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Archive for December, 2017

Christmas with Jane Austen

Many Austen fans enjoy thinking about how Jane and her family celebrated Christmas. They wonder, did she give gifts, “deck” the halls, or have a Christmas tree? As most Austen fans know, many of the Christmas traditions we might picture actually became popular during the Victorian Era. However, there are plenty of Regency Christmas traditions that are still familiar today and others that can add to our enjoyment of the holiday season.

Christmas Celebrations in Jane Austen’s Novels

In each of Austen’s novels, Christmas is mentioned. It was, as it is today, a time for festive dances, parties, and dinners. As Mr. Elton says in Emma, “This is quite the season indeed for friendly meetings. At Christmas every body invites their friends about them…” (E 115). In Pride and Prejudice, Caroline Bingley writes to Jane, saying, “I sincerely hope your Christmas in Hertfordshire may abound in the gaieties which that season generally brings” (PP 117).

Just as we do today, the people of Austen’s time enjoyed seasonal foods, drinks, and decorations. In Persuasion, Austen paints a festive Christmas 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, where riotous boys were holding high revel; the whole completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard, in spite of all the noise of the others. […] Charles and Mary also came in, of course, during their visit, and Mr Musgrove made a point of paying his respects to Lady Russell, and sat down close to her for ten minutes, talking with a very raised voice, but from the clamour of the children on his knees, generally in vain. It was a fine family-piece.” (P 134)

Most of us have witnessed a similar scene at a large Christmas party or family gathering, where children are playing and laughing, great quantities of food are set out, and people are talking so loudly it’s hard to keep up a conversation.
Christmas was also a time for families to gather together. Children away at school came home for the holidays. Extended family traveled to visit one another. Emma personally looks forward to Christmas because it means her sister Isabella’s family will visit for a week: “many a long October and November evening must be struggled through at Hartfield, before Christmas brought the next visit from Isabella and her husband, and their little children, to fill the house, and give her pleasant society again” (E 7).

In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner come to Longbourn with their children to visit: “On the following Monday, Mrs. Bennet had the pleasure of receiving her brother and his wife, who came as usual to spend the Christmas at Longbourn” (PP 139). At the end of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth writes to her aunt Gardiner and says, “You are all to come to Pemberley at Christmas” (383). Thus, a new family tradition begins.

And for a young girl like Catherine Morland, Christmas increased the likelihood of getting cornered by an older relative. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine worries about what “gown and what head-dress she should wear” because “her great aunt had read her a lecture on the subject only the Christmas before” (NA 73). The main message of that lecture: “Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim” (73).

Regency Christmas Traditions

“Photo by Rachel Dodge.” (link “Rachel Dodge” to http://www.racheldodge.com)

Rachel Dodge Book Photo

Photo of the book cover of A Jane Austen Christmas by Maria Grace @Rachel Dodge  (linked)

In her book A Jane Austen Christmas: Regency Christmas Traditions, Maria Grace shares details about the Christmas traditions that Jane would have experienced. She explains that the Christmas season itself started “a week before Advent […] and extended all the way through Twelfth Night in January” (Grace 1). She covers the types of foods and sweets they ate—including a delightful history and explanation of plum pudding—and provides descriptions of holiday drinks, quaint parlor games, and seasonal dinner parties, card parties, and balls. She also talks about the charitable traditions of the time, like St. Thomas Day and Boxing Day, as well as the Christmas carols Jane might have known, such as The First Noel and God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen (31).

Gift giving, according to Grace, became more popular toward the end of the Regency period, when ads began to run “in periodicals suggesting novel ideas for gifts” (43). However, people did give gifts during Austen’s lifetime on St. Nicholas Day, Christmas Day, and Twelfth Night, typically from “those lower in status to those above them” (42) and between social equals “like friends and family” (43).

Church attendance was a focal point for most Regency families on Christmas Day. In Kirsten Olsen’s All Things Austen, she says, “At church, a special sermon was delivered, and communion was offered” (203). In Austen’s family, that meant that her father Reverend Austen would preach and her family would all go to church on Christmas Day.

Though Regency families didn’t decorate their homes to the extent that we do today, Olsen notes that “[h]ouses were decorated with holly and other green foliage” (Olsen 203). As for Christmas trees, they didn’t become prevalent in England until later: “Christmas trees only became popular after The Illustrated London News published a picture of Victoria and Albert with a family Christmas tree in 1848” (Grace 33).

First_Christmas_Tree_in_Britain_1846_Illustrated_London_News

Illustration Caption: “Lithograph in The Illustrated London News in the winter of 1848,” Wikimedia Commons.

If you’d like to add a new Regency tradition to your holiday season or throw an Austen-inspired Christmas party, books such as A Jane Austen Christmas: Regency Christmas Traditions by Maria Grace are full of wonderful details. I picked up my copy at this year’s JASNA AGM, but it’s available on Amazon as well.

Christmas in Hampshire

In Chawton, Jane Austen’s House Museum (link to https://www.jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk/whats-on) has its own special tradition this time of year. The museum celebrates the Christmas season and Jane’s birthday at their “Annual Open day” on December 16. The museum offers free admission and mince pies for all visitors. This year, visitors can also create free Christmas crafts inspired by the Austen family coverlet currently on display at the museum.

Works Cited

  • Austen, Jane. The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen. Edited by R. W. Chapman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • Grace, Maria. A Jane Austen Christmas; Regency Christmas Traditions. White Soup Press, 2014.
  • Olsen, Kirstin. All Things Austen: A Concise Encyclopedia of Austen’s World. Oxford, Greenwood World, 2008.

Other blog posts on this site citing Regency Christmas traditions: Click on this link for a variety of traditions and foods during this era

 

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