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!
I 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:
2012 The “W” in Christmas
2011 Christmas Cards