Jane Austen & Regency Christmas Traditions
It is fascinating to look back at Christmas during Jane Austen’s lifetime. Some of the customs we associate with the holiday, such as Christmas trees, Christmas cards, and Santa Claus, didn’t exist until many years later. But Jane Austen’s Christmas was equally as merry as the one we celebrate today.
Read on for a glimpse of Christmas traditions in the Georgian and Regency eras, and an excerpt from my novel Jane Austen’s First Love featuring a fun–and slightly dangerous–holiday tradition.
Christmas was banned by Oliver Cromwell in 1644, and all festivities including carol-singing were against the law. Thankfully, Christmas was reinstated with the restoration of Charles II, and by the Georgian period (1714-1830, with the Regency nestled in between) it was once again a popular holiday.
Jane Austen mentions Christmas in all of her novels. In Pride and Prejudice, Caroline Bingley writes, “I sincerely hope your Christmas in Hertfordshire may abound in the gaieties which that season generally brings.” After becoming betrothed to Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet writes to her Aunt Gardiner, “You are all to come to Pemberley at Christmas.”
In Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas hosts a ball for Fanny and William at Christmastime. In Sense and Sensibility, Willoughby dances the night away. In Emma, the Westons give a memorable Christmas party. Indeed, Christmastime in Austen’s era was very much about hosting family and friends and giving parties.
The Christmas season started early—on Stir Up Sunday, the fourth Sunday before Christmas—when the family gathered to make Christmas pudding, which needed to age before it was served. The day’s name comes not from the amount of stirring required, but is based on the prayer in the Book of Common Prayer of 1549 for that day which began, “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord .…”
You can find a recipe for Christmas pudding from the UK’s Payne & Gunter here.
The official Christmas season ran from December 6, St. Nicholas Day, to January 6, Twelfth Night. On St. Nicholas Day, inspired by a Northern European tradition, Christmas visiting began and gifts were often exchanged.
On December 21, in honor of St. Thomas the Apostle, the poor, widowed, and elderly might go “Thomasing” — venturing from door to door seeking money and small handouts to brighten their Christmas. The words to an old English Christmas song describe this custom:
Christmas is coming and the geese are getting fat,
Please spare a penny for the old man’s hat,
If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do,
If you haven’t got a ha’penny, God bless you.
According to an ancient tradition, houses were decorated on Christmas Eve with wreaths made of evergreens interwoven with ivy, holly, hawthorn, laurel, bay, rosemary, and hellebore (Christmas rose), as well as oranges, apples, holly berries, and ribbons.
Kissing balls or boughs made of mistletoe were also popular.
A large Yule log, hauled home from the forest and placed in the hearth, was kept ablaze for as long as possible and formed a focal point of family gatherings. The tradition was to keep a piece of the Yule log to light the following year’s log.
Christmas Day, a national holiday, often began with a trip to church. Families enjoyed house parties with visiting relatives and friends where music might have been played and carols sung, such as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “The First Noel.”
Christmas dinner was a much-anticipated feast that opened with a toast and often included roast goose, boar’s head, and mince meat pies. At the end of the meal, the Christmas Pudding made all those weeks ago was brought in, doused with brandy and set aflame, with a sprig of holly on top.
In her novel Persuasion, Jane Austen painted a picture of a family Christmas:
Immediately surrounding Mrs. Musgrove 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 tressels 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 all the noise of the others.
Charles and Mary also came in, of course, during their visit, and Mr. Musgrove made a point of paying his respects to Lady Russell, and sat down close to her for ten minutes, talking with a very raised voice, but from the clamour of the children on his knees, generally in vain. It was a fine family piece.
From the 16th to 19th centuries, no Christmas celebration was complete without parlor games. One of the most popular games was Snapdragon. Hot brandy was placed in a wide shallow bowl. Raisins were placed in the hot brandy, which was set alight. Players had to pluck the hot raisins out of the flaming brandy and eat them, at the risk of being burnt.
On December 26, St. Stephan’s Day—traditionally a day off for servants—the wealthy presented their servants, tenants, and tradesmen with Christmas boxes containing money, gifts, or old clothing, and so it earned the name “Boxing Day.”
January 6 or Twelfth Night (the twelfth day after Christmas) marked the climax or Epiphany of the season. Balls and revels with costumes and masks were common, and food, drink, partying, and game-playing were the order of the day. Evergreen decorations were generally removed and burned, as it was considered bad luck to keep greenery in the house after Twelfth Night.
