A Regency Christmas

By Kieran Hazzard

A casual search on the internet will tell you that Christmas during the Regency was not what it had once been or what it is today. To most minds the Christmas’s of the 18th century and early 19th century occupies a void, a dull patch, between the excesses of the middle ages and the reinvention of the Victorian period. Yet Christmas at the turn of the 19th century comprised an exciting mixture of old and new, of strange rural customs and brand new ‘traditions’.

Prior to Cromwell’s Protectorate, Christmas had been a highly boisterous affair, with much drinking and the celebration of  raucous traditions, some of which had become linked to paganism in the mind of the church, whether this was true or not. Ollie being the grouchy old puritan he was, actually banned Christmas as a result, along with other frivolous pastimes like attending the theatre or playing football. As a result Christmas lost much of its debauchery and its central position in the ritual calendar until the Victorians took up its cause and created the celebratory behemoth we know today. That said, many of the old traditions survived and Christmas remained an important and magical time of year for most the people. It was a time of high celebration with visiting, gift and charity giving, balls, parties, masquerades, play acting, games and always lots of food.

A Regency Christmas dinner, complete with pudding.

Christmas in the Regency was a much longer celebration than today. Instead of the intense excitement centred upon December 25th, Christmas celebrations of feasting and dancing were spread out over the period of Christmastide, which ran from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night. Yet from the beginning of Advent until Epiphany, people planned, and held, many different sorts of festivities, balls, parties, card-parties, dinners, small gatherings, skating parties, and other visits and social events. Since families and friends were already gathered together, it was also a time for courtships and weddings.

Stir-up Sunday marked the unofficial start to the Christmas Season. (The official beginning of the season being the Sunday after, with the start of Advent on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day.) This was when Christmas puddings were traditionally to be prepared in order to be considered ready for Christmas. The day became known as “Stir Up Sunday,” not because of the great deal of stirring done, but because of the start to the traditional church service held that day; ‘Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people...’

In a tradition brought from Northern Europe, St. Nicholas’ Day (6th December) was celebrated with the exchanging of small gifts. On Christmas Eve the decorations and greenery were put up and midnight mass was attended. Christmas Day was primarily a day for religious observance and Christmas dinner. Giving to charity and servants in their ‘Christmas Boxes’ was customary on St Stephen’s Day, which is now remembered as Boxing Day, but there were no gifts on the 25th itself.

John Bull (the personification of England) refuses to share his Christmas plenty with Napoleon, c1803.

For soldier’s serving out in the Peninsula, celebrating Christmas was not always possible though even when under difficult conditions, the officers would get together to celebrate. The 15th Hussars, prior to the retreat to Corunna in 1808, held a formal Christmas dinner in Sahagun. ‘All the officers of the regiment, except those absent on duty, were assembled to celebrate the day; but the mirth and jollity usually prevalent at this season were considerably damped by reflection on the critical situation in which we were placed.’

Though this was not so for the men as in 1813, John Cooper of the 7th Royal Fusiliers recounted that,

'Here for the first time in the Peninsula we kept Christmas.  Every man contributed some money, meat or wine.  A sheep or two were bought and killed.  Pies and puddings were baked, etc.   Plates, knives and forks, were not plentiful, yet we managed to diminish the stock of eatables in quick time.  For desert we had plenty of apples; and for a finish, two or three bandsmen played merry tunes, while many warmed their toes by dancing jigs and reels.'

The 68th Regiment felt a little luckier about having a simple Christmas meal the previous year; ‘we killed a young kid for our Christmas dinner, and we had what we considered a delightful repast, but nothing to be compared to what some of the poorest peasants have in England.’ Christmas was also modestly celebrated by the soldier's family in the Peninsula.  One 43rd Light Infantry officer in 1813 remarked that,

Just before dark while passing a corporal's picquet, an officer and myself stood for a few minutes, to contemplate a poor woman, who had brought her little pudding and her child from her distant quarters, to partake of [Christmas] with her husband, but the side of a small fire kindled under a tree.

