Ahh, the holidays. These days, at least in my household, it’s all Christmas carols, holiday movies, baking stollen and cookies, and frantically wrapping presents so they’ll look nice under the tree. That’s not too unusual. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the origins of Christmas and winter traditions, and how it’s all changed and evolved over time. So this seems like an appropriate time to discuss how the holiday season looked in the Georgian Era.
One of the novellas that take place between Golden and Siren Song is called Country Dances. I won’t tell you what it’s about because it involves some spoilers from Golden, but I will say that it takes place during the winter holidays in Viehland. I spent a lot of time a couple of years ago, knocking around the Bath and Bristol area, immersing myself in the feel and the history to get a feel for what my characters might be experiencing. Thankfully, Jane Austen is crazy popular (everywhere, but especially in Bath and among my friends) and everyone loves Christmas, so practically everyone was eager to tell me everything they know about Christmas during the Georgian era. Including Jane herself.
Parties, Parties, Parties.
After the the business with Cromwell was ended and Charles II regained the throne, Christmas was once again legal in Britain. It started off a quiet affair, but by the time the Georgians got it, it was a riotous national holiday again. And if anything describes merrymaking in the Georgian Era, it’s parties. Throwing parties was the primary mode of socialising back then. If you didn’t throw parties, you wouldn’t be invited to parties, and if you didn’t go to parties, you didn’t have friends. People were more community-minded in a literal sense than we are now. They weren’t as mobile, so you spent all of your time with the same group of people, or else you travelled way out of your way to see family and stayed for months’ long visits. People didn’t have the sort of day jobs that are the norm now, so your friends were strictly social rather than, say, work colleagues you wouldn’t fold into your personal life.
The first recorded Christmas Tree was brought inside by Queen Charlotte in 1800, and decorated it with dolls, candles, and gifts. Accounts differ on whether it was a fir or a yew, which is interesting. It didn’t take off, though, until Prince Albert popularised it 48 years later. There’s a lovely account of the grand unveiling at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor.
For those of you who might not know and, like my mother and me, have always wondered, yes they did decorate a tree with lit burning candles. You can still find clip-on candle holders that fit on branches. When my mother asked a German friend of hers how they don’t set the damn thing on fire, the woman said, ‘You just have to be very careful.’ Simple.
Much more popular, and affordable enough for the less wealthy, were the green boughs: evergreens, holly, mistletoe, and rosemary that would be brought inside to cheer the place up. Mistletoe was hung from everywhere, especially chandeliers, and was so popular that there were manuals published on how best to harvest and dry it. Sometimes they would hang garlands of the greenery, or make what is called Kissing Balls from the plants, as well as fruit, spices, candles, and ribbon.
Obviously, PARTIES. But what happened at those parties? They actually had a lot of the same traditions we’d recognise today. There was good food, music and dancing, and games.
The festivities began on December 6, St Nicholas Day, and that was when they exchanged gifts. Visiting family was also huge. There are parties mentioned in at least four of Jane Austen’s books: Mansfield Park, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice.
A roaring fire was the centrepiece of every party, and a specially selected log, augmented with hazel twigs was burned for as long as possible. A bit of it was held in reserve to light the next year’s log.
Gambling (particularly card games) were a huge part of any social gathering back then, as were games like Blind Man’s Bluff, Charades, and Hunt the Slipper. They might also tell stories and sing Christmas carols.
While not a tradition held at someone’s home party, the British Christmas tradition of the pantomime was born here, as melodrama was an enormously popular type of theatre and has survived in this form until the present day.
On December 25, most people went to church, and December 26th, St Stephen’s Day, was the day people gave the most heavily to charity and that wealthy people gave gifts to their servants and gave them their ‘Christmas Boxes,’ thus coining the modern name, Boxing Day.
January 6, or Twelfth Night, marked the last day. Popular games included bobbing for apples and snapdragon, as well as more drinking, dancing, and eating.
It was considered bad luck to bring greenery into the house before Christmas Eve, and also to leave it up past Twelfth Night.
You guys will have noticed by now that I love talking about food. No big fancy party would be complete without the roast: goose and turkey were universally popular, followed by venison for the gentry, and ham for others. Mince pies, originally made with real mincemeat (usually beef), were also widely available, and still are if you know where to look.
The traditional Christmas, or figgy, pudding gained popularity in the 16th century and hasn’t waned much. It is called figgy pudding because it sometimes has a large quantity of figs in the recipe, as well as other dried fruits, which were in the past called ‘sugarplums,’ so that’s what that term means, if you were wondering. It’s a bit like King cake in that little tokens like coins and baby figurines would be hidden and used as divination for the following year.
The most popular drink at the time has also survived into the present day–wassail, a punch usually made from spiced apple cider or brandy. Wassailing was the tradition of going among your neighbors houses, singing Christmas carols in exchange for a cup of wassail.
The majority of food served at the time, apart from the seasonal things were meant to clean out the stores and use up whatever was left and still fresh. The most popular dishes for the hosts were things that could be made in advance and served cold, but they also had a number of meat pies, soups, cheese, etc in huge quantities to keep the parties going as long as possible.
The clean-up after a month-long party, as you can imagine. Jane herself in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, laments how much she enjoyed the parties and visits from family, but also how much she was dreading what came next.
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.
(If you’re not used to 1807 language, that heavy sarcasm.)
At the height of the Georgian era, the season stretched from December 6 (St Nicholas Day) to January 6 (Twelfth Night). But the end of the Georgian Period was marked by the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the end of the agrarian lifestyle that typified the idyllic image of Jolly Olde England. Jobs in the cities required their workers to keep the machines running, thus shortening the Christmas season into the bare weekends we have today. Still, even in the choked and clogged factory cities of Victorian London, people still found a way to celebrate, as the Cratchitts did in A Christmas Carol.
So I will end (in an idea I got from historic-uk.com because it was adorable) with a quote from Jane herself in Pride and Prejudice:
“I sincerely hope your Christmas[…]may abound in the gaieties which the season generally brings.”
If you want to know more, particularly about how Jane Austen would have (and did) celebrated Christmas, I strongly recommend visiting Jane Austen’s World and The Jane Austen Centre, the official website for the site in Bath. Just clear your schedule, because there is a lot of information there.