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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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Last week a colleague at work, who lives in one of the prettier areas of rural Virginia, brought a dozen duck eggs to work. She had purchased them from a local farmer. Several of us pounced on these exotic avian gifts, since most of us obtain eggs from the lowly chicken from local grocers. Curiosity prompted me to compare the duck eggs to the two varieties of chicken eggs in my refrigerator. I only purchase large brown organic, cage-free chicken eggs. In the U.S. egg categories do not necessarily hold true, however. Both the eggs in the center and to the left of center are sold as large eggs. The definition of large seems not to be standard. However, capitalism is alive and well in the Commonwealth.  A dozen eggs on the left sell for $3.99 USD for a dozen, whereas the middle eggs sells for $6.99 USD per carton.
egg sizes

The differences in their sizes are astounding. The duck egg on the right is huge by comparison.

3 eggs

The duck egg made me think of Jane Austen, her mother and her sister. We know that the three women struggled for a number of years after Reverend Austen’s death, moving from house to house, city to city, before settling in Chawton Cottage. As the rector’s wife in Steventon Cottage, during Jane’s childhood, she oversaw a poultry yard with ducks, turkeys, chicken, guinea fowls. The move from city life to Chawton Cottage provided the Austen women with access to a substantial garden once more.

chawton-cottage-garden

Image of the garden at Chawton Cottage by Tony Grant.

 

Studying my duck egg, I wondered how similar it was to the kind Mrs. Austen (or her maid of all work) would have gathered. Apparently, Aylesbury ducks were popular in the UK during the late 18th through 19th centuries. These free ranging ducks ate grubs and any protein of interest, giving their meat and eggs a unique, strong flavor.

_wikimedia

Aylesbury ducks figured prominently in Beatrix Potter drawings. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

My duck egg tasted delicious – not much different from my free-ranging chicken egg, except that one egg took the place of two! I looked at some of my favorite 18th century cookbooks to see how duck eggs were used in recipes. The recipe below is typical of the era, in that few or no measurements were provided. One could assume is that “egg” is the food that the cook happened to have on hand, be it pigeon, quail, grouse, chicken, or duck!! I have one duck egg left and intend to fry it as round as balls!

 

To fry Eggs as round as Balls.

Having a deep frying-pan, and three pints of clarified butter, heat it as hot as for frit­ters, and stir it with a stick, till it runs round like a whirlpool; then break an egg into the middle, and turn it round with your stick, till it be as hard a poached egg; the whirl­ing round of the butter will make it as round as a ball, then take it up with a slice, and put it in a dish before the fire; they will keep hot half an hour, and yet be soft; so you may do as many as you please. You may poach them in boiling water in the same manner.

The Frugal Housewife, Or, Experienced Cook: Wherein the Art of Dressing All Sorts of Viands with Cleanliness, Decency, and Elegance is Explained in Five Hundred Approved Receipts … p. 42, Susannah Carter January 1, 1822, University of Oxford, downloaded at: http://tei.it.ox.ac.uk/tcp/Texts-HTML/free/N09/N09703.html

 

More about ducks:

Ducks a Potted History: https://britishfoodhistory.wordpress.com/2011/10/12/ducks-a-potted-history/

Soup Through the Ages: A Culinary History with Period Recipes, Victoria Rumble, foreword by Sandra Oliver, McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2009, p. 61, https://goo.gl/QhfJ35

duck eggs from great british chefs

Duck egg recipes from Great British Chefs. Perhaps I should try boiled egg and soldiers!

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Inquiring readers,

In celebration of the 200 year anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Emma, frequent contributor, Tony Grant, visited Chawton House to view a special exhibit. Read his post about the exhibit on Jane Austen in Vermont in this link. Tony reserved a slew of photos for this blog and added his commentary. I inserted some observations by Constance Hill and Jane’s grand niece to round out this post. Enjoy!

