Celebrating the Season In Regency Style
“…everywhere…and at all times, [Christmas] has been the season of miracle and surprise, the time closest to the hearts of the people who keep it.”
Much has been made, said, written about and portrayed regarding an English Victorian Christmas, with hardly any good references to Regency Yuletides—and little wonder! Thanks to the Industrial Revolution and advances in the power of the press (i.e., photography, color printing, and both as applied to advertisements) the Victorian era was portrayed abundantly as no time before it ever had been. After a picture of Prince Albert’s Christmas tree appeared in the London paper in 1848, England saw an immediate adoption of the practice of putting up trees, including a resurgence of the whole idea of “keeping” Christmas in a big way. In short, the holiday became fashionable! The abundance of colored holiday prints from that era which survive to this day is proof for the pudding, so to speak.
The Regency era, however, suffers from a lack of pictorial records regarding the Holiday Season. This is not, (in my opinion) due to a lack of spiritual observance, as has been often assumed. The reason there are so many happy depictions of Victorian Christmas life, is because there are so many depictions of Victorian life, period. The process of printing in color became easier, thereby becoming cheaper, and thus spawning a great deal of inexpensive prints and artwork with much surviving to this day. The middle class came into its own in the Victorian era, and with it, came its spending power. Merchandising, while not near the level of what it is today, nevertheless “discovered” that it could cater to the tastes of this large segment of society, and make a tidy profit while doing so. The Christmas card, (the first of which was not printed until 1843—and even then, was not in color) became affordable with the introduction of the penny post—cheap mail. This catapulted the onslaught of a huge mass of printed Christmas scenes. In other ways, the growing prosperity of a large middle class made Christmas, in the more modern sense, affordable to more people, and this played into how it appeared in printed literature, magazines, newspapers, and the like.
As for the oft-cited example of Victoria and Albert being responsible for the surge of interest in Christmas, this is less due to their domesticity than to the “advertisement” of it. England had enjoyed a blissfully domestic royal family who were the picture of happy tranquility in King George III and his Germanic wife, Charlotte. It was Charlotte, in fact (and not Prince Albert) who had the first Christmas tree set up in 1800. However, when the Queen had her tree erected it was not advertised to the population at large the way it was later in the century when Albert put up his tree, and it lacked the opportunity of capturing wide-spread attention.
Even if it had caught the imagination, most people lacked the means of making such a tree, replete with presents, a reality in their own homes, especially in urban areas. Under Victoria and Albert, conditions were more supportive for a larger segment of society to celebrate with all the trappings. Combined with the other factors previously noted, it made sense for the custom of having a tree to take root only when it was affordable and important to do so.
During the Regency, the rug of stability had been pulled from beneath the population. Their King, symbol of power for the nation, was believed to have gone mad. In his place, a pleasure-loving, hedonistic, but immensely dignified prince became regent. Despite a great deal of criticism leveled against him, he was, nonetheless, the figurehead of society; he set the tone for the ton, who in turn, influenced their tenants and servants. In some degree, there was a general feeling of the nation collectively holding its breath—the King was fit for bedlam and the country was at war–and waiting. And when the Regent lived as if nothing else mattered but the elegance of his rooms, the quality of his food, and the pleasure of the moment—the country followed suit.
This all plays into the absence of attention to Christmas during the era. We can say, in fact, that it was commercially neglected, though not, as we shall see, socially forgotten. Looking back, it is easy to assume the holiday had no significance, but our hindsight is informed by what has happened since, regarding the holiday. The Regency never knew the Christmases of our youth, or of the Victorian ideal. England had still not fully recovered from the former ban on all things Christmas, made in the 16th century, as a response to subversion. The fact that they celebrated as they did is, in fact, evidence of a great desire to keep the holiday.