New Years Day had its own significance within folklore, where the ‘first foot’ to cross the threshold of the house was deemed to decide the fortune for the family in the coming year. It was generally crucial that the first foot be that of an adult male with dark hair, and must not have been in the house at midnight. Women were generally seen as bringing bad luck if they had the first foot to enter the house, although, in some areas barefooted girls were the order of the day, sometimes blonde or even redhead. Whoever it was who was deemed lucky, it had to be done with due ceremony and the recital of a rhyme to welcome the New Year and bring good fortune. Often bringing bread and a bottle of spirits was important.

Twelfth Night (Epiphany Eve) and Epiphany seem to have been more celebrated than Christmas Day and was a time for the cessation of social norms and gift giving. On the Twelfth Night, in cider producing counties it was traditional for the men to wassail the biggest tree in the orchard by splashing it with cider, whilst chanting and singing in a circle around it. In some places they would add to this bizarre ceremony with the firing of guns overhead. The idea behind it was to drink to the tree’s health, ward off evil spirits and bless the harvest for the coming year. In Herefordshire a similar tradition had developed, where they would light 12 bonfires and a larger central fire in the wheat fields, which were duly wassailed in the same manner as the apple trees.

Epiphany on 6th January marked the official end of Christmas festivities and consequently seems to be a day to close the Christmas season with a bang. It was a feast day to mark the coming of the Magi, and as a result was the traditional day to exchange gifts, which were often accompanied by poems and riddles. Epiphany was also when decorations were to be taken down or face bad luck for the rest of the year. In some regions it was said that for every branch that remained a goblin would appear.

Christmas revelry could often leave the hostess utterly overwhelmed and exasperated by the end of the season.

While the visiting was enjoyable, the preparations for the endless partying could take their toll on the hostess. No wonder that by 7th January 1807 Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra that ‘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.’

Jane’s trouble’s were due to the fact that so many guests required a tremendous amount of food to be kept on hand. For Christmas dinner turkey was not the ubiquitous choice it is today. The ordinary family would buy the best they could afford, for the middling sort there was turkey, goose (the most traditional), or mutton, and for the rich, all of these at once, but venison held pride of place. Afterwards, however, a Christmas dinner would not be deemed complete without the uniquely British, Christmas pudding, ablaze in brandy.

Kissing under the mistletoe, 1800.

Many of the rituals undertaken during Christmastide have as their underpinning the natural desire to restore those things that a lost during mid-winter. Namely the festive holy trinity of light, greenery and warmth.  Constant light was brought by the lighting of the Christmas Candle on Christmas Eve, which was to last throughout Christmas Day. While this was a relatively new custom in the 18th century, the bringing greenery into the house to brighten it up is probably as old as the hills. The traditional decorations for Christmas were of course holly and ivy, but also included rosemary, bay, laurel, and mistletoe. The custom of plucking a berry every time a kiss was stolen beneath the kissing bough was already in place, and once the berries were gone, the kissing was over. This description of a ball held by the officers of the New Brunswick Regiment in 1806 gives an idea of how the military celebrated whilst at home.

'At one, supper was announced, when the company were conducted through a covered avenue of evergreens upwards of a hundred feet long, well-lighted, floored, and carpeted.  This avenue terminated in a supper-room...It was brilliantly lighted, and the sides of the building were covered by the muskets of the regiment, perpendicularly disposed around the walls, and ornamented with evergreens.  In the centre of one wall there was a transparency of the Royal Crown, with the motto of the Garter, and "God Save the King", encircled by a brilliant star, the rays of which were formed with bayonets and swords very fancifully arranged, the whole supported by the colours of the Regiment, and other military ensigns.  At supper the company were enlivened by martial music, occasionally relieved by imitations of singing-birds from the shrubbery most happily disposed in different parts of the room, and forming a part of the decorations.'

Austen also mentions the use of ‘silk and gold paper’ for decorations, and the ‘Christmas fire’, which was probably a Yule Log. The gathering of the Yule Log was done by teams of farmhands, who would haul the trunks, to the fireside of their employers for the reward of free beer for the evening. There was often much friendly competition between the neighbouring farms, wealthy households and taverns to claim the largest log. The hauling of the log provided a rare focus for cross-class celebrations and is a useful illustration of the reciprocal social relationships within the rural communities at this time.