Chawton is a Hampshire village and civil parish. It lies within the area of the South Downs National Park. The 2000 census shows that 380 people live in Chawton.

Google map

Google map of Chawton, and Chawton Cottage and Chawton House in relation to each other.

Chawton village is first mentioned in 1086 in the Domesday Book which was administered from Winchester, the first capital of England, under William the Conqueror,after 1066. The fact that the village lies on a main route from London to Portsmouth by way of Winchester suggests that because of its important position there must have been a Saxon settlement there before 1066 and possibly going back to Iron Age times. The Normans did instigate the creation of new villages such as at West Meon a few miles south of Chawton but most settlements were continued from previous ages. Its location shows it as perhaps a stopping place on a major route but its prime importance would have been farming.

Farming must have been its main importance right up to and after the second world war. Chawton House and its estate has sheep and horses on it to this day. There are still many farms in the area. However the population today is not what it would have been in the past. In previous centuries there would have been representatives of the whole range of the class system.

The Great House

The great house at Chawton owned by the Knight family, image by Tony Grant

The Knight family owned the great house and estate and most famously from the early nineteenth century, Edward Knight, Jane Austen’s brother. The middle classes would have been represented by Jane Austen and her family and perhaps the local vicar of the parish of St Nicholas and some minor landowners and farmers. Probably the working class and farm labourer class predominated though. There are plenty of small Victorian cottages, Georgian cottages and cottages dating back to the 16th century and before in Chawton and surrounding areas. These would have been accommodation for farm workers. Nowadays though these cottages surrounded by idealistic country gardens, climbing roses and wisteria, looking picture postcard perfect, are owned by wealthy people who work in the City and use them as weekend homes.

There are examples of large Georgian and Victorian mansions in the village. They can only be owned by company directors or wealthy bankers and other people of that ilk. Looking at estate agent web sites for Chawton, a mansion such as the one you can see at the start of the long driveway that leads to Chawton House, is priced at £2,000,000. The small picture postcard cottages start at about £350,000. The prices of the two properties I have quoted are the top and bottom of the range.

The ordinary, everyday worker is excluded. I am sure there are no farm labourers are living in Chawton these days.This is a shame because local customs are lost. The rich diverse local customs formed over time by families living there for their whole lives, generation after generation, is lost and although Chawton looks lovely today it has lost to a certain extent, its heart. It has lost its soul.

car park

Chawton Car Park, Image Google earth

All is not lost. The other day I walked from the car park, opposite Jane Austen’s cottage next to the Greyfriar pub, along the road to Chawton House Library. On my left, through the trees and across the children’s playground a gentleman was sitting astride a motor mower cutting the grass on the village cricket pitch. I could see that the sight screens were in place for a match and the cricket club flag was flying from the club house flagpole.

Sight screen on the cricket pitch

Sight of village cricket pitch. Image by Tony Grant

As I approached the Great House I passed Chawton Village Junior School on my right. Put in mind that this was midweek, a Wednesday, and the time was 12.30. The school was in the middle of its lunch break and a whole mass of children were playing in the playground on climbing frames and ladders. They were yelling and whooping and having the time of their lives. I always feel heart warmed at the sound of children. I have spent my whole working life as a teacher teaching them after all. So really there are three things.

Chawton has a great pub, The Greyfriars, it has a wonderful vibrant school and the village a cricket team. A new heart has been created perhaps? Yes, not all is lost.

junction

Jane Austen’s Chawton Cottage is straight ahead. To the right is Cassandra’s Cup, a tea house attached to The Greyfriar pub.

