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Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Jane Austen Christmas

Jo Beverley suggests that Christmas was not much celebrated in Regency circles, given that old-fashioned rustic traditions were too gauche for most people. There is little evidence of people singing Christmas carols, though at least one source puts “The Cherry Tree Carol” from this period—at least, it was published in a broadside in this period, the carol may date to the 15th century.

Cherry Tree Carol

Twelfth Night seems to be more celebrated than Christmas was. Jane Austen’s mother makes scant reference to the celebration of the season in a letter from 1786 to Philadelphia Walters, saying only “Every one of our fireside joins in Love and Duty as due in wishing a happy 87 to our dear friends at Seal.”

Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night cake

A letter from Fanny Austen Knight in 1804 describes the conventional pastimes for a Twelfth Night party, including snapdragon (a game in which raisins are placed in a bowl of brandy which is then set alight, the object being you pluck them out without burning yourself), bullet pudding (a strange game related to King’s Cake except with flour and a bullet!), and bobbing for apples (which often took place after the country custom of Wassailing the Orchards). “In the evening we dance or play at cards.” She means a specific set of cards during the Christmas season. In this celebration, each lady drew a card from the box held by a footman to the left of the entrance, and each gentleman drew a card from the same to the right. Then each person would have to maintain the persona of that card for the rest of the evening, with (hopefully) hilarious results. At Fanny’s party in 1804, the characters included Suky Sweetlips, John Thumb, Polly Primrose, Goody Twoshoes, Dorothy Do-little, Margery Mutton Pie, and Johnny Bo-Peep; two years later the characters included a Pilgrim, a Turk, a Jew, a Witch, a flowergirl, a fruitgirl, a haymaker, Harlequin, Clown, and Cupid (I kid you not). Certainly the characters of these cards must have meant a lot more to the revelers of the 18th century than to us now, but all of it came from the King’s Cake tradition. Stationers were employed to create exclusive sheets of character cards; it seems to have been quite a lucrative business.


Getting to balls in the winter could be an uncomfortable business, so as soon as guests arrived they would eat hot soup and negus (a mix of hot water, wine, and spices). Here is Martha Lloyd’s recipe for hartshorn jelly, a genteel sort of soup-like dish:

Take 4 oz of Hartshorn shavings, one quart of water and boil it dry then put another quart of water and boil it till it will jelly, the whites of two eggs and beat them to a froth with the juice of one lemon and half an orange, a stick of cinnamon and sugar to your taste, run your jelly through a bag and let it stand to be a little cool before you put your eggs to it. Then boil it till it looks clear, or the eggs begin to sink, then run it through the bag until it is quite clear.

Balls must have been popular, as “in a series of editorials on Christmas in the 1780s and 1790s, The Times used the traditional festive lament the attack aristocratic vice, corruption and luxury” (Armstrong 5). We get a glimpse in a letter from Jane to Cassandra on Christmas Eve 1798:

There were twenty dances, and I danced them all without any fatigue. I was glad to find myself capable of dancing so much, and with so much satisfaction as I did; . . . My black cap was openly admired by Mrs Lefroy, and secretly, I imagine, by everybody else in the room.
. . . I wish you a Merry Xmas but no compliments of the season. . . .
Of my charities to the poor since I came home, you shall have faithful account. I have given a pair of worsted stockings to Mary Hutchins, Dame Kew, Mary Steevens and Dame Staples; a shift to Hannah Staples, and a shawl to Betty Dawkins; amounting in all to about half a guinea. But I have no reason to suppose that the Batty’s [sic] would accept of anything, because I have not made them the offer.

Games and Pastimes

Carols don’t seem to have been popular; if there were any, they were sung as hymns at church. There was mumming, wassailing and other various country traditions; a description of one comes from Whitehaven, Cumberland: "The comedians, of which there are many companies, parade the streets and ask at almost every door if the mummers are wanted. They are dressed in the most grotesque fashion; their heads adorned with high paper caps, gilt and spangled, and their bodies with ribbons of various colours, while St. George and the Prince are armed with ten swords.”

Charades were three-act plays each one describing the syllable of a word. They could be played in two ways. Firstly, a relaxed game where everyone stayed seated. Each player would recite their conundrum and the rest had to guess at the word. Or the party would divide into two or more groups, where they would create short one-minute acts to describe the syllables, the last describing the whole word. The word had to be said in the act. From a collection published in 1895 which collects the Austen charades, here is one from her mother Cassandra’s brother James Leigh, who inherited the estate of North Leigh in Oxfordshire from the Perrots.

In confinement I’m chained every day
Yet my enemies need not be crowing
To my chain I have always a key,
And no prison can keep me from going.

Small and weak my hands I’ll allow,
Yet for striking my character’s great,
Though ruined by one fatal blow,
My strokes, if hard pressed, I repeat.

I have neither mouth, eye nor ear
Yet I always keep time as I sing,
Change of season I never need fear
Though my being depends on the spring.