The fire was lit on Christmas Eve and was to last until the end of Christmas Day at least, which was always started with a remnant from the log that had been burned in the previous year's festivities. The log was held to bring prosperity and protection from evil to the estate, and by keeping the remnant of the log all the year long the protection was said to remain across the seasons. The practice would go into decline by the end of the 19th century, however, due to the reduction in farm labour and as modern houses no longer had the open hearths required to keep it alight.

Victoria & Albert celebrate under their Christmas tree.

One symbol that wasn’t present during the Regency Christmas was the Christmas tree. Yet the oft quoted story of its introduction by Price Albert is not entirely true. It was originally brought to England from Germany in 1800 by Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. It was unveiled on Christmas Day as part of the celebrations for the royal children at Windsor. A witness to the scene described it as,

'A fir tree, about as high again as any of us, lighted all over with small tapers, several little wax dolls among the branches in different places, and strings of almonds and raisins alternately tied from one to the other, with skipping ropes for the boys, and each bigger girl had muslin for a frock, a muslin handkerchief, and a fan, and a sash, all prettily done up in a handkerchief, and a pretty necklace and earrings besides.'

There were even reports that in the middle of the Peninsular War, an officer of the King's German Legion decorated a lemon tree with lights and oranges to serve as his Christmas tree. It was not until 1848, however, when this picture of Queen Victoria’s family gathered around their Christmas tree was published that the fashion gripped the public.

Nor were Christmas cards sent, having not been invented until 1843. The first commercial Christmas cards were commissioned by Sir Henry Cole who had helped introduce the pre-printed envelope and postage stamps three years earlier. Two batches of the design, shown above, totalling 2050 cards were printed and sold that year for a shilling each. Early English cards rarely showed winter or religious themes, instead favouring flowers, fairies and other fanciful designs that reminded the recipient of the approach of spring.

The original Christmas card from 1843.

Likewise, Santa Claus, or St Nicholas, though his feast day was recognized, did not become a central figure in English Christmas celebrations until several years later. Things were beginning to be added to the legend, however, with the 1823 poem by Clement C. Moore, A Visit from Saint Nicholas. Much of Moore’s poem has become part of the modern canon of Christmas.  From the now famous opening line, “Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro' the house’ to the stockings hung by the chimney with care, and a jolly little man with a pack full of toys, who had eight tiny reindeer, named Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem. Rudolph would not be added until 1939.

Christmas as we all know was a time for giving and charity, that is unless you were called Scrooge. Landowners were expected to entertain their tenants and neighbours and anyone whose means allowed were expected to show generosity. Many held a kind of open house on Christmas Day or Boxing Day for various local people who were charity cases or contributed to their celebrations with food or money. Much of the Christmas of poorer members of the community revolved around fostering this sense of duty, which as a result added a rich set of traditions to British Christmases.

St Thomas’ Day on 21st December was an institutionalised day for elderly women (often widows) to appeal to the season’s good will. The poor women would go ‘thomasing’ round the houses of their more fortunate neighbours in the hope of a contribution of food or money to a feast day of their own. This practice had become especially vigorous during the early 19th century, perhaps as a result of so many women losing their husbands during the Napoleonic Wars, and thus being left destitute in a patriarchal society with little poor relief other than the workhouse.

The wassail bowl, removed from its humble origins by the late 18th Century, is passed round the host's table

Throughout Christmastide the less well off members of the community would provide seasonal entertainment in the hope for some food, money or drink. Carol singing was alive and well, though with a slightly smaller repertoire. The main focus of singing, however, was by wassailing.  Groups would go around to houses to wassail, singing traditional songs and carols, some with direct appeals for money, in what was frankly socially acceptable begging. The all important accessory to elevate this custom from vagrancy was the addition of a wassail-bowl. The frequent mention of wassailing in old English carols of the less ecclesiastical type demonstrates the centrality of this beloved bowl filled with hot spiced ale, roasted apples, toast, nutmeg and sugar to Yuletide traditions. Yet wassailing as begging was beginning to die out by the 1790s, though it remained strong in the West Country and carolling would continue in its stead. The wassail bowl, however, was heartily taken up within the home, where shorn of pleads for charity, it was used to toast the health of friends.

