In the Regency era Christmas festivities began on the 6th December, St Nicholas’s Day, with the exchange of small gifts and ended on January 6th, Twelfth Night. This month was a time for parties, suppers and balls with family and friends and for charity to the poor, especially on Saint Thomas’s day, the 21st December. There was little financial help other than the workhouse for the poor widows of soldiers who had died in the Napoleonic wars. They would go ‘thomasing’ by calling at the kitchen doors seeking alms or food parcels.
On Christmas Eve holly and evergreens were gathered by both the gentry and the poor and brought inside to decorate the house. This was an ancient tradition and a part of the festive trinity of greenery, warmth and light to herald the end of the long, dark and cold days of winter. Rosemary, bay and laurel were woven into wreaths and garlands and decorated with apples, oranges, ribbons and holly berries. Mistletoe was made into a kissing ball or bough and each time a kiss was exchanged, a berry was plucked from the sprigs until none were left, and then the kissing had to stop.
A candle was lit on Christmas Eve to dispel the winter gloom and the Yule log was brought in from the woods. It would be wrapped in hazel twigs, dragged home and lit with a small piece of the previous year’s log. This great blazing fire was kept going as long as possible and formed the heart of family gatherings.
Christmas day was a national holiday and people attended church and returned home to a splendid celebration dinner with relatives and friends. The day after Christmas day is Saint Stephen’s day, a day for charity. The rich gave their servants and tenants their ‘Christmas Boxes’ of gifts or money, hence the name ‘Boxing Day’.
Many of the Christmas customs we associate with Christmas today didn’t originate until the Victorian era. Prince Albert is reputed to have started the tradition of the Christmas tree but in fact it was Queen Charlotte, wife of George III who brought the first tree to Britain. In 1848 a published illustration of Queen Victoria and her family gathered around a vast fir tree glowing with candles and glittering baubles sparked the imagination of the public and Christmas trees became popular.
Christmas cards didn’t exist in the Regency era, either. Sir Henry Cole, who had been involved with the introduction of postage stamps a few years before, commissioned the first Christmas card in 1843. Cards usually depicted the coming of spring rather than religious or winter scenes. Although singing was a popular form of entertainment at social gatherings many carols were not written until after this time. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen and While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night, however, were written in the late eighteenth century and, although the words were added in 1853, the tune of In Dulci Jubilo goes back to the middle ages.
Twelfth Night marked the end of the Christmas season and often a party was held with dancing and singing, all accompanied by plenty of hot, spiced wine and games such as bobbing for apples. It was considered bad luck to keep the greenery in the house after Twelfth Night and so it was all taken down and burned.
After her Christmas guests had departed in 1807, Jane Austen 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.’
I imagine Jane Austen won’t have been the only hostess to heave a sigh of relief as she put her feet up with a cup of tea once she’d waved goodbye to her guests!