A Christmas Season Before Victoria

It is amazing how many of our Christmas “traditions” are less than 200 years old. The Yuletide, as the Anglo-influenced world sees it, is mostly Germanic and mostly the creation of Charles Dickens under the influence of Queen Victoria’s cultural trendsetting.

Victorian Christmas

By the way, I managed to get Charles Dickens into my forthcoming book, Mansfield Parsonage. He was born 7 February 1812 in Portsmouth, where Fanny Price was returned to her birth parents in the winter of 1813 by her Uncle Bertram so she could “consider” the advantages of marrying the rich Henry Crawford rather than being forced to live in squalor and penury. I arranged that the Price family were neighbors of the Dickens family, and made the first birthday of little Charles something of a bone of contention Fanny could mention in a letter to Mary. Only die-hard Dickens fans will spot it, but it made me happy. 

But I digress.

There were some things – like parties and gifts and puddings – that were around long before Victoria reined. Those things, a combination of Roman and Pagan midwinter celebrations that even Oliver Cromwell couldn’t eradicate from the zeitgeist when he and his Puritans tried to murder Christmas as well as the entire Irish Catholic population, would be the hallmarks of the Holiday Season in the Georgian and Regency eras.

“a Georgian Christmas was very much all about parties, balls and family get-togethers. The Georgian Christmas season ran from December 6th (St. Nicholas Day) to January 6th (Twelfth Night). On St. Nicholas Day, it was traditional for friends to exchange presents; this marked the beginning of the Christmas season. 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. Guests and parties meant that a tremendous amount of food had to be prepared, and dishes that could be prepared ahead of time and served cold were popular. 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, but bringing evergreens into the house – including the much lauded holly and ivy – on Christmas Eve. It was bad luck to bring them in before that 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 jolly get-togethers of all kinds.

cruikshank-christmas-pudding-served-at-dinner-party-life-magazine-image 

regencychristmas

Even the kinds of parties that would have made the Puritans start slaughtering people.

Christmas gambols

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.

yulelog

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. I’m not in such bad shape that I am looking forward to school resuming for the kids, but neither am I dreading the resumption of normal daily life. Well, except for getting up early in the morning. As far as I am concerned days should start at noon, holiday time or not.

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.

carnaval-do-rio-de-janeiro 2011

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!

       

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