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Christmas Day with the Austen Family

In came a fiddler with a music-book, and went up to the lofty desk, and made an orchestra of it, and tuned like fifty stomach-aches. In came Mrs. Fezziwig, one vast substantial smile. In came the three Miss Fezziwigs, beaming and lovable. In came the six young followers whose hearts they broke. In came all the young men and women employed in the business. In came the housemaid, with her cousin, the baker. In came the cook, with her brother’s particular friend, the milkman. In came the boy from over the way, who was suspected of not having board enough from his master; trying to hide himself behind the girl from next door but one, who was proved to have had her ears pulled by her mistress. In they all came, one after another; some shyly, some boldly, some gracefully, some awkwardly, some pushing, some pulling; in they all came, anyhow and everyhow. Away they all went, twenty couple at once; hands half round and back again the other way; down the middle and up again; round and round in various stages of affectionate grouping; old top couple always turning up in the wrong place; new top couple starting off again, as soon as they got there; all top couples at last, and not a bottom one to help them! When this result was brought about, old Fezziwig, clapping his hands to stop the dance, cried out, “Well done!” and the fiddler plunged his hot face into a pot of porter, especially provided for that purpose. But scorning rest, upon his reappearance, he instantly began again, though there were no dancers yet, as if the other fiddler had been carried home, exhausted, on a shutter, and he were a bran-new man resolved to beat him out of sight, or perish.

There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled, and there were mince-pies, and plenty of beer. But the great effect of the evening came after the Roast and Boiled, when the fiddler (an artful dog, mind! The sort of man who knew his business better than you or I could have told it him!) struck up “Sir Roger de Coverley.”
A Christmas Carol
, by Charles Dickens

 

Christmas did not become a national holiday in England until 1834–Seventeen years after Jane Austen left the world. However, it had been growing in popular observance for much longer, and during Jane’s lifetime was already a greatly anticipated holiday of wistful longings and merry-making; replete with customs, rituals, rites and superstitions, church-going and devotion—much like the holiday portrayed by Dickens in A Christmas Carol.

In fact, the one thing Victorian–and modern life have to offer that was lacking in Jane’s day (with regard to Christmas) is commercialism and unashamed exuberance, which only came with national recognition and a growing middle class, later in the nineteenth century.

In other words, Christmas was not yet commercialized, so that Jane Austen (and many others of her day) viewed it primarily as a sacred holiday. As the daughter of a pious clergyman she was schooled to understand it in all its Christian significance and beauty. (Being a man of the church did not necessarily mean that one was devout, but in Mr. Austen’s case, it did, and Jane herself appears to have taken her readings in The Book of Common Prayer quite seriously.)

Though the Victorians are usually credited with “inventing” our modern-day Christmases, it is more accurate to say they popularized it commercially. They did not invent any of the age-old traditions that had long been in place such as the Yule log, the roast goose and potatoes, or the Christmas pudding. Likewise, carols and caroling (called, “wassailing” or singing by “the waits”) were already long-entrenched customs, as were many others, including mistletoe , feasting, gift-exchanging, decorating with evergreens, and the like. What then, did the Victorians add? Primarily, “respectability” (by making it fashionable to observe Christmas); the Christmas “cracker” (still popular today), and the use of tall trees. Additionally, technology grew and enabled Christmas cards and prints to be exchanged, fueling the popularity of the holiday.


What Was Jane’s Christmas Like?

She most likely made tea for her family in the morning as was her custom; then went to church with them; helped with the great Christmas dinner, if she were to eat at home (rather than at Godmersham or another relative’s house), enjoyed a gift exchange with her siblings and close relatives and a good friend or two; participated in parlour games (Charades was a family favorite), with perchance a good card game, or even a dance, if it were held. She may have played carols on the pianoforte, joined the others to sit ’round the fire for storytelling or reading aloud; and she may have joined the family in prayer, perhaps reading one of her own making, aloud. The family would have enjoyed special food and a favorite brew, such as mulled cider or wassail at some point in the evening; and if company stopped by, all the better. In short, Jane and the Austen family enjoyed a festive day, and in fact welcomed all festivities during the full twelve days of Christmas. May you and yours do likewise!

 

Linore Rose Burkard is the author of Before the Season Ends, an inspirational regency romance. Visit her website for more information about this, and her other books.

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