Christmas Holiday Traditions
"I sincerely hope your Christmas may abound in the gaieties which the season generally brings." --Jane Austen
For this month's holiday special, let's talk about Georgian/Regency December traditions. What would our heroes and heroines be doing during this holiday season? We'll look a little at the history and along the way focus on some specific elements like wassailing, twelfth night, yule log, boxing day, and more.
It should be mentioned first that the 18th century saw the reinstatement of the holiday season after being outlawed since 1644. Certainly a reason to celebrate when carols, festive-making, and holiday parties are finally legal again after a loooong stretch of being prohibited.
The Christmas season ran from Dec. 6 (St. Nicholas Day) to January 5th (Twelfth Night). Christmas celebrations ran for the 12 days of Christmas: Dec. 25-Jan 5th. During those 12 days, many workers would have a holiday break. Gifts for family would typically be exchanged on Dec. 6 to start off the season (although gifts would have been a wee bit different than what we think of them now since the modern gift giving tradition didn't start until the Victorian era). Christmas Eve of the 24th would be used to decorate the house with greenery and set fire to the yule log. Christmas Day of the 25th would be spent at church followed by a large dinner and parties with guests. The 26th the staff would have the day off while the hosts and guests slept off their food hangover. The next 12 days would include balls and parties with the largest party held on Twelfth Night (Jan. 5), an evening including wassailing. The first Monday after Twelfth Night, known as Plough Monday was the end of festivities and would include mumming performances, decoration removal, and a few Plough Monday specific traditions among the farmers.
The Christmas Day dinner (or really, dinners plural since the whole of the celebrations would be about parties and feasting) would be the most elaborate of the entire year. Meals primarily consisted of meat, meat, and more meat. Venison was the main feature for gentry. Turkey and goose were popular alternatives. Beef and mutton would be included alongside the feature meat (venison or turkey or goose), as a way to demonstrate wealth, and poultry would be a side dish. A few sides might include cockles and mussels, brawn, turtle soup, and fish. Christmas pudding (or plum pudding, which always contained dried plums) followed. And yes, even the pudding was banned back in the 1644 outlawing of Christmas. Mince pies were popular among all stations. With the poorer families, the celebration centered more around food than gift giving, and people would often gift food, such as gifting mince pie. The puddings and pies would have been meaty in medieval and Tudor times but more fruity and spiced in Georgian times. A lovely page that shows how the dinner changed over time can be found here.
The end of the season, January 5th, or Twelfth Night, marked the largest party of the holiday (and FYI there is some discrepancy as to if Twelfth Night is Jan 5th or 6th, depending on if you count Eve or Day. Traditionally, the Epiphany is on the 6th while Twelfth Night festivities occur on the eve of the 5th). Games, dancing, and more food, especially wassail drinking. Wassail, just in case you're not familiar with it, is a punch or mulled wine, spiced and sweetened with wine or brandy, but variations might include warmed ale, wine or cider, honey, roasted apples, egg, and spices. You can find plenty of wassail recipes that are worth trying, and all are quite different (more on wassailing in a few). Twelfth Night Cake was all the rage. Within the cake would be hidden a dried bean and a dried pea. Whichever man had the slice with the bean would be said to be the king of the evening. Whichever woman had the slice with the pea would be the queen of the evening. This tradition faded as the 18th century moved forward, and by the time we get to the early 19th century and the Regency era, it wouldn't have been celebrated anymore unless some lone family somewhere wanted to keep it up as a party game for whatever reason. While the game faded, the cake itself gained in popularity, being fairly simple in the 18th century but extravagant during the Regency--frosting, trimming, decorations, and more. A fantastic page to learn more about the history of Twelfth Night and see a recipe for a Twelfth Cake can be found here.
Decorating homes with greenery (especially holly) was popular across all stations, but Christmas Eve marked the decoration day, not prior. Decorating before Christmas Eve was a superstition that would lead to bad luck, and the Georgians are notorious for their superstitions. The yule log (freshly cut wood of epic proportions--as in it would take a team of horses to drag it back to the house) would be cut and brought into the house as part of the Christmas Eve decorating. This log would burn for the full 12 days of Christmas, starting on the 24th and then extinguished on Plough Monday (first Monday after Twelfth Night). The idea was to burn away all the misdeeds of the previous year to start fresh for the next year. Prior to setting it to burn, there would be quite the party--songs, dancing, feasting.
