A Christmas Ramble

Christmas is coming! Notice that I didn’t say Christmas is here, because technically this is Advent – a time of waiting and preparation in anticipation of the day of Jesus’ birth.

I know that on the retail calendar, the Christmas season now begins immediately after Halloween, but traditionally (and on the church calendar) it begins on December 25th and runs for twelve days – through January 5th (Twelfth Night).

By the way, in Jane Austen’s time, that’s when gifts were exchanged, not on Christmas Day itself. Why? Because Twelfth Night marks the Feast of Epiphany, which celebrates the arrival of the kings (or magi), bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Christ child.

So how was Christmas celebrated in Regency England? You can scratch the excess hype and frenzy of today. But like now, it was a time to gather with friends and family, a time for music and singing, a time to feast and to share some of their bounty with the less fortunate. The particulars may have changed – the specific foods enjoyed, the songs sung, etc. – but the basics are still recognizable to us.

“Oh, my dear Miss Dashwood,” said Mrs. Palmer soon afterwards, “I have got such a favour to ask of you and your sister. Will you come and spend some time at Cleveland this Christmas? Now, pray do, and come while the Westons are with us You cannot think how happy I shall be! It will be quite delightful!” (Sense and Sensibility)

Sidebar: Do you suppose Jane Austen imagined that the Palmers’ friends (mentioned here in S&S) to be the same Westons we know from Emma?

Christmas Day itself began for most people with a walk to church, which could be a very chilly affair, not only outside but in, since there often was no means of heating the building.

The Regency home would have been specially decorated with candles, holly, ivy, and other greens, but no Christmas tree. That tradition wasn’t fully adopted in England until Victorian times, when it was popularized by Prince Albert, who brought the custom with him from his native country of Germany.

This “no Christmas tree” policy was used to great effect as a running joke in a play I saw recently – Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. On a whim, Elizabeth Bennet Darcy installed a Christmas tree at Pemberley one year. Each person that entered the room after that, including Darcy himself, suffered a mild shock upon seeing it, remarking with some distaste (or even horror), “You have a tree… inside,” or similar words. Elizabeth would each time have to, somewhat apologetically, explain it was a German tradition that she thought charming.

“…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.” (Elizabeth in a letter to Mrs. Gardiner, Pride and Prejudice)

From this passage, I inferred that Pemberley would be the Christmas gathering place thereafter. Sounds like the perfect setting to spend a couple of week – perhaps snow falling outside, good friends and warm hospitality within. Since I doubt that I’ll be able to wrangle an actual invitation, my imagination will have to do. So I wrote about it in Return to Longbourn.

The holiday itself began with a trip to Kympton for church. Later, back at Pemberley, much was made of the Christmas dinner and of the children’s enjoyment – all twelve Bingley, Darcy, and Gardiner offspring – and of the special little treats and traditions established within the family to commemorate the occasion. Mary was called upon to render the day all the more festive by employing her musical abilities, playing a number of yuletide hymns and popular tunes on the piano-forte…

(later)… Gazing out into the night, Mary could just make out the faded gray of the lawn below, guarded by a few sentinel trees, as it fell away toward the inky blackness of the lake. The filtered moonlight’s poor illumination rendered every familiar article in ghostly guise, or was it something else that made it all look so peculiarly eerie? Ah, it had begun to snow, she then realized. For the moment, it was only a sugar dusting, but doubtless by daybreak everything would be wearing a full coat of winter white. “It is snowing,” she informed the others.

Kitty, who had always been particularly enamored of snow, came bounding excitedly to the window. A few of the others followed more sedately. “How thrilled the children will be when they wake in the morning!” remarked Jane.

Without stirring, Mrs. Bennet said, “I for one am not surprised. I can always tell it will snow by how my rheumatism comes on. Oh, such pains and spasms as I have suffered all the day long! But then I never like to complain.”

No chance of snow here today in the Seattle area. We were down in the 20’s a week or so ago, but today it was almost balmy, reaching 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Nevertheless, the Christmas spirit has begun to overtake me. And not a moment too soon. I still have cards to get out (yes, I am one of the few who still sends them), decorating to do, a little shopping and wrapping too. But fortunately I have plenty of time, right? After all, Christmas doesn’t start until the 25th!

Merry Christmas 2I will leave you with an adapted version of a Christmas sentiment Miss Bingley wrote in a letter to Jane Bennet. My best wishes that you would have a wonderful Christmas (or whatever tradition you celebrate this time of year) are truly sincere, unlike Miss Bingley’s. Please fill in the blanks as you choose. (Since you may be planning to spend Christmas somewhere other than Hertfordshire, and you may be wishing for something other than numerous beaux! Or maybe not?)

