The holidays are right around the corner, and while you’re wrapping gifts, waiting in traffic to get to the mall, settling in for a long winter’s night — or, ahem, celebrating Jane Austen’s birthday today (happy birthday, Jane!), here are 12 facts about Regency Christmases to ponder….
No holiday movies. No holiday TV ads that bring a tear to your eyes. No Christmas carols 24/7 on the radio. Back in the Regency era, Christmas wasn’t the huge holiday as it is now. Houses were decorated with greenery and the practice of giving presents to servants (Boxing Day) was becoming more common — but the traditions we know today mostly came from the later in 19th-century America and continental Europe.
Houses kept those greenery decorations up until Twelfth Night, when it was removed and burned to ward off bad luck. Imagine if we did that with our Christmas lights and decorations every year!
Speaking of Twelfth Night … A lot of people observed “old Christmas Day” — Jan 6, or Twelfth Night (marking the coming of the Magi). On Twelfth Night, people exchanged gifts and held balls, which were the highlight of the Christmas season. Starting about 10 p.m. — with supper served at 12:30 or 1 — these balls sound a little more exciting than that office holiday party.
At Twelfth Night gatherings, some guests were chosen to portray an assigned character all evening or pay a forfeit. A few of these characters had some fascinating names. Examples: Sir Tumbelly Clumsy and Miss Fanny Fanciful.
The holidays were a good time for the poor to beg for money. Women went “thomasing” on St. Thomas Day (Dec. 21): going to neighbors’ houses in hopes of food or money. The season also featured mummer’s plays, in which actors performed in the streets while a hat was passed for donations. There were anti-mask laws that prohibited actors from completely disguising their faces, but they found ways around the laws using decorations and costumes.
In one of her letters, Jane Austen said: “We are just beginning to be engaged in another Christmas Duty, & next to eating Turkies, a very pleasant one, laying out Edward’s money for the poor.”
Even servants — who worked nearly every day — got to enjoy Boxing Day. They often got the day off.
The traditional yule log was set afire on Christmas Eve using splinters from the previous year’s yule log. Its fire is supposed to keep smoldering through to Twelfth Night. If not, back luck would descend on the house.
Christmas carols from Austen’s era include older versions of these songs: “Deck the Halls,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Hark the Herald Angles Sing.”
Mincemeat pies are traditional desserts during the Christmas season. Originally they were oblong and sunk in the middle; some bakers made a pastry doll to put in the middle (to resemble the baby Jesus in his manger) for a “crib pie.” The pies started out with meat mixed with fruits and spices. Superstition says if you eat mince pies for all 12 days of Christmas, you’ll have 12 months of happiness.
And of course a must-have was a traditional plum pudding. But plum pudding doesn’t really contain plums. In the 17th century, the term “plum” referred to dried fruits and raisins.
To wash down your meal: Wassail, kind of like a punch (which contained lots of alcohol), has apple cider, spice, sugar, rum, and brandy and is served hot.
Sources: “Jane Austen’s England,” Roy & Leslie Adkins; “A Jane Austen Christmas,” Maria Grace
Look who’s the birthday girl today!
Happy holidays — and we’ll see you back here in 2016!