Another part of the greenery was the popular kissing bough. A kissing bough was made of whatever greenery might be available nearby, but most commonly of holly, ivy, mistletoe, and rosemary, and embellished with spices, candles, ribbons, paper roses, ornaments, and even apples and oranges. They reached their most elaborate during the Georgian period. Their sizes could range from a meter to an entire wall or doorway. Kissing boughs have been popular since at least the Tudor era and were a sign of welcome to guests. Even the poorest of families would have wreaths or some form of greenery on their front door.
In a Christmas-themed story taking place during the Georgian era from about mid-18th century to the end of the Regency era, kissing boughs should be part of the story, for this was an integral part of the décor and tradition. An interesting aspect of the tradition that we don't often see in the books but should is that the kiss on the cheek was not from standing under the kissing bough but from a gentleman pulling a berry from the bough, which gave him the privilege of kissing a lady on the cheek. When the berries ran out, so did the kisses (don't be late to the party!). Kissing boughs and mistletoe are not synonymous as much as you might think so. Kissing boughs, as mentioned, have been around for ages. Mistletoe was not associated with kissing until Robert Herrick made the connection in his poetry. (And if you've taken one of my literature classes at any point, you'll know just what I think about pervy Herrick, and thus you aren't the least surprised that he's to blame for kissy mistletoe!)
Decorations remained until Twelfth Night ended. On the Monday after (Plough Monday), all décor would be removed and greenery burned. Any décor still standing after that day would mark more bad luck. A great site to learn more about greenery is here.
The traditions we see in the Georgian era mostly disappeared by the Victorian era, and with that era came new traditions. The Christmas tree inside the house, for instance, wasn't a tradition until the Victorian era when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had a print of their family gathered around a Christmas tree appear in the newspaper. As a side note, most of our traditions come from the Victorian era, especially wedding traditions, so it's not surprising that the majority of contemporary Christmas traditions come from the Victorian era. Yes, even gift giving during the Christmas holiday came from the Victorians (this is brief but fun). There is a rumor that Queen Charlotte in 1800 brought into the Court the German custom of bringing a tree into the house, but if true, that tradition didn't make it to the people until nearly 50 years later.
You might be familiar with the Boxing Day tradition, which is St. Stephen's Day, the day after Christmas, Dec. 26th. This is, historically, a day for the staff and servants where they would receive the day off to spend with family and receive a Christmas box from their employer/lord of the manor with a gift, money, or food to take to their families. It's also a day to donate to charity. It has now become the primary day of family gift giving among British families. The term "Boxing Day," however, would not have been used in the 18th century nor would it have been a family celebratory day, rather a day for gifting the staff as they head off to spend the day with family. The term "Boxing Day" wasn't even used until the 1830s, so after the Georgian period. This is one of those British traditions that is very strongly part of the culture now, but it would not have been part of the Georgian or Regency era culture outside of gifting the staff in a quiet and cordial manner. Any references to Boxing Day would be anachronistic, but any references to staff gifts and staff holiday would be accurate. We see references to the staff gifts and holidays in many of the diaries of the time, which is always fun to read. A brief but helpful page to check out for traditions can be found here.
Wassailing took place on Twelfth Night (Jan. 5th). The actual date of wassailing changed during the Georgian era, interestingly. It used to be celebrated on January 17th, termed "Old Twelvey," but when the new Gregorian calendar was introduced, the date changed, making Twelfth Night (and thus the wassailing tradition) occur on Jan. 5th. Three traditions of wassailing include: (1) Lord of the manor toasted with wassail, and the guests assembled passed the wassail bowl to take a sip and toast to the next person, the toast being waes hael or "be well" followed by the person receiving the bowl replying with a drink hael or "drink well." This is something we'd definitely see at a party the hero or heroine would attend (or host), where the host of the party would make the toast, pass the bowl, and on around the table it would go. When you imagine this wassail bowl, don't think of a family dish, rather a massive bowl of silver, gold, or pewter that can hold several gallons. There are some antiques you can find in museums that are around 10 gallons (that's a big bowl!). (2) In some of the more rural areas, apple tree wassailing was celebrated, in which the trees/orchard would be blessed in hopes of a bountiful harvest in the coming year. This involved a large group of farmers, farm workers, and villagers going orchard to orchard, then gathering around the base of the largest tree, placing a piece of toast soaked in wassail in the branches, then singing a wassailing song to the tree. The noisier the group, the stronger the blessing, all in an attempt to wake the tree spirits and frighten demons--banging pots and pans, shouting, singing, and other noise making. (3) Groups of merrymakers visited houses with their wassail bowl (let's hope they weren't carrying the 10 gallon bowl, eh?), sang carols, and wished well. For their house-wassailing efforts, they might be gifted with food (figgy pudding, anyone?) or other gifts in exchange for their songs and blessings. This tradition is, basically, door-to-door caroling, but with a single bowl of wassail to share (Are you charmed by that shared bowl, or are you thinking "Eeew"?). A fun aspect of the revelers (farmers, villagers, and the like) is that they would crown a wassail king and queen to lead the assembly (perhaps the same ones that found the bean/pea in the cake). They would carry on a noisy procession. One of the more detailed pages to look at can be found at this site.