Chawton Cottage, a former steward’s cottage, was previously home to local farmers. Between 1781 and 1787, the house was briefly a public house called The New Inn. This pub was the site of two murders. After the second murder, the house was let by Edward Austen Knight to a Bailiff Bridger Seward. (Wikipedia)

Edward then allowed his mother and sisters to move permanently into the residence. Jane lived there with her mother and sister, Cassandra, and long time family friend Martha Lloyd, from 1809 until May 1817, when she moved to Winchester to be near her physician before her death in June of that year. (Wikipedia

Through the window

View of Jane Austen’s writing desk from the cottage window. Image Tony Grant

Later in the 18th century, Jane Austen’s brother Edward Austen Knight (who had been adopted by the Knights) succeeded, and in 1809 was able to move his mother and sisters to a cottage in the village. Jane would spend among the most contented, productive years of her life here.

 

trees

A glimpse of the cottage’s garden.

“I remember the garden well,” writes Miss Lefroy [a grand-daughter of the Rev. James Austen]. “A very high thick hedge divided it from the (Winchester) road, and road it was a pleasant shrubbery walk, with a rough bench or two where no doubt Mrs. Austen and Cassandra and Jane spent many a summer afternoon.”

Miss Lefroy recalls her mother’s happy memories with her Aunt Jane, Aunt Cassandra, and grandmother in Chawton.

“As may be supposed a great deal of intercourse was kept up between Steventon and Chawton. Our grandfather was a most attentive son, and one of the pleasures of my mother’s youth was sometimes riding with him to see her grandmother and aunts through the pretty cross roads and rough lanes, inaccessible to wheels, which lay between the two places . . . In her Aunt Jane, who was the object of her most enthusiastic admiration, she found a sympathy and a companionship which was the delight of her girlhood, and of which she always retained the most grateful remembrance . . . But I will copy my mother’s own account.

‘”The two years before my marriage and the three afterwards, during which we lived near Chawton, were the years in which my great intimacy with her was formed; when the original seventeen years between us seemed reduced to seven or none at all. It was my amusement during part of a summer visit to the cottage to procure novels from the circulating library at Alton, and after running them over to narrate and turn into ridicule their stories to Aunt Jane, much to her amusement, as she sat over some needlework which was nearly always for the poor. We both enjoyed the fun, as did Aunt Cassandra in her quiet way though, as one piece of nonsense led to another, she would exclaim at our folly, and beg us not to make her laugh so much.'” – Constance Hill, Jane Austen: her homes & her friends, 1902.

view from chawton cottage

View from Chawton Cottage in the early 19th century painted by Ellen Hill

 

The village of Chawton lies in a specially beautiful part of Hampshire, about five miles from Gilbert White’s own Selborne, and, like it, famed for its hop fields and its graceful ‘hangers.'”

Chawton Cottage stands at the further end of the village, being the last house on the right-hand side of the way just where the Winchester road branches off from that to Gosport, and where a space of grass and a small pond lie in the fork of those roads.”

 

Chawton has a single church, St Nicholas. A church has stood on the site in Chawton since at least 1270 when it was mentioned in a diocesan document. The church suffered a disastrous fire in 1871 which destroyed all but the chancel. The rebuilt church was designed by Sir Arthuer Blomfield and is now listed Grade 2.” – (Wikipedia)

The two Cassandras

The Knight family is buried in the churchyard. Jane Austen’s mother and sister are buried there also.

“The ‘Great House’ and the cottage lie within a few hundred yards of each other, the gates of the park opening upon the Gosport road. The house, a fine old Elizabethan mansion, with its Tudor porch, and its heavy mullioned windows, may be seen by the passer-by, standing on rising ground; while a little below it, in a gentle hollow, lies the old church of Chawton–a small grey stone edifice embowered in trees.”- Constance Hill

chawtoncottage_chawtonhouse

Chawton has only two road exits, one leading to a roundabout connected to the A31 and the A32, and the other to the A339/B3006 Selborne Road.

The village of Chawton lies in a specially beautiful part of Hampshire, about five miles from Gilbert White’s own Selborne, and, like it, famed for its hop field and graceful “hangers”; while within easy reach is the cheerful little town of Alton.” – Hill

 

Selborne Rd

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