“I sincerely hope your Christmas in _________ may abound in the gaieties which that season generally brings, and that your _________ will be numerous!”

Other Christmas posts:

2014 Christmas Decorations and Waxing Philosophical

2012 The “W” in Christmas

2011 Christmas Cards

2010 The Stories of Christmas

About Shannon Winslow

author of historical fiction in the tradition of Jane Austen
This entry was posted in English Regency culture, History, Jane Austen, Jane Austen Quotes, my books, Shannon Winslow, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to A Christmas Ramble

  1. Beatrice says:

    I truly believe, even though Miss Bingley was sneering when she sent those Christmas wishes to Jane, that sentence is the closest she ever came to saying anything nice to anyone. It’s a sweet thing to say if you aren’t being a hypocrite – as Miss Bingley always was.
    I too have enjoyed the play Miss Bennet. I hope all your readers get a chance to see a performance; it’s making the rounds and is a huge hit wherever it goes.
    As for the Westons, who knows? Jane Austen recycles names all the time, though usually only first names. Think of all the Charleses! It’s easy to wonder if Elizabeth Elliot was created and so named to keep all women named Elizabeth from assuming their Christian name made them as perfect as Elizabeth Bennet. Another thing about names – it’s fun to look at maps of England and pick out all the places with names purloined for Austen character surnames.
    Nice post! Thank you!

  2. Glynis says:

    It’s certainly cold here in Pemberley country, it was 0 degrees as I was going to do my Mum’s shopping this morning. It was gale force winds and then we had freezing rain. I’m hoping it doesn’t snow as I hate driving in snow.
    I have read a few stories where Darcy and Elizabeth have a Christmas tree after learning of the German tradition. They decorate with fruit strung together or sugared. Yum!
    Thank you for sharing this post and Merry Christmas.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Glynis, and for your comments. Much as I’d love to spend Christmas in Pemberley country with you, I will not miss the extremes of your current weather. I also hate driving in the snow, so I’d prefer sensibly sitting by the fireside with a cup of hot chocolate and a plate of freshly baked cookies. Merry Christmas!

  3. caroleincanada says:

    Well the weather here has been a mixed bag of cold, snow, rain, a little sun, and mild. Our snow is gone again but wont try to predict when it will return. I hate driving in the snow, but I have finished up my shopping, wrapping and my cards (I too still send them – I usually write a Christmas letter but our printer bit the dust), except for a couple of local ones that need to be sent. I had to do up a schedule of what needed to get done as the past six months have been crazy. I now need to do some baking and plan the groceries for when everyone arrives in two separate shifts this year. As for the Westons, why not! Mrs. Palmer is always so friendly! As my husband is German, we open the presents on Christmas Eve (except when the children were little). Enjoy your baked cookies and hot chocolate by the fire, Shannon and I will be thinking of you when I do the same! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

    • You sound way too organized, Carole! I always end up last minute, but it all gets done somehow. Except two years ago when OUR printer died also. That put an end to any hopes I had of getting a Christmas letter out. Thanks for your comments and have a lovely Christmas!

  4. Laurel Ann says:

    Your tree is amazing Shannon! Thanks for sharng the Regency holiday lore. Happy Holidys to you and your family.

  5. I have cards to write and send also, plus a family Christmas letter to compose, copy, and insert in the cards. My daughter does all the decorating (she’s amazing that way).

    We don’t do much for Christmas gifts: just a small present each and a nice stocking full of treats we don’t usually buy for ourselves. But we spend lots of time with family and friends, and that’s what makes Christmas “merry and bright,” along with Advent and Christmastide services at our community church and the Anglican church I’ve been attending weekdays for the past 15 years. 🙂 Our little non-denom community church (the only church in our small mountain town) really got into the Advent spirit this month, and that was the perfect gift for me as I LOOOOVE Advent!! 😀

    Wishing you and yours a holy Advent, a joyous Christmastide, and a blessed New Year, Shannon!

    Susanne 🙂

    • Thanks so much, Susanne! Happy Advent/Christmas/New Years to you as well. Finished my cards/letters today, so that feels good. We go light on the gifts also – mostly for the kids – so not too much shopping/wrapping to do. With no company expected this year, it’s hard to get motivated to do much decorating, though. Wish I had a daughter to do it for me!

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