Another popular bit of fun would have been the Mummers and the mummers' plays, which would typically happen on Plough Monday (the Monday after Twelfth Night). While such plays might occur at any point in the season (or even other holidays), it was most commonly seen on Plough Monday. Mummers' plays are just that--plays, typically silly and comedic with the performers dressed in costume, outlandish makeup, or masked faces. The plays are short comedic dramas of rhymed text intended to celebrate a season. There are specific themes and plots for the plays that are universal, so if one were to have a mummers' play performed for a party, it would be a plot and theme that the audience would already be familiar with--they would all know what was to happen (why does this make me think of Hallmark movies?). Now, what was popular in terms of plot/theme varied a bit depending on if you were in the north or south, but traditionally, there were three play types: hero/combat involving a slaying, a physician with a potion to resurrect the hero in a comedic fashion, and a guest appearance of the devil himself; recruiting sergeant involving a farmer who leaves his lady for the army, and yet again another appearance from the devil; sword dance--mostly in the north--which is exactly what it sounds like but includes a little drama with the execution of a fool. Much like the wassail revelers, mummers would travel house to house to perform, although someone could certainly invite them for the party. Mummers weren't a professional group of performers, rather villagers and community members who thought it would be fun to do a bit of mumming that year. Since everyone is familiar with the plots and themes, rehearsals likely wouldn't be needed. While wassail revelers might receive food or gifts, mummers might receive money for their performance.
While this site actually skips right over the Georgian era for some reason, it does give a lovely overview of the holiday season through the ages, ending with the Victorian era where most of the modern traditions came from.
Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, has been around in some form or another for centuries upon centuries and crosses religions and cultures. His role during the Georgian era, you might surprised to know, was to do with adults not children. He acted as the master of ceremonies to wassailing revelers, parties, and balls (either in spirit or in portrayal by a guest). If you imagine Bacchus, you've got the Georgian era Santa Claus. December 6 was his appearance day, as he kicked off the season. He was the Yule Rider, Captain Christmas, Christmas Lord, Prince Christmas, Father Christmas, etc., affiliated with adult traditions rather than children or gifts, and seen as a kind of personification of parties, games, and feasting. One site to check out is this site. For our Georgian heroes and heroines, we might see a tongue in cheek reference to Prince Christmas giving his well wishes for a hearty and hale party, possibly even as a guest dressed with greenery and garlands wishing everyone a great time, but there wouldn't be any mention of him bringing gifts nor any mention of him with the children. Speaking of parties, which is exactly what our Georgians would have been hosting during this time, one right after the other, check out this bit of history on the season's partying. Clearly, the Santa Claus of the Georgian era is a wee bit different than what we are used to seeing now and even what we see in earlier eras. The primary origin comes from St. Nicholas and his deeds. The name, the role, and even the look of the Jolly old St. Nick we know now is vastly different across the centuries, many of the depictions having little to do with the real St. Nicholas. Even the date associated with his celebration differs. December 21 (Winter Solstice and the Julian calendar) was the original date, but the date during the Georgian era (thanks to the Gregorian calendar) was December 6, the first day of the Christmas season. We don't see Santa Claus's appearance on the 25th, his family-friendly activities, his bag of gifts, or even his jolly red suit and white beard until *drum roll* the Victorian era (bet you didn't see that coming). In the 19th century, literature and poetry began mentioning characteristics that fit how he is now depicted--pipe smoking, sleigh riding, reindeer driving, gift giving, etc. (and much of that imagery was from North America). The fur trimmed red suit didn't come about until the end of the 19th century. The jolly face was created in Thomas Nast's artwork in the late 19th century, sealing Santa's fate as a grandfatherly gift giver.
A big takeaway, aside from the specific traditions like the kissing bough, yule log, wassailing, etc., is that during the Georgian period, Christmas Eve is the start of the fun rather than the end. Decorