I recently attended the annual Christmas celebration of my local chapter of the Jane Austen Society (JASNA), where our speaker, author Maria Grace, shared a fascinating talk about Regency Christmas Traditions, based on her book, A Jane Austen Christmas.
I won’t attempt to describe all of the many traditions observed over the twelve days of Christmases Past, but since I’m hosting Christmas Eve in a few days, I thought I’d touch on traditions of the 24th. (Read Maria’s fun, interesting book for much more!)
Have you already decorated for Christmas? In Regency times, the traditional day to decorate was December 24th. Seems late to me, but I recall my Dad’s mom (from a German background) waiting until Christmas Eve to decorate her tree. I still remember sneaking out of the room where I was supposed to be sleeping, and watching her work alone, laying string after tedious string of silver tinsel on its branches. In Regency England, this was the day to cut or buy evergreen boughs to decorate your house, as well as other greenery like holly, ivy, rosemary, laurel, hellebore (Christmas rose) and others. The greenery was left in place until Twelfth Night when it was taken out and burned—to leave it any longer was thought to bring bad luck.
Did Jane Austen have a Christmas tree along with those evergreen boughs? Unlikely. As you may know, the tradition of Christmas trees came from Germany, and while the British Royal family had trees by 1800, trees didn’t become common until the 1840s, after Queen Victoria married her German Prince Albert.
Does your family give gifts on Christmas Eve, or Christmas Day? Gift giving was not prevalent in the Regency as it is now, though children might receive small gifts, and giving presents of food, clothes, and money to less fortunate neighbors was an important part of the Christmas season.
One thing that hasn’t changed was: food! Everyone would be consumed with thoughts and preparations for the big Christmas feast the following day, featuring roasted goose, mince pies, plum pudding, and other sweets. Fruit cakes were also enjoyed. It was thought to be good luck to save a piece to eat the following year. (I gather Regency-era fruitcakes contained enough brandy to preserve them that long.) Perhaps the saving of that single piece of fruit cake from one year to the next is responsible for the current joke/theory that there really is only one fruitcake in the world, but it keeps getting passed around and regifted year after year. As someone who actually likes fruitcake, I plan to put that snarky rumor to rest by consuming this entire fruitcake (it’s small) and if I find another one to eat next year…? Well, then I win in more ways than one. 🙂
What’s in store for your Christmas Future? Whatever you have planned, I wish you a happy, blessed Christmas!
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