Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Regency Christmas

By guest author Laurie Alice Eakes

Prizes in pudding and wassailing, mummers and mistletoe, Yule logs and all those other lovely traditions we associate with Christmas in England were, alas, not so common in the Regency era. Perhaps twenty years of war or the fright of the French Revolution dimmed the excesses of prior Christmas celebrations through the first decade and a half of the nineteenth century. We don’t really know. Shockingly little is written about Christmas at this time, which leads us to the conclusion that it wasn’t that important amongst the literate classes. What is available, however, leads us to the conclusion that the holiday did not slip by unnoticed and pockets of folk drew upon tradition.

As those drawn to the Regency era are wont to do for research, we shall call upon Miss Austen for a little information. She writes to her beloved sister Cassandra at the season and wishes her a “merry Christmas”. Yes, “merry”, not “happy” as we are used to the British saying nowadays.

But back to Miss Austen. . .

She does not seem to mind that she and Cassandra are apart at the holiday. She is, however, invited to someone’s house to dine. She isn’t going to go, but then changes her mind and does attend. The weather improved.

In Persuasion, she writes of the holiday importance in one family being the return of the schoolboys and mentions the girls cutting out gold paper and silk. The former suggests that schools and families expected their children to have a break from academia during this time of year. The cutting out of fancy paper implies some sort of decorations; therefore, we can conclude that Christmas was celebrated if not in the riotous means of the Middle Ages and well into the eighteenth century. One character, however, thinks the huge fire and groaning board with those schoolboys running about and snatching at the cold pies and so forth, is a reason not to call at that particular house during the holiday.

Other parts of the country enjoyed a more traditional Christmas. Yes, our own Washington Irving of “Rip Van Winkle” fame, who spent seventeen years in England from the late Regency era on, wrote nostalgically about Christmas at a country squire’s home in 1820. The way in which he extols and elaborates upon, perhaps exaggerates upon,  the old ways leads us to think he is pushing for a return to the former excesses of Christmas and the rise of yuletide traditions as we now know them with the tree and Christmas crackers made popular during the Victorian age, and beyond. From some other resources I have discovered, too many to even summarize further here, I believe that this squire of Irving’s  Christmas was not altogether uncommon in the country.

These traditions included holly and mistletoe hung around the hall and even in the servants’ quarters. Kissing beneath the mistletoe was most definitely indulged in. With each kiss given beneath this once sacred bough, a berry was plucked, so if you wanted to get kissed, you had to get your position set early, for when the berries were gone, the kissing stopped.

(In contemporary parlance, I had here: “Yeah, right. Sure it did.”)

Mincemeat was made, not a fare I like much myself, and beef roasted, a tradition my family with its English roots still follows. Everyone ate around the holidays. The lords and ladies, gentlemen and mistresses of the manors ensured that the poor received soups and mince and other treats. Servants, of course, got their boxes on December 26. These usually included cloth for making clothes, soap, a few coins, perhaps some sweets.

But back to Christmas. Feasting with neighbors was common, and we mustn’t leave out the Yule log brought in on Christmas Even and lit from a brand saved from the previous year’s log. This fire was not to go out throughout the twelve days of Christmas. Imagine the size of the log and the hearth on which it must have to burn; therefore, few homes would have a Yule log even in the country.

The tree came to England with the latter Hanoverian connections, as it was a tradition in the German states; however, it was not common until further into the 19th century than the Regency.

Christmas puddings, where celebrated, were mixed by the whole family by tradition, and into the batter went trinkets. These varied and each held significance—a ring meant the recipient in his or her slice would marry. A sixpence meant prosperity. A crown made that person king or queen of the revels. I often wonder how much the recipients of these trinkets were manipulated and once wrote a short story to this point. I think slipping the trinket in while the pieces were being sliced would not be too difficult. But maybe they left it to chance. Much more fun that way.

Interestingly, gift-giving doesn’t seem to be a large part of the Christmas tradition either in the Regency or before. The gifts seemed to go out to the poor, the servants, and, of course, we must not forget the carolers. They and mummers were usually invited in for hot beverages—cider, punch, wassail, etc.—and food and coins distributed.

Church going proved a huge part of the season with services on Christmas Eve and morning. Epiphany was a sacred day, too, with some gift-giving and services and more feasting, often greater feasting than on Christmas Day.

My conclusions on reading up on Regency Christmases, as I may include that in my third Regency for Revell, tells me that, although Christmases were far quieter than they had been in the past, celebrations continued with a blend of the sacred and pagan, as they had been celebrated in England for centuries.

What Christmas traditions do you all celebrate? Do you miss any that are no longer practiced? What ones would you like to begin to undertake?

Below is a Christmas recipe that sounds like the forerunner of the fruit cake to me.

