Tuesday 24 November 2015

Christmas in the Regency

Today I welcome the Jude Knight of the Bluestocking Belles to the salon, for an early look at Christmas in the Regency era!

Book box set

Christmas in the Regency
With Christmas just a month away, and Advent beginning this coming Sunday, I’ve been planning presents, buying Advent candles, and making lists of ingredients for Christmas baking. And I’ve been writing and reading Christmas stories set in the Regency, and thinking about the differences between then and now.
Party on, dude
Many of the Christmas practices we think of as traditional began in Victorian times or even later. And practices we connect to Christmas Day belonged to other days in the longer season that was a vestige of medieval times, when important Church feasts were celebrated over weeks rather than all in a day.
Back in the middle ages, they knew how to party. Maybe it was because every feast day was preceded by fasting, and there’s nothing like abstinence for making the heart grow fonder of food, drink, and riotous living. 
Kissing bough
In the 17th Century, Oliver Cromwell’s Parliament did their best to stamp Christmas out, fining those who dared sing a Christmas carol or bake a goose. And as for hanging a kissing bough! Disgraceful!
In practice, it seems likely people kept on celebrating Christmas, and the Restoration brought the holiday back into favour, and the full twelve days, starting on Christmas Eve and running through to Twelfth Night (the evening of 5th January), were once again times of gift giving and feasting.
Christmas celebrations ran from November to January
Christmas preparations began with Stir-Up Sunday, when everyone in the household lined up to stir the Christmas pudding. Not that the name comes from that practice. Rather, it comes from the first lines traditionally said at the beginning of that day's church service. “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of all thy faithful people.” Stir-Up Sunday was (and is) the Sunday before Advent begins, so five Sundays before Christmas.
In the Regency, those who could afford it planned house parties or family get-togethers that lasted from the first day of Advent (always a Sunday) through to Epiphany on 6th January, the day after Twelfth Night. They might have enjoyed card parties, dinners, and balls. They would have gone skating, if the weather were cold enough for the local pond or lake to freeze. And activities to throw young people into close proximity (under careful chaperonage, of course) provided plenty of opportunity for courtship. 
Since the family were already together, they might also plan weddings for any time during the six or seven weeks. (And, perhaps, Christenings as a result of last year’s weddings.)
Christmas was a time for the rich to give to the poor
Christmas provided several opportunities for the less wealthy to receive gifts, money, and food from those who were better off.
Carol singers went door to door all season long, providing entertainment in return for money and food. Wassailing (originally a January activity involving drink, song, and apple trees) and carol singing became merged in many places. Instead of the wassailers bringing with them a bowl filled with hot spiced ale, roasted apples, toast, nutmeg, and sugar, to drink at each stop, the householders began supplying the bowl--- and partaking. 
Mummers plays and morris dancing also allowed poorer members of the community to entertain the rich in return for money.
On St Thomas Day, 21st December, elderly women could appeal for food or money, a practice known as thomasing. The Napoleonic Wars produced a number of widows without sons to support them, so the Regency saw an increase in thomasing.
And, of course, Boxing Day---the Feast of St Stephen referred to in the carol Good King Wenceslas---was traditionally a day for rich people to give gifts to poor people. Many local landowners held St Stephen's Day as an open day, when local people could come and feast with their squire or lord. 
Christmas meant gift giving, but not on Christmas Day
Today, the practice of giving gifts on Christmas Day is so ingrained that we often see it in novels set in the Regency. And it may have happened in some households, but most mentions of gifts in contemporary sources mention 6th December and the Feast of the Epiphany.
St Nicholas Day was 6th December, and people marked the day by exchanging small gifts to remember the saint who gave presents of gold to girls without a dowry.
The Feast of the Epiphany was the day that commemorated the visit of the Wise Men to Jesus, and probably the most common day for gift giving, since the Wise Men gave gifts.
Christmas decorations went up on Christmas Eve
People considered it unlucky to decorate for Christmas before Christmas Eve, or to leave the decorations up after 6th January.
So Christmas Eve would have been a busy day for those who decorated their houses. They would put up evergreen boughs, holly, ivy, hawthorn, rosemary, and hellebore. Some of this went into kissing boughs, with sprigs of mistletoe, paper flowers, bows of ribbon, and paper cutouts.
By tradition, any man could claim a kiss from an unmarried woman under a kissing bough, and for each kiss claimed, a berry would be picked. When all the mistletoe berries were gone, the bough would come down. In some places, tradition held that a girl who was unkissed when the bough came down would not marry in the coming year.

If mistletoe didn't grow in your part of Britain, you might ask friends or family to send you some on the mail coach.
Christmas was also the time for cutting and hauling the Yule log, bringing it into the house and lighting it from the last bit of the log used the previous year. It would need to be big enough to last at least until the end of Christmas Day, and households would compete to find and mark the biggest log all ready for collecting on Christmas Eve. 
Table setting
Christmas had its own special food and drink
While Christmas Day was not the present-giving day we have today, it was still a day for a feast. After the Christmas Day church service, people of all classes would settle down to the biggest and best meal they could afford, with roasted meats, pies, and other traditional dishes. Until Victorian times, Christmas mince pies were made with shredded meat, fruit, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, often in rectangular cases to resemble the crib from Bethlehem.
Gingerbread was another favourite: either the old traditional gilded bread made from pressing a mix made with ginger, treacle, and breadcrumbs into moulds, or cut out shapes made from a sweet dough mix similar to the gingerbread men we eat today.
And, of course, Christmas Day was the day to meet the pudding that had been stirred and then boiled five weeks earlier, on Stir-Up Sunday.
Twelfth Night (5th January) also had a particular recipe: Twelfth Night Cake, cooked with a bean and a pea in it, and sometimes a clove. The person who got one of these in their slice had a role to play in the rest of the Twelfth Night festivities: the person with the bean in their slice was Bean King for the party, the pea crowned the Pea Queen, and the clove marked the Knave. 
The Bean King inherited the medieval role of Lord of Misrule, and was in charge of the night’s festivities.

