Jane Austen's Regency Christmas
By J. A. Horrocks
What would a regency Christmas have been like? From research it seems quite similar to today, lots of eating and drinking, entertaining, family visits and fun. The Georgian times were renowned for opulence, led in no small part by the reigning monarch George III and later by his son the Prince Regent. The time of Puritans and the loss of Christmas indulgences were now long forgotten.
Roasted turkey, mutton and venison followed by rich, creamy festive rice pudding and fruity plum pudding, candlelit dinners, singing and charades, this would be a typical Georgian Christmas and one that Jane Austen would have enjoyed. Family visits and invitations would be the order of the day, the Christmas holidays would last several weeks and so would the length of a relative's stay. Jane would refer to such protracted stays in her novels ;
"The visit of the Misses Steel at Barton Park was lengthened far beyond what the first invitation implied....they were prevailed on to stay nearly two months at the Park, to assist in the due celebration of that festival which requires a more than ordinary share of private balls and large dinners to proclaim its importance." Sense & Sensibility, 1811
The time and distance travelled over rough roads to actually reach your family encouraged a lengthy visit and rural life had not yet been affected by the Industrial Revolution which would demand shorter holidays for its workers. And so our Georgian host would welcome guests for the full twelve days of Christmas starting on St. Nicholas Day, 6th December until Twelfth Night, 6th January and very probably beyond!
"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.” Letter to Cassandra, 7th January 1807
A great deal of time and planning was required to prepare one's house for the festive season, great swathes of evergreen would decorate the interior of the home on Christmas Eve, holly with berries, ivy and laurel were often used. Fresh fruits were used for decoration, with apples, lemons and oranges providing a pleasant aroma and a show of wealth. The fireplace would be the central feature and would be decorated accordingly and special Yule logs would be lit. Christmas trees were not yet the tradition they are today, only arriving during the reign of Queen Victoria. Many, many candles would be lit and a very glittering spectacular scene would be set, everyone always has to impress or be impressed.
The preparation of food to ensure that all guests would be well fed would have been the most onerous task for the household. This would become a major project which would be started weeks in advance with 'Stir Up Sunday' the last Sunday before Advent, when cakes and puddings would be prepared, very much like the build up to our Christmas but without the television ads! The sweet delicacies prepared were gingerbread using this indulgent, expensive spice, plum pottage or plum pudding, full of raisins and dried prunes, along with Mince pies once made with ox tongue and fruit, these little savoury pies would evolve into a sweeter version with the lower cost of sugar and the populations change to sweeter tastes. Twelfth Night cake was also prepared, traditionally served on 5th January at a grand party to mark the end of the celebrations, this would be made with lots of different dried fruits and brandy. Inside would be placed a dried bean and a pea, the finder of the bean would be the King of Revels for the evening the finder of the pea would be the Queen, slices were handed out to guests on arrival. This tradition of celebrating Twelfth Night was later outlawed by Queen Victoria in 1870, to curtail the merry-making which was becoming extremely raucous at times.
Why not make your own Jane Austen Mince pies or Gingerbread by following the delicious recipes in Pen Vogler's book 'Tea With Jane Austen'
As the Christmas week drew nearer the savoury dishes could now be discussed and planned. A roast turkey was a popular choice for Christmas Day, the Austen family reared their own, the family also dined upon Boars head (Brawn) a dish that could be served cold and therefore last the length of the holiday season. In 'Persuasion' Jane describes a busy Christmas family scene;
"On one side was a table, occupied by some chattering girls, cutting up silk and gold paper; and on the other were tressels and trays, bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies" Persuasion, 1818
A vast array of potatoes and vegetables would accompany the roasted bird, and many glasses of wine would be consumed. Cheeses and soups, goose and duck would also be on the menu, in fact there was no holding back. One item the Georgians had to do without which definitely makes the Christmas of today however was chocolate! This was not introduced until 1847 when Mr. Fry created the first bar. However it certainly appears as though a Georgian Christmas was quite a feast. Along with their food they also enjoyed alcohol, mainly wine and port - at evening balls punch served from a wassail bowl and mulled wine (Negus) made with port, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves would be drunk.
"As Tom Musgrave was seen no more, we may suppose his plan to have succeeded, and imagine him mortifying with his barrel of oysters, in dreary solitude - or gladly assisting the landlady in her bar to make fresh negus - for the happy dancers above." The Watsons, 1804
Amongst all the revelry we must not forget the religious side to Christmas, Jane being a Rector's daughter would attend church on Christmas morning. Some researchers, have claimed that Jane had a devout faith while others have described her as following a more practical Christian life, helping the poor whether by donating food or provided clothing. Her family were always mindful if those less fortunate;
"We are just beginning to be engaged in another Christmas duty, & next to eating Turkies, a very pleasant one, laying out Edward's money for the Poor." Letter to Martha Lloyd, 1812
In all her novels many of Jane's characters behave morally and with a great sense of respect for other people's feelings, for example Mr. Knightley or Elinor Dashwood, and especially Fanny Price. She also created characters whose story leads them to become more understanding and respectful , such as Emma, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Being a daughter and sister of clergymen she often has such a character in her novels allowing them to fill the role of the fool with Mr. Collins becoming a comic part, and Mr Elton in 'Emma' partaking too much of the Christmas wine;
"She believed he had been drinking too much of Mr Weston's good wine, and felt sure that he would want to be talking nonsense." Emma, 1816
In 'Pride & Prejudice' although the storyline takes us from one year to the next, Christmas is mentioned only fleetingly when Caroline Bingley writes to Jane Bennet;
"I sincerely hope your Christmas in Hertfordshire may abound in the gaieties which that season generally brings..." Pride & Prejudice, 1813
However we know too well from Caroline's character that although the Christmas festivities would be indulgent and lavish, she means quite the opposite. In the closing chapter the Mr and Mrs Gardiner are specially invited to spend the holiday season with the newly wedded Elizabeth and Darcy - what a Christmas at Pemberley would have been like we can only imagine! Take a look at Maria Grace's brilliant book describing a Regency Christmas and the traditions and etiquettes of the time, and you may enter that very world!