Would you wish, if these hints are too few
One glimpse of my figure to catch?
Look round! I shall soon be in view
If you have but your eyes on the watch.

In 1800, Queen Charlotte, the German-born wife of King George III and mother of the Prince Regent, placed a decorated yew tree in Queen’s Lodge, Windsor, for the children of leading families. From its branches hung sweetmeats, raisins, almonds, fruits and toys, and illuminated by wax candles. As the children left they could take parts of the treats home with them.

Reverend Holland

Reverend Holland was a West Country parson who kept a diary from 1799—1817. His Christmases were marked rather quietly. He spent Christmas Eve and Day of 1799 handing out charity to the poor parishioners. “The poor came for meat and corn this cold weather and against Christmas Season. Some very thankful and some almost saucy. . . . Much harried by the poor of the parish who come for Christmas Gifts. Many persons rather in affluence came but this is not right because it takes from those who are real objects.” He often found getting to church and delivering the sermon the most taxing part of the day, and nothing else made much of an impression. On Sunday 20 December 1801, he wrote, “I went thro’ the Duty very well but few at Church the day very uncomfortable.” Christmas Day that year was extremely wet and dismal. “The Singers at the window tuned forth a most dismal ditty, half drunk too and with the most wretched voices . . . A day of labour but I have got through it very well I think.” A near contemporary of Holland’s, the Somerset rector John Skinner, seems to have been tormented by Christmas bells.

Evidently not a man of prudish tastes, on December 13th, 1804 Reverend Holland witnessed a school production of Othello which he seems to have enjoyed: “The two Stradlings acted Desdemona and Amelia [sic] and two prettier girls I scarce ever saw insomuch that some said it was pity they should be boys. . . . A boy dressed like an Orange Girl came with a basket to take the ticket and most gave half a crown, I gave half a guinea. We had a very pleasant and satisfactory jaunt and we got into bed before two in the morning.” He also, like the Austens, played cards. Holland did indulge in some gift-giving, as on Christmas Day 1807 when he presented the Clerk of Dodington with “a good black coat of mine, of which he stood in need for he is but a miserable wight.” In turn the Reverend was very pleased when he received from Mrs Dodwell a “handsome Court Calendar bound in Morocco.”

On Christmas Day 1806 the Reverend was relying on his umbrella to get him through terrible weather. Frosty weather preoccupied him during Christmas services in 1808. He seems to have had a custom of giving his servant George a holiday on December 26th (contrary to what we know of most Victorian employers from Hannah Culwick). Balls and celebrations seem, from his account, not to have taken place on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day but primarily between December 26th and January 8th. The letters of Fanny, Jane Austen’s niece, seem to support this. On January 4th, 1806, the family put on a theatrical at Godmersham Park, complete with playbill and servants as audience. In 1808 it seems there was a Christmas Eve ball, at least for Fanny Austen Knight, who wrote the next day that it had had twelve dances. “We then had a game of Hunt the Slipper and ended the day with sandwiches and tarts. I must not omit to say that the little ones dressed up as usual and sang Christmas Carols.” (In late December 1815, Holland describes a Christmas Ball for children.)

Jane Austen Christmas references


Washington Irving’s influential Sketch-Book described a Yorkshire Christmas from 1810 that starts in a country inn. The protagonist Geoffrey Crayon comes to enjoy Christmas at Squire Bracebridge’s. The servants are allowed and even encouraged to enjoy gaiety during the Christmas season, playing “Hoodman Blind, shoe the wild mare, hot cockles, steal the white loaf, bob apple, and snap dragon.” At supper, Crayon comments on the decorations, wreaths of holly and ivy and special Christmas candles, followed by a “merry dance.”

“The party now broke up for the night with the kindhearted old custom of shaking hands. As I passed through the hall on the way to my chamber, the dying embers of the Yule log still sent forth a dusky glow.” He is awoken the next morning by three children singing “Christians Awake” at his door. (Irving’s 1809 Knickbocker’s History of New York referenced St Nicholas as the mythic patron saint of New Amsterdam.)

One of Jane Austen’s favorite books was Robert Southey’s Letters from England, a satirical look at English customs from the view point of a visiting Spaniard (in fact invented by Southey himself). An entry from 1803 highlights the British propensity for sitting all around the fire, instead of “warm your rooms like the Germans . . . and diffuse the heat equally on all sides,” causing some people to roast and some people to be chilled.

Brawn and souse were popular cold meats, venison was for the very wealthy, and turkey was, as we have seen, also very popular. In 1812, Jane wrote to Martha Lloyd asking for an address of an acquaintance, Mr Morton, to whom she wished to send a Christmas gift of turkey. Goose was considered good luck to eat at Michelmas but not especially popular at Christmas. By the Regency, marzipan was a popular treat for special occasions.

Jane Austen’s World blog.

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