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So far we have discovered that Christmas season in Jane Austen’s time was not a damp squib but a rather vibrant affair.
Lets see how Georgian and Regency homes were decorated for the season.
The tradition of using evergreens to brighten the home at the darkest time of the year began in the pagan era: at the time of the winter solstice throughout Europe bonfires were lit and houses were decorated with evergreens. The Roman celebrating the feast of Saturnalia , held at the same time of year, used evergreen garlands to decorate their homes.
Whilst therefore the use of evergreens at this time of year as a decoration in the home was clearly pagan in origin , the early Christian Church cheerfully adopted this practise, and legitimised the plants,giving them Christian association-with the one exception of mistletoe. The ban on this plant which had Norse and Druidical associations continued throughout the 18th and early 19th century.
Holly was easily adopted by the church as a symbol of the crown of thorns, the red berries were a poignant reminder of Christ’s blood. Ivy was held to symbolise fidelity . Not so mistletoe ,which had distinctly risqué associations…with kissing games.
(Boughs of mistletoe-a parasitical plant-growing in trees in the park at Burghley House,Lincolnshire)
It was therefore thought not at all holy and not quite genteel. As Washington Irving in The Keeping of Christmas At Bracebridge Hall records
The mistletoe with its white berries hung up to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids.Teh mistletoe is still hung up in farmhouses and Kitchens at Christmas; and the young men have the priviledge of kissing the girls under it picking each time a berry form the bush. When the berries are all plucked the priviledge ceases.
Here is picture of a Georgian Kissing Bough as used at Fairfax House in York as part of their decoration for their annual Keeping of Christmas exhibition, when the town house of Lord Fairfax is decorated as it would have been for the Christmas season.
In this household- a strict Catholic one- the mistletoe was firmly relegated to the servants quarters and the kitchen
Here is one such kitchen maid about to be taken advantage of by a unscrupulous chimney sweep:
(The Chimney Sweep gives Betty her Christmas box crica 1800 by Bowles and Carver.)
And it was not just grand houses that were decorated: as Cesar de Saussure commented
On this festival day churches, the entrances of houses, rooms, kitchens and halls are decked with laurels, rosemary and other greenery.
This illustration shows the interior of an inn circa 1800- note the evergreen sprigs in the individual panes of the windows and the bunch of mistletoe hanging from the ceiling:
But let’s go and view the Christmas decorations of a rather grand town house, Fairfax House in York . Every year this museum, dedicated to the domestic history of the 18th century, celebrates the Keeping of Christmas in an exhibition, decorating these fine rooms with evergreens and festive food as they would been in the late 18th century.
First, the entrance hall and staircase hall decorated with holly trophies on green ribbons, standard bay trees ,and garlands of holly and bay around the stairs and columns:
The Library, set with an old-fashioned Georgian Breakfast in honour of the season with Cheese, Mince Pies, and a Yorkshire Christmas Pie- more on those later….
The Dining Room….
Bedecked with evergreen garlands and spectacular sugar sculpture…
and finally to the salon where the grandest entertaining took place, decorated with swags and garlands of evergreens.
We know that Permbelry House had a saloon, and I’m sure that Elizabeth Bennet when welcoming the Gardiners to Pemblerley for the season had made sure that Mrs Reynolds and her staff had decorated it in a similar manner.
“I would have thanked you before, my dear aunt, as I ought to have done, for your long, kind, satisfactory detail of particulars; but, to say the truth, I was too cross to write. You supposed more than really existed. But now suppose as much as you chuse; give a loose to your fancy, indulge your imagination in every possible flight which the subject will afford, and unless you believe me actually married, you cannot greatly err. You must write again very soon, and praise him a great deal more than you did in your last. I thank you, again and again, for not going to the Lakes. How could I be so silly as to wish it! Your idea of the ponies is delightful. We will go round the Park every day. I am the happiest creature in the world. Perhaps other people have said so before, but not one with such justice. I am happier even than Jane: she only smiles, I laugh. Mr. Darcy sends you all the love in the world that he can spare from me. You are all to come to Pemberley at Christmas. — Yours, etc.”
(Pride and Prejudice,Chapter 60)
The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed that at Fairfax House they have the forerunner of our Christmas tree on display on a table in the salon.
Would Jane Austen have known a Christmas tree?
Lets see tomorrow, shall we?