Why, then, does the idea of a Regency Christmas strike some as an oxymoron? For one, the aforementioned dearth of printed Christmas portrayals, especially when contrasted to the period directly following it. Also, the atmosphere of irreverence that began in the upper classes and trickled down to most of the population. There is an important distinction to be made here, however, that, while Christmas had once been celebrated with more abandon in England than during Regency times, and likewise during the Victorian era, it is nevertheless true that there were earnest observers of the holiday during the Regency.
The fact that we have less evidence of it being observed, simply reflects the popular obsession with all things “fashionable.” The nation’s imagination was preoccupied, if you will, and therefore the sacred holiday of Christmas received a great deal less “press”. This applied both privately and commercially. We have accounts from early 19th Century journals of Christmas days where the writer mentions the holiday but makes absolutely no fuss about it. Likewise, there are records of newspapers, published on December 25th that do not even contain the word, Christmas.
This is to say that the Church had already lost a great deal of its influence, so that when people did observe the holiday, it was on a much quieter scale. The Regency is famous for the behaviour of its less religious observers, who were loud, in the public eye, unapologetic, and tenaciously hedonistic. England was at war, no one knew how it would all turn out, and the old sentiment of “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” seemed to be the reigning philosophy. Obviously, that sort of philosophy doesn’t sit well with the Christian values that Christmas reminds us of.
Yet, even during those turbulent years of Napoleonic domination (or, the threat of it) and an overbearing upper class attitude of “anything goes”–England was still “merry old England,” home to large populations of Protestants and Catholics who delighted to observe Christmas. It may not have been the “thing,” or the “mode” to make much of the holiday, but it was observed, nevertheless. It is my intention to take a good long look at how it was celebrated, to take a fanciful look at how the Regent may have done so, and to fill in the blanks for those of us who wonder. We want to know, once and for all, what a Regency Christmas was like!
The Season of Christmas during the Regency was not portrayed to the degree that it later was; nor was it fashionable to be overtly religious or overly sentimental in one’s celebrations; people did not feel the sense of obligation about gift giving that they later developed. Likewise, one did not see the vast commercial exploitation of the holiday that was later evident and seen today. What we did have in a Regency Christmas was an observation of the Season based more on tradition and less on obligation; more on spiritual observance (for those who observed it) than on social expectations or pretensions.
We also see in a Regency Christmas all the goodness of the old-fashioned ways of life, the quaintness of holly and candles and good, roaring fires in the hearth; the smell of wassail steaming in a large bowl over the grate, or the pungent aroma of the Christmas pudding and roast goose watering the mouth and filling the imagination. We see an emphasis on social interaction that is woefully absent today, in our world of home entertainment and personal computers.
In short, despite the shroud placed on the holiday by earlier bans, and current agnosticism, Regency England did not neglect to celebrate Christmas. For the masses, it was a tempered form of celebrating, sobered by the repression of past excesses; and for many in the upper classes, it may have been just an excuse to keep up the good times. But as today there are those who observe Christmas on spiritual grounds and those who don’t, so it was then. The absence of spiritual fervor in some, however, did not, and cannot erase the joy of a spiritual celebration for others. Additionally, just as ancient winter solstice celebrations appealed to anyone during the dark and coldest months of the year, so Christmas lends itself to the observance of all people, of any faith or persuasion, regardless of its Christian significance and meaning.
May you deeply enjoy your Christmas this year, and may this book help you do so, beginning by taking you back to the early nineteenth century.
Picture it: Bright candles and a blazing fire, friends and loved ones, neighbors and clergy, surrounding you while you sip your glass of wassail and listen while someone sings a traditional carol aloud from across the room…. the smell of holly and the spices in your drink mingle pleasantly in the air about you, as comfortable together as you are with these people you have likely known your whole life…… Welcome to an early nineteenth century Christmas Season. It is evening, now, and I can hardly wait for tomorrow!
As stated earlier, if you read about English Christmases, what you get is a history of ancient rituals, medieval traditions, and then a jump to the sumptuous Victorian ideal. From there it is short work to reach the present-day Father-Christmas centered affair . But what is the poor Regency writer to do when she wants to portray Christmas? We can’t rely on Dickens, because his portrayals of the Season either foretell, or come after, the Regency.