Twelfth Cakes. (eaten on Epiphany)

Take seven pounds of flour, make a cavity in the center, set a sponge with a gill and a half of yest and a little warm milk ; then put round it one pound of fresh butter broke into small lumps, one pound and a quarter of sifted sugar, four pounds and a half of currants washed and picked, half an ounce of sifted cinnamon, a quarter of an ounce of pounded cloves, mace, and nutmeg mixed, sliced candied orange or lemon peel and citron.
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Award-winning author Laurie Alice Eakes wanted to be a writer since knowing what one was. Her first book won the National Readers Choice Award in 2007, and her third book was a Carol Award finalist in 2010. Having her first book with Baker/Revell, Lady in the Mist, picked up by Crossings Book Club, and six of her books  have been chosen for large print editions by Thorndike Press. She has been a public speaker for as long as she can remember; thus, only suffers enough stage fright to keep her sharp. In 2002, while in graduate school for writing fiction, she began to teach fiction in person and online. She lives in Texas with her husband, two dogs, and cats she hopes will  arrive soon.


You can find more about her and her books at her web site:

12 comments:

  1. I try to avoid talking about my traditions lest you all think I'm Scrooge, but I think I am close to a Regency style Christmas.

    Which brings me to the one holiday tradition I haven't given up. Plum Pudding. Which you all must know has no plums in it, though I do add golden raisins or in Regency-speak, Sultanas. Heavy and rich and swimming in warm nutmeg and rum sauce. I make it for myself and I eat it alone and enjoy every tradition filled bite.

    Thanks for visiting again, Laurie Alice, and bringing such great information in a totally enjoyable style! I hope you are well-settled in your new digs and enjoy a wonderful Christmas and New Year!

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  2. Thanks, Debra. My husband suggeted we go visit family and, though that sounds wonderful in theory, I've been doing so much traveling this year I asked if we could stay home and, after Christmas, go on a little trip just the two of us.

    We have the tradition of stockings with little gifts in them, a tree, lots of lights, hors d'oevres on Christmas Eve and roast beef on Christmas Day.

    DH and I have started a new tradition since I don't like making a roast for just the two of us, and that's Cornish hens on Christmas Day.


    We wait until Christmas morning for gift giving.

    Breakfast is also large with cinnamon and/or pecan rolls, fruit, and other fatten breakfast delights.

    We also make cookies to give away and enjoy. My specialty is the traditional sugar cookie cut into shapes, and they are just the best tasting. Russian teacakes, too. Date pinwheels. Others, too, but those are the standard ones.

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  3. We always have roast beef. Used to have lots of cookies, but my niece and nephews food allergies have changed that tradition to chocolate fondu. We take a picture with the whole family on the steps every year, a tradition that hales back to when my parents made us wait on the steps in our matching Christmas pjs while they got the presents and camera ready.

    We also have new traditions going back about 8 years to when my maternal grandparents passed away and we started having Christmas reunion parties in early December. All kinds of crazy stuff including cards, crowns, sashes, loser marches down the street. Oh, and some Christmasy stuff too ;)

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  4. Date Pinwheels are amazing and SO MUCH work!

    I've never had Cornish Game Hen. I think I'll keep that as a celebration dinner for the future. We've always had ham for Christmas but half the family won't eat it now, and it's hard to find a good small one. When my family expanded I started a new tradition of stuffed shells. Very un-English, eh? But oh so good.

    I hope you do get that quiet little getaway!

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  5. Wonderful post, Laurie Alice. I agree with you on the mistletoe. I imagine many a couple made use of it long after the berries were gone.

    I was just reading about some games children played during the Twelve Days of Christmas during the Georgian era, like Bullet Pudding and Snapdragon--which involved real bullets and fire, respectively. I'm sort of glad those traditions have faded, LOL.

    Since my husband is a pastor, Christmas Day is relaxed for us. We eat something different for dinner each year. Our breakfasts are traditional to us, however. My husband makes stollen, an amaretto-infused German fruit bread, which his family has made for generations. For some reason we always eat a fresh pineapple and candied bacon, which is the naughtiest food, but oh so good. Which is why we eat it once a year.

    Thanks, Laurie Alice. And thanks, Dina, for hosting!

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  6. Oh it's lovely to learn of Christmas traditions of times past! Wonderful post :)

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  7. Snapdragon is highly dangerous. When I told my husband about it, he was shocked that adults, let alone children, would play it.

    For those who don't know, it's flaming brandy out of which the players much pluck raisins.

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  8. Very interesting, Laurie Alice. It seems like the gift giving tradition was more of a 'give a gift' than a 'receive a gift' pre-Santa days.

    I make mincemeat tarts for Christmas, but it's not the traditional suet kind. Rather, it's a vegetarian version which uses green tomatoes and spices. People who love mincemeat give it rave reviews and then look aghast when I tell them what's in it. LOL

    Sorry I'm late getting in with a comment. I really appreciate the research you do - both for articles such as this, as well as your novels.

    Anita Mae.

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  9. Laurie Alice, I should mention - the reason I'm late responding is because I went down to pick up my mail from my North Dakota post office box yesterday.

    And what a lovely surprise - a copy of A Necessary Deception was waiting for me. Yay!

    I'll let you know what I think. :)

    Anita Mae.

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  10. I hope you enjoy it, Anita. It's a little crazy.

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  11. we used to make green tomato mincemeat too, Anita! My mom used to make that 'gagging' face when anyone talked about the real suet kind.

    I buy the stuff in a jar. Rather not know what's in it, just know I like the taste!

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