Over the past ten years or so I have had many people remark to me that Jane Austen didn’t write about Christmas because Christmas was not a major celebration or a family centered celebration in the Regency period. Furthermore that Christmas did not become a major family celebration in England until the Victorian Period, brought on by Dicken’s popular book, A Christmas Carol.
To which I reply….Ermm…no, not really.
Jane Austen celebrated a slightly different Christmas to the one we now know, but the evidence is that she, along with her family and friends, still celebrated it. She certainly wrote about it in her novels.
Let’s take a look at the history of Christmas in England throughout the Long Eighteenth century to understand what was the historical background to Jane Austen’s celebrations.
Christmas was a vibrant celebration in England until the Interregnum or the period of the Commonwealth in the mid 17th century, when Charles I had been deposed and beheaded and England was governed by Puritans. The Puritans disliked Christmas because of it Popish and heathenish history, and most of all because of its associations with consumption of extravagant food, drink, dancing and theatrical productions.
Philip Stubbes neatly summed up the Puritan view of Christmas in The Anantomy of Abuses , written sixty years before the English Civil war took place :
More mischief is then committed than in all the year besides, what masking and mumming, whereby robbery, whoredom murder and what not is committed? What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used, more than in all the year besides to the great dishonour of God and impoverishing of the realm?
Puritans also believed there was no scriptural justification for the celebration of Christmas, as nowhere in the Bible does it mention that the Nativity of Christ should be observed as a festival. They saw no factual or scriptural basis for Christ’s birth date being designated as the 25th December. They believed that Christmas was nothing more than a pragmatic festival created by the early Catholic Church as a means of incorporating, and thereby making holy, the pagan winter solstice celebrations: as a result observance of these festivals was seen by them to be Popish especially as it exualted the religious standing of the Holy Family and, importantly, emphasised the role played in the Nativity by The Virgin Mary.
Between 1644 and 1647 the Commonwealth Parliament introduced a series of measures all designed to curb the excesses of the populace during the Christmas season. These were met with much initial resistance. So on the 24th December 1652 Parliament issued a Proclamation which effectively banned Christmas and the celebration of it along with the other “Supersitious Festivals” of Easter and Whitsun. It decreed that from that date it would be illegal to observe
The five and twentieth day of December commonly called Christmas Day
in any way whatsoever. And in addition, it was illegal to use
Any Solemnity in Churches upon that Day in respect thereof.
Christmas as a holiday was effectively abolished. Markets were ordered to be kept if the fell to be held on the 25th December, shops were to remain open : all persons were ordered to go about their normal business on pain of fines or imprisonment.
The act specifically ordered the country’s sherrifs and Justices of the Peace to enforce the new ruling vigorously.
For example, the Mayor of the town of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk issued a local proclamation to explain the working of the law:
...the ordinance of the most Honourable Parliament is to be strictly enforeced. Christmas Day and all other superstitious festivals should be put downe. There should be no prayers nor sermons in the churches on the said 25th December and whosoever shall han at his door any rosemary, holly or bayes or other superstitious herb shall be liable to the penalties decreed by the ordinance….and whosoever shall make or cause to make either plum pottage or nativity pies is hereby warned that it is contrary to the said ordnance…
Public disturbances resulted…
But understandably this ordnance and its enforcement gradually lessened the amount of people prepared to continue these celebrations and face the consequences. After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 (hurrah!) the old habits began to resurrect themselves,though in a changed manner. Samuel Pepys wrote about his delight at celebrating Twelve Night, though characteristically found himself worrying about the cost of the expensive cake. Others took steps to actively promote the old customs.William Wynstanley , for example, was so worried about what he saw as the decline in the continuity of the old customs that he promoted their resurrection not only by personal example but by disseminating writings explaining them.
They were published not under his own name but under the name of Poor Robin,and the series of Poor Robin’s Almanacs were full of the history of the old Christmas celebrations, illustrated with examples from his own family’s experience of keeping Christmas even during the ban imposed by the Puritans, together with seasonal lore, culinary tips and snippets of London and,local to him, Essex- based gossip.
He wrote about Christmas for 38 years, publishing an almanack every 12 months. He believed that the Feast of the Nativity should be a time of
Much mirth and mickle glee
when everyone ought to rejoice the birth of Jesus and for his sake
give liberally to the poor
In honour of the season families and friends should gather together ,usually in the country, emulating the
Boon brave Squires of the Golden Age
who always returned to the country from town for the Christmas season, to keep open house for all and sundry, lavishing Charity on the poor while also begin punctilious in observing their religious duties.
He decreed that all homes should be decorated with
Hollys and Ivys ,Bays, Laurel and Rosemary
with roaring log fires in every room and
a jolly blaize in every hall
For the entertainment of guests
good nappy ale
should be on tap throughout the twelve days of Christmas the tables of the rich should groan under the weight of
Chines of Beef,Turkies, geese ducks and capons and on the side board there should be a plentiful supply of Minc’d Pies Pumb Puddings and Frumetnery.
He encouraged the playing of old Christmas games such as Hood Man Blind( Blind Man’s bluff) Hot Cockles, Shoe the Wild Mare and Hunt the Slipper. He also recommend the resumption of carol singing and story telling And to hold dances on Christmas Day,New Year’s Eve or Twelfth Night and have
The whole company young and old footing it lustily to the merry sound of pipe and fiddle.
He was extremely successful in his campaign. By the 1700s Christmas was once again established and celebrated in traditional fashion in England. Cesar de Saussure writing to his family in Switzerland in the first quarter of the 18th century described the re- established Christmas customs as they were observed in England between 1725-1729:
Christmas day is the great festival of all Christian nations but on that day the English have many customs we do not know of. They wish each other a Merry Christmas and A Happy new Year; presents are given and no man may dispense with this custom.On this festival day churches, the entrances of houses, rooms, kitchens and halls are decked with laurels, rosemary and other greenery. Everyone from the King to the artisan eats soups and Christmas pies.The soup is called Christmas porridge and is a dish few foreigners find to their taste…as to Christmas pies everyone likes them and they are made with chopped meat ,currants, beef suet and other good things. You never taste these dishes except for two or three days before and after Christmas and I cannot tell you the reason why.
And if you consider the weight of evidence of the celebrating of the Christmas Season in Jane Austen’s novels and letters and those of her niece, Fanny Knight, all the above elements are mentioned in one way or another….as we shall see over the next few days.
But in my next post, I shall consider why the Christmases as enjoyed by people in the early nineteenth century were recorded for us by the America author Washington Irving ;-)