Therefore, we will start our journey into “Christmas Past” at the Regency! What would a Regency Christmas look like? What sort of decorations would there have been? Were there lights in the windows? Were there wreaths on the door? What about a tree? Or the smells of evergreen and holly? In short, would we recognize Christmas at all? I think we would.
The Regency in England was actually quite a short period, lasting only nine years from 1811 to 1820. Due to what we now know was a condition called porphyria, the King was considered to have gone mad. In 1811, Parliament declared George, Prince of Wales, Regent in place of his father, George III. To understand the Christmas customs of the Regency, one must really begin back in the 17th century, nearly two hundred years earlier, when the holidays were celebrated so boisterously that it led to drunkenness, riotous revelries that often lasted through whole nights, and many kinds of social disorder. People who were not truly celebrating the religious holiday of Christmas were going all out to make it the pagan winter festival of ancient times—or so it seemed. So by the time of Cromwell the holiday was frowned upon, then discouraged, and finally outright banned! Anyone found celebrating Christmas could be seized from his own home and thrown into prison, heavily fined, or even, at times, put to death! The end result was that Christmas in England was dealt a hard blow. Even when it was legalized again in 1660, the repercussions of it having been banned took time to stamp out. Slowly, slowly, however, the old traditions came back, the festive atmosphere returned, and Christmas was once again respectable.
By the time of the Regency people were most assuredly celebrating Christmas, but not with the same expectations of the holiday as is usual today. Instead of, for instance, the intense excitement centered upon December 25th, the Regency Christmas celebration was really spread out over what was considered to be the Christmas Season.
From the beginning of Advent until Epiphany on January 6th, people planned, and held, many different sorts of festivities, balls, parties, card-parties, dinners, small gatherings, skating parties, and other visits and social events. Christmas Day itself was an acceptable time for gift-exchanges, but the emphasis on giving presents was not what it is today. People have always welcomed gifts at Christmas, and giving to charity and the servant class was expected (especially on Boxing Day, December 26th), but December 25th was primarily a day for religious observance and a special Christmas dinner.
Let us now begin our journey in earnest. We are somewhere in the years between 1811 and 1820. Like Jane Austen, we are genteel but not wealthy. It is nearing the end of November and Stir-up Sunday has arrived, and with it, the unofficial start to the Christmas Season. (The official beginning of the Season will be next Sunday, with the start of Advent.) We have just returned from church, and now we are back home helping prepare the Plum Pudding which will be central to our Christmas Day feast!
Christmas puddings and cakes traditionally had to be prepared by the Sunday before Advent in order to be considered ready for Christmas. They were thought to improve upon keeping. Oddly enough, the day became known as “Stir Up Sunday,” not because of the great deal of stirring done to prepare the victuals, but because of the collect for the church service that day: “Stir up we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people…”
You could always start your pudding later, closer to Christmas, but it is essential to have a pudding if you would have an English Christmas. Interestingly, the flaming “Plum Pudding” we know today actually contains no plums! The name dates back to the 1670’s, but by the time of the Regency the plums were replaced with raisins and currants. Also known as Christmas Pudding or “Figgy” Pudding, the recipe does not contain figs, either.
If you were from a poorer home your family might have joined a “Pudding Club.” In the months or weeks preceding Christmas, you would leave small amounts of money at the grocers, thereby ensuring enough cash for the all-important Christmas pudding when it came time to purchase the ingredients.
Excerpted from Linore Rose Burkard’s upcoming book, Christmas at Carlton House: Celebrating the Season In Regency Style. To purchase the rest of this book, visit Ladyregency.net. The finished book will include recipes, games, decorating tips, illustrations and more.
Jane Austen Centre Readers: Receive 50% off the list price. You must let us know you heard about the book through the JAC at ordering in order to qualify for the half-price purchase.
Ms. Burkard is the author of the acclaimed Regency Novel, Before the Season Ends. Visit her website to read selections from this and other books in the series.
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