The holiday season in the Georgian era was as much like the Yuletide of the Tudor time period as it was like our modern Christmas.
Regency holiday traditions sprang from the same combination of Roman and Pagan midwinter rituals as the Medieval ones. Even Oliver Cromwell couldn’t eradicate this festive ideology from the zeitgeist when he and his Puritans tried to murder Christmas, so parties and puddings and presents remained the hallmarks of the holidays.
“Christmas Day was a national holiday, spent by the gentry in their country houses and estates. People went to church and returned to a celebratory Christmas dinner. Food played a very important part in a Georgian Christmas … For Christmas dinner, there was always a turkey or goose, though venison was the meat of choice for the gentry. This was followed by Christmas pudding … Christmas Puddings were also called plum puddings because one of the main ingredients was dried plums or prunes.”
There was no popular tradition of Christmas trees in England yet — that wouldn’t come until Queen Victorian and Prince Albert — but bringing evergreens into the house, especially the much lauded holly and ivy, on Christmas Eve was an important part of the celebrations. It was considered bad luck to bring any greenery in before the 24th of December or to leave them up after Twelfth Night.
By Jane Austen’s time kissing boughs and/or balls had become in vogue. These were usually made from the ubiquitous holly and ivy, with perhaps mistletoe and rosemary added. Those homes where the family was more religiously rigid would leave off the mistletoe, due to its known pagan origins. (Where did they think the holly and ivy originated from then? Ah, the mysteries of the holier-than-thou mind!)
Anyway, the greenery and kissing boughs/balls were often ornamented with the things associated with Christmas foods/scents, such as cinnamon sticks, cloves, ginger, and even fruits like apples and oranges, as well as the commonplace decorations of candles and ribbons. It would have looked jolly, and would have made a good setting for the kinds of raucous parties that would have made the Puritans turn puce and start oppressing merry-makers.
I think we can all assume quite a bit of wassailing using mulled wine spiked with rum and brandy was done at these sorts of parties. Did you know, even today September is the month with the most births in it? Yeah, not much has changed in terms of that Christmas celebration! You would think people would be more cautious with a known fertility symbol like mistletoe in the house, wouldn’t you?
There was also the tradition of the Yule log left over from days when Wōden, not Jesus, was the supreme deity of English belief. In smaller homes, like those of the poor, the log was replaced by a fat candle that would burn throughout Christmas Even and into Christmas Day, but in large country homes the Yule log was a proper log meant to burn for 12 nights. Oak, which just happens to be the tree sacred to Wōden, was the preferred Yule log material, but anything would do in a pinch. Many places retained the custom of sprinkling the log with wine before setting it alight, probably unaware that it was a symbolic leftover from when the blood of a sacrificial animal (most often a boar, which is why a Christmas ham is a still popular) was daubed on it.
Nowadays, we don’t typically burn a Yule log; we eat it in chocolate form. We usually eat too much of it as well, thereby turning ourselves into the Christmas pigs!
Although there were celebrations and fun all through the season, “work” had to go as normal during the day for many people. That means that they didn’t get to experience what I think of as the “mank” days between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day where you eat too much, lie around in your jammies, blow off all your chores, and forget what day it is. Frankly, if cleanliness IS next to Godliness, then my house is the highway to hell and I am its gatekeeper.
The Christmas season went out with a bang during the Georgian/Regency period. The Christmas festivities ended after 6 January so most people planned to make the last party the biggest one, the should-be-revived Twelfth Night party. In modern Catholic-majority countries and communities, this day is known as the Epiphany or Three Kings Day and they still have significant revelries. One of those traditions is the King Cake, which used to have a bean it it that marked the person who found it in their slice of cake as a human sacrifice, but now has a little plastic Baby Jesus that will get you a present, good luck, and perhaps make you King/Queen of the day.
It also marks the beginning of Carnival Season leading up to the Mardi Gras celebrations the night before Ash Wednesday when Lent begins. I always thought that this would be an excellent time to be Catholic.
Hope all of you are having wonderful mank days, and will have a VERY happy New Year! Don’t forget to take down the greenery before day breaks on January 7th. You don’t want bad luck or to attract nasty spirits.
After all … not all Christmas/Yuletide associations are pleasant ones!