Let the party begin!

In this collection of novellas, the Bluestocking Belles bring you seven runaway Regency brides resisting and romancing their holiday heroes under the mistletoe. Whether scampering away or dashing toward their destinies, avoiding a rogue or chasing after a scoundrel, these ladies and their gentlemen leave miles of mayhem behind them on the slippery road to a happy-ever-after.

***All proceeds benefit the Malala Fund.***

All She Wants for Christmas, by Amy Rose Bennett
A frosty bluestocking and a hot-blooded rake. A stolen kiss and a Yuletide wedding. Sparks fly, but will hearts melt this Christmas?

The Ultimate Escape, by Susana Ellis
Abandoned on his wedding day, Oliver must choose between losing his bride forever or crossing over two hundred years to find her and win her back.

Under the Mistletoe, by Sherry Ewing
Margaret Templeton will settle for Captain Morledge’s hand in marriage, until she sees the man she once loved. Who will win her heart at the Christmas party of her would-be betrothed?

’Tis Her Season, by Mariana Gabrielle
Charlotte Amberly returns a Christmas gift from her intended—the ring—then hares off to London to take husband-hunting into her own hands. Will she let herself be caught?

Gingerbread Bride, by Jude Knight
Traveling with her father's fleet has not prepared Mary Pritchard for London. When she strikes out on her own, she finds adventure, trouble, and her girlhood hero, riding once more to her rescue.

A Dangerous Nativity, by Caroline Warfield
With Christmas coming, can the Earl of Chadbourn repair his widowed sister’s damaged estate, and far more damaged family? Dare he hope for love in the bargain?

Joy to the World, by Nicole Zoltack
Eliza Berkeley discovers she is marrying the wrong man—on her wedding day. When the real duke turns up instead, will her chance at marital bliss be spoiled?


The Bluestocking Belles' books carry you into the past for your happy-ever-after. When you have turned the last page of our novels and novellas, keep up with us (and other historical romance authors) in the Teatime Tattler, a Regency scandal sheet, and join in with the characters you love for impromptu storytelling in the Bluestocking Bookshop on Facebook. Also, look for online games and contests and monthly book chats, and find us at BellesInBlue on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. Come visit at www.BluestockingBelles.com and kick up your bluestockinged heels!


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Website and home of the Teatime Tattler: www.BluestockingBelles.com
Bluestocking Bookshop online storytelling: www.Facebook.com/groups/BluestockingBookshop

Written content of this post copyright © Jude Knight, 2015.


WhiteDragon said...

A perfect post for this Christmas season.

Unknown said...

Lovely post, Jude!

Anonymous said...

So interesting, Thank you, Jude. We've all been so changed by Victorian influences that some of the old traditions have been forgotten. I remember using the mistletoe-berry-removal tradition in one of my books -- to my shame I can't remember which one! -- but I do know that most readers hadn't heard of it. I found it charming, though not, perhaps, if you were the unkissed girl at the end when the mistletoe was bare.

Stephen Baines said...

I remember having a kissing bough when I was young. I haven't seen one in several decades now; is it a custom which has died out?

Anna Belfrage said...

Nice. In most of teh Spanish-speaking world, the main day for gifts remains "el día de los Reyes" i.e. Epiphany. Sort of logic, when one considers it.

Amy Rose Bennett said...

Great post, Jude!

Unknown said...

Thanks for your kind comments. I've written two novellas and a short story set in Christmastide, and I had fun doing the research.

A fun fact I couldn't use is the background to our expression 'eating humble pie'. In medieval times, as in Regency days, anyone who could stretch to the cost or could spare a beast or a fowl for the table would have roast meat - a boar, a deer, a goose, or a cockerel - as part of their Christmas feast. Those who couldn't put meat on their own plates would be given scraps from grander houses. People of such humble means would put these meat scraps into a pastry case with gravy, in a dish that came to be called humble pie.

Of course then, as now, there'd be people with grandiose plans for earning, or winning, the prize they needed to supply their own feast. And when Christmas arrived and the promised goose failed to materialise, they'd be stuck with eating humble pie.

Unknown said...

A really fascinating post, Jude.

Sherry Ewing said...

What a wonderful post, Jude!

Alina K. Field said...

Lovely, Jude! I thought I knew it all about Christmas in the Regency but you added some new facts. Just bought my copy of the anthology!

Tui Snider said...

Excellent post! Chock full of interesting info.When I lived in Belgium and Italy, both of those places still give gifts on December 6th, as well as on Christmas.

I've bookmarked this to re-read and share on Facebook! :)

Tui, @TuiSnider on Twitter, dropping by from #MondayBlogs :)