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Georgian Christmas Celebrations

“I wish you a cheerful and at times even a
Merry Christmas.”

Jane Austen

Christmas in England, in the centuries prior to the Georgian kings, had become a dismal affair. In 1644 the holiday was banned by Oliver Cromwell, who called it “an extraeme forgetfulnesse of Christ, by giving liberty to carnall and sensual delights.” Instead, he had Parliament declare it a workday and required all merchants to be open for business. Carols were forbidden; anyone caught cooking a goose or baking a Christmas cake or boiling a pudding was in danger of fine, confiscation or worse. With the return of Charles II, the holiday was reinstated- but in a subdued manner. As the years passed it people remembered the rituals of their ancesters and added new ones of their own. By the 1800’s, it was once again a highly celebrated and significant time, though it wouldn’t reach it’s zenith until the Victorian era, when scholars sought to bring back old traditions and import new customs.

The Georgian Christmas season stretched from December 6th (St. Nicholas Day) to January 6th (Twelfth Night, Epiphany). The holiday was spent by the gentry in their country houses and estates, as they did not return to London until February*. It was a time of high celebration with visiting, gift and charity giving, balls, parties, masquerades, play acting, games and lots of food. Since families and friends were already gathered together, it was also a time for courtships and weddings.

The Austens were no exception to this and we know that they participated in these celebrations with alacrity. A Christmas Eve letter to Cassandra mentions Jane’s enjoyment in a ball held that week and a list of her charitable giving. Many of Jane’s plays written for the family survive, and in 1787, they staged a full length production which included cousins and friends. Her niece, Fanny’s, letters are full of descriptions of every kind of amusement held during the season.

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