boxing Day” is not as definitive as we would like. In the Middle Ages, those in Europe were known to give gifts to those “in service” to their families. Alms boxes were placed in the narthex of early Christian churches to collect offerings for the poor. This is where the Feast of Saint Stephen comes in. In the early Christian churches and even today, it is customary in some localities to open the alms boxes and distribute the contributions to the poor.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives the earliest attestations from Britain in the 1830s, defining it as “the first weekday after Christmas day, observed as a holiday on which postmen, errand boys, and servants of various kinds expect to receive a Christmas box”[“Boxing-day, n.”, OED Online, 1st ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1887).]
The term “Christmas box” dates back to the 17th century, and among other things meant:
A present or gratuity given at Christmas: in Great Britain, usually confined to gratuities given to those who are supposed to have a vague claim upon the donor for services rendered to him as one of the general public by whom they are employed and paid, or as a customer of their legal employer; the undefined theory being that as they have done offices for this person, for which he has not directly paid them, some direct acknowledgement is becoming at Christmas. [“Christmas-box, n.”, OED Online, 1st edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1889), sense 3.]
Tradesmen collected “Christmas boxes” of money or fairings on the first weekday after Christmas in reward for their exemplary service through the year. I, for one, still present the trash collectors, my postal carrier, etc., each year with a token of my thanks for their good service.
This giving of “thanks” is mentioned in Samuel Pepys‘ diary entry for 19 December 1663. [“Saturday 19 December 1663 (Pepys’ Diary)”. Pepysdiary.com] This custom is linked to an older British tradition where the servants of the wealthy were allowed the next day to visit their families since they would have had to serve their masters on Christmas Day. The employers would give each servant a box to take home containing gifts, bonuses, and sometimes leftover food. Until the late 20th century there continued to be a tradition among many in the UK to give a Christmas gift, usually cash, to vendors, although not on Boxing Day as many would not work on that day. [“Boxing Day and it’s surprising facts”. shoppersinusa.]
During the Regency, it is said, the church gave out boxes to the poorer families, and landlords presented villagers and tenants and workers boxes. I read somewhere how all the maids in a house, generally, received a length of cloth from which to have a gown made. I also recall how the men received material for shirts or received shirts made up. Pensioners/tenants would receive a goose or a hen. There were no set rules, and each employer/landlord gave as the spirit moved him or not. Some might just present the boxes so as not to lose face in front of neighbors.
The fun and frolic lasted until January 6, which was Three Kings’ Day. In Spain and Latin America, Three Kings ‘s Day celebrates when Jesus was born in Bethlehem during the time of King Herod, and is symbolic of the Three Magi from the East who came to Jerusalem. The gifts the Three Kings gave Jesus were meant to be symbolic. Gold was associated with the belief Jesus was the King of Jews. Frankincense, which is often burned in churches today, was meant to represent the divine nature of Jesus and the fact people would come to worship him as the Son of God. And myrrh, a perfume sometimes used to embalm dead bodies, represented the fact Jesus would eventually suffer and die. Each gift represented a distinct part of the baby’s destiny.
Ironically, in Britain, the Holy Days and Fasting Days Act of 1551 (which has not yet been repealed) states every citizen must attend a Christian church service on Christmas Day and must not use any kind of vehicle to get to the service.
Although, in fact, what had not been repealed of this act in previous legislation was repealed as part of the Statute Law (Repeals) Act 1969, under section 1 of, and Part II of the Schedule to, the 1969 act many believe this act is still in effect.
However, we know hackney rules in London modified this, though probably just in Town. London passed laws to prohibit hackneys from operating on Sundays, but that prevented those who could not walk from attending church, which was required by law. At the time, the law required attendance every Sunday. So an exemption was passed to allow a limited number of hackneys to operate on Sundays solely for the purpose of transporting people to church. The entire hackney law was repealed in 1930.
It would not at all be unusual for a law to have an exception for the city of London.
Enforcement depended on how vigilant the constable, vicar, sexton, and church wardens were. In some parishes, fines were handed out for none attendance more than in other parishes.
The sources I have consulted say it was still in effect. A duke was entitled to six chaplains and so could easily say he had services in a private chapel.
Bits and pieces of the law were repealed over the centuries, a lot of it in 1888. (See Holy Days and Fasting Days Act 1551)
Pity. One could have fun with it. Imagine a pompous magistrate charging the dissolute duke for his failure to go to church!