Twelfth Night celebrations became so riotous that in the 1870s, Queen Victoria outlawed the holiday, worried that it had become out of control. The extended Christmas season eventually disappeared, due to the Industrial Revolution and employers’ need for their workers to continue working, and the ‘modern’ shortened Christmas period began.
After Jane Austen’s Christmas guests had departed in January 1807, Jane wrote to her sister, Cassandra, “I shall be left to the comfortable disposal of my time, to ease of mind from the torments of rice puddings and apple dumplings, and probably to regret that I did not take more pains to please them all.”
In a lighter tone, Jane Austen also wrote, “I wish you a cheerful and at times even a Merry Christmas.”
On that note, I leave you with an excerpt from my novel Jane Austen’s First Love, a Library Journal Editor’s Pick of the Year, which I’m honored to say the Historical Novel Society called a “masterwork.”
In the novel, which is inspired by actual events, a precocious and observant Jane Austen visits friends in Kent to celebrate the engagement of her brother Edward, tests out her matchmaking skills with unexpected results, and falls in love with the charming and extraordinary Edward Taylor. In this scene, Jane joins in the holiday game Snapdragon at a merry gathering.
An excerpt from
JANE AUSTEN’S FIRST LOVE
By Syrie James
The young people progressed back to the drawing-room, and suggestions for parlour games were exchanged.
“It is such a dark and gloomy day, we ought to play Snapdragon,” suggested Edward Taylor.
“That is a Christmas game,” argued Mr. Cage, “and too dangerous.”
“It is perfectly safe,” insisted Edward Taylor.
I could not agree; I had played Snapdragon before, and although it had proved rather thrilling, I had nearly always burned myself.
The group, however, was overwhelmingly eager to play it, regardless of the dangers or the season; and a servant was dispatched to procure the necessary accoutrements. The drapes were closed, and in short order, a wide, shallow bowl was set up in the centre of a table; brandy was poured within; and a quantity of raisins was added, more than enough to accommodate all the party.
“According to one tradition,” said Edward Taylor, “the person who snatches the most fruit out of the brandy will marry their true love within a year.”
“Indeed?” said Mr. Deedes, with great interest. “I had not heard that.”
As our party was so large, it was determined that we ought to split into two halves: one group would play, while the other half recited the accompanying chant, and then we should switch. I was part of the chanting group at the first. We gathered round the table as Mr. Deedes set the brandy alight.
In the dim light of the room, the blue flames playing across the liquor created an eerie and quite spectacular effect. Everyone looked rather demonic as they all pressed forward, attempting to pluck raisins out of the burning brandy and extinguish them by eating them, at the risk of burning their fingers and mouths.
At the same time, my group chanted:
Here he comes with flaming bowl, Don’t he mean to take his toll, Snip! Snap! Dragon!
Take care you don’t take too much, Be not greedy in your clutch, Snip! Snap! Dragon!
With his blue and lapping tongue, Many of you will be stung, Snip! Snap! Dragon!
For he snaps at all that comes, Snatching at his feast of plums, Snip! Snap! Dragon!
The game proved both hilarious, and as usual, slightly perilous. At one point the bowl nearly turned over, threatening to send burning brandy spilling to the ground. I burned my fingers and tongue on some of the raisins, as did several of the others, but we intrepidly kept on playing.
Towards the end of the game, however, when Charlotte cried out upon plucking out a burning raisin, Edward Taylor came to her aid; taking her hand, he examined the red marks found there, then called for a servant to bring ice and salve, and removed himself from the game to attend to her.
With so much commotion, it was difficult to observe everything that was going on, or to keep track of how many raisins everybody ate, so the scoring was on the honour system. Sophia and Mr. Deedes were both particularly avid players; but although they did very well, it was determined that my brother Edward had won by a small margin.
“I simply had to win,” cried my brother when the game concluded, “as my wedding is in December. I want there to be no doubt that I am marrying my one, true love.”
This statement was met by a sweet clamour from the assemblage, and a look of surpassing affection from Elizabeth. I was happy for my brother, and their loving display made me smile with pleasure; but another such display produced a very different effect.
Sitting on a sofa across from me, Charlotte’s valiant knight still hovered over her with concern, and she was all blushing gratitude. Observing these familiarities made me warm with envy and confusion.
How unfair it was that she, as his cousin, could accept such attentions with impunity, in a manner which I could never hope to do ….
* * * * * * *
Learn more here about JANE AUSTEN FIRST LOVE.
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