A more elaborate form of raising money during the Christmas season was the Mummers Play. The performance of which usually involved a short introduction followed by a comic fight scene. The main protagonists, usually St George and a Saracen or swaggering soldier, called Slasher, introduced themselves by boasting of their valour, before beginning their battle. At some stage St George would go down wounded and a doctor, often called Dr Quack, would be called upon to revive the fallen hero (though not before the physician was done vaunting his own brilliance).

Once the main action finished a host of minor characters would appear to provide irreverent comic scenes before the whole cast break out in song for a finale. The minor roles were usually a fool, who danced and played music, a man with a club and frying pan, called Beelzebub, a poor man who speaks of his family and a sweeper and money collector called Devil Doubt. These players would then go round with their pots and pans collecting money from the audience in the pub or house. Local names or those of recent heroes and villains such as Wellington, Nelson and Boney could sometimes be substituted.

Another Christmas fundraiser was the Sword Dance, now popular among Morris teams throughout the year, but was traditionally reserved for the festive season. Sword Dancing was prevalent throughout the North East in both its Long Sword and Rapper variations. The central aspect of both was the forming of the ‘lock’, when the swords would create an interlocking star pattern.  The group would then dance around the lock whilst held aloft and end the performance with one member stepping into the middle and having the lock placed around their neck. The dancers, still holding the swords, would then circle their willing victim before untangling the lock and removing the sword, sometimes with the centre man feigning death.

These activities were not mutually exclusive and in many places performances would blur the lines between traditions, incorporating aspects of wassailing, the Mummers Play and the Sword Dance.  In other places they remained more distinct. In some areas another feature, that of a hobby-horse, could be added to the mix. A hobby-horse was essentially a fearsome snapping carved head on a stick carried by one or two men, with or without the addition of a costume. The heads were commonly that of a horse (unsurprisingly) or a bull, though they could sometimes be more exotic.

A further variation were the ‘Guisers’, young men and sometimes women who would cross dress or wear handkerchiefs across their faces, sometimes both, who would sing, dance and make comic turns in the local pubs or on people’s doorsteps, sometimes with the addition of a hobby-horse. This activity could sometimes be used as an excuse to play pranks upon those in the community who had caused trouble during the year or to settle scores. It was particularly popular upon New Years Eve and in Scotland, however, similar activities took place upon 31st October and it is easy to see how these eventually merged with, and were over taken by, Halloween in the 20th century.

All these activities had the dual role of helping to raise money for the poor and provide fun for the community during the cold winter months. They also provide a licence for misconduct for young men and women and despite first appearances, hobby-horses like the Mummers Play had no pagan origins, being in fact fairly modern creations.

What they also highlight is the license for mischief that Christmas afforded and the festive cessation of social norms. The prime example of this was on Epiphany. The mid-winter celebrations had a long tradition of role-reversal, dating back to the medieval Court where a ‘Lord of Misrule’ was a prominent entertainer on 12th Night right up to the time of Mary. In noble houses and schools, however, the tradition continued until the Civil War, when genuine misrule made this particular entertainment much less funny. The Lord of Misrule would have power, dignity and impunity briefly conferred for the day and take control of the Court, house or school to organise a series of farcical spectacles, lord it over his betters and play pranks upon his erstwhile masters.

After the Civil War the Lord of Misrule would re-emerge in the form of the ‘Bean Feast’ of 12th Night parties. The ‘Bean King’ would take on much of the former role of the Lord of Misrule, organising games, play practical jokes and generally cause mischief. The Bean King was usually chosen from within the party by placing a bean, pea and sometimes a clove within the Twelfth Night Cake. The guest who found the bean was king, the pea queen and the clove a knave. These characters would then be assumed for the remainder of the party. Often comic courtiers would be added by drawing from a hat. Common characters were Sir Gregory Goose, Sir Tumbelly Clumsy, Miss Fanny Fanciful and Mrs Candour, the latter of which Jane Austen would play at a party in 1810. A role her biting wit would have found all too easy.

A Twelfth Night party in full swing, complete with King and Queen and a host of traditional foolery.

