"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. The novels are not devoid of Christmas mention, either. Sir Thomas gives a ball for Fanny and William, the Woodhouses, Musgroves and Bennets host relatives. Lady Susan descends upon her brother-in-law’s house, Charlotte Lucas is married, John Morland visits the Thorpes, Willoughby ‘danced from eight o'clock till four without once sitting down’, the Westons give a party and Emma is not able to attend Church. All of these events give insights into the doings of the season. In a tradition brought from Europe, St. Nicholas day was celebrated with the exchanging of small gifts among friends.
Though it lacked the elaborate rituals found in the Netherlands (shoes and a multitude of presents for the children) it marked the official beginning of the Christmas Season. After that, guests would arrive and the round of visiting, parties and balls would begin. So many guests required that a tremendous amount of food be kept on hand. Recipes which could be made ahead and served cold were popular with cooks and became the basis for many traditional recipes. Black Butter and Souse were a must as were a variety of meats, jellies and puddings. For Christmas dinner there was always a turkey, goose, or mutton, though Venison held pride of place. Afterwards, of course, there was Christmas (or Plum) pudding ablaze in brandy sauce. While the visiting was enjoyable, it’s easy to see how these preparations could take their toll on the hostess. No wonder Jane wrote to Cassandra
“[January 7, 1807] When you receive this our guests will all be gone or going; and 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.”
You can see through the humor to the very real stress involved in playing hostess for so long. Traditional decorations for the time included holly and greens, but for most people, not a Christmas tree. The Christmas Tree, originally a German tradition, was brought to England in 1800 by the Hanoverian Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. It was unveiled Christmas day as part of the celebrations for the Royal Children at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor. One witness described it as,
“A fir tree, about as high again as any of us, lighted all over with small tapers, several little wax dolls among the branches in different places, and strings of almonds and raisins alternately tied from one to the other, with skipping ropes for the boys, and each bigger girl had muslin for a frock, a muslin handkerchief, and a fan, and a sash, all prettily done up in a handkerchief, and a pretty necklace and earrings besides.”It was not until 1848, when a picture of Queen Victoria’s family gathered around their Christmas tree was published in The Illustrated London News, that they became popular with the general public. Likewise, Santa Claus, or Saint Nicholas, though his feast day was recognized, did not become a central figure in English Christmas celebrations until several years later. Things were beginning to be added to the legend, however, and in 1822, the American, Clement C. Moore, wrote A Visit from Saint Nicholas for his children, which included the now familiar 'stockings hung by the chimney with care', a jolly little man with a pack full of toys, and eight tiny reindeer which he named Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder and Blitzen. Rudolph would be added by later generations. Christmas Day, itself, was a national holiday when all families gathered together, attended church and ate their large Christmas dinner. As the daughter of a Clergyman, this aspect of the holiday would have held special meaning for Jane. Amid the celebrations and parties, here, alone stood the true meaning- the reason for the season. The prayer for Christmas contained in the Book of the Common Prayer, the same prayer book the Austens would have used, reads:
O God, You make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven: where with you and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen. Almighty God, you have given your only begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit, through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.
Originally the feast of the Epiphany, celebrating the Wise Men’s arrival in Bethlehem and their presentation of gifts to the Christ child, Twelfth Night (of the Twelve Days of Christmas fame) signaled the end of the Christmas season and was celebrated in grand style with masquerade parties and gifts. These gifts were often accompanied by poems and riddles. Guests would dress in costume or draw names of characters to play throughout the party. Sir William Heathcote remembered attending a Twelfth Night Party once, as a boy, where Jane Austen drew the name of “Mrs Candour”. Can you just imagine the fun she would have had pulling guests aside all evening telling them what “she” thought of them or gossiping about them in loud whispers?! It was all in fun, of course, and each person played his part through the games and rounds of cards. Once the party was over, it was time to go home and start getting back to the business of day to day life. No wonder they tried to stretch the season out as much as possible! *The "Official" London Season ran from May to July.
Laura Sauer is a collector of Jane Austen Films and film memorabilia. She also runs Austentation, a company that specializes in custom made Regency Accessories.