Part of the motivation behind the king and queen appears to have been Christmas matchmaking, something which is equally true of the parlour games played throughout the season. These games are also another prime example of the lowering of social barriers during the Regency Christmas and were played by rich and poor alike (though the poor probably wouldn’t have called them parlour games, due to their conspicuous lack of a parlour, and their games tended to be simpler). Without TV to gawp at in between gorging on food, wealthy families relied on each other for entertainment, thus playing cards, music and singing, reading poetry and performing skits and vignettes to entertain each other were the order of the day. It was the boisterous parlour games, however, which united the Christmas party experiences of the different classes. Below are the details for various games played across the 19th century, some have more humble origins than others but they all share a similar sense of fun.

‘Hot Cockles’ was a fairly rustic game, in which one player covers his or her eyes, and guesses who strikes them. That person kneels or lays face downward in the centre of the room and is blindfolded. The others in turn ‘tap’ him on the shoulder, and he tries to guess their names. If he guesses correctly, that person takes his place. Another game called ‘Are you there, Moriarty?’ developed along similar lines, but involved two blindfolds and rolled up newspaper; one player asked the eponymous question, and when the other answered ‘yes’ he would strike in the direction of the voice. A great amount of cheating was usually involved, to great amusement of those watching.Games like ‘Blind Man’s Buff’ (it could be quite boisterous, with pulling and shoving) and ‘Charades’ were popular, however there are a great many more which have not survived the tests of time. To give a sense of what was involved I shall detail only a few examples. ‘Snapdragon’ is by far my favourite and no Christmas Eve would have been complete without it. It's simple enough; pile raisins in a bowl of brandy, turn out the lights, set fire to them. The object was to try to snatch the raisons out of the bowl and eat them without setting fire to your fingers, mouth or parlour.

Many parlour games, particularly at Christmas, provided a way for younger members of society to overstep the bounds of propriety.

‘The Courtiers’ is a game which may have grown out of the Bean Feast. The king or queen occupied a chair in the centre of the room. Whatever movement the monarch made was imitated by the courtiers without anyone losing their decorum. The monarch would do any number of simple or vulgar actions, with the courtiers all following suit. If any one of them was so presumptive as to laugh, he or she had to pay a forfeit. This would of course descend into attempts by the monarch to embarrass, offend or amuse those around them.  

‘Steal the White Loaf’ is another game of humble origins in which the person who is ‘it’ stands with their back to the players and with the ‘treasure’ behind them (given the name, possibly a white loaf originally). The players would then creep up and try to steal the ‘treasure’. If they were seen moving when player who was ‘it’ turned round then they become ‘it’ and the newly freed player joined the others creeping from the start line.

Many of the games which developed towards the Victorian period involved the loser forfeiting a valuable possession, which would only be returned in exchange for a dare. Forfeits could be quite elaborate, but were often little more than thinly disguised subterfuge for getting a kiss. Essentially a convoluted game of ‘Spin the Bottle’ for the upper classes.  The usual practice was to accumulate the forfeits owed until the end of the evening and then "cry the forfeits", whereupon they would all be redeemed together, at the hostess’ behest.

All the merry making detailed above would be sadly curtailed over the course of the first half of the 19th century. Employers began ruthlessly pruning back the Christmas holidays, making the Regency the last gasp of the prolonged Christmastide, before another period of colourless hum-drum Christmases would set in. It was in response to this that the modern Christmas was born with the like of Dickens, Walter Scott, Washington Irving and Wordsworth turning to nostalgic images of Christmas as a chance to repair the damaged fabric of society, due to the rapid changes of the industrial revolution, by promoting charity, deference and ‘tradition’. The success of A Christmas Carol was such that from 1847 workhouses would provide a special Christmas dinner.

The growth of the middle classes, however, would change the focus of Christmas away from the community and firmly towards the family and children. In this Victoria and Albert were prime leaders in promoting a familial domesticity as opposed to the flamboyant Court Christmases of the previous monarchs. Though Dickens and Prince Albert were influential, it was society which ached for the closeness of family, the comfort of ‘old’ social relations and the warmth of nostalgia and the satisfaction of charity. It is perhaps these desires which continue to drive our Christmases to this day, though it is hard not to be more than a little sad that we have lost such vivid customs and a sense of community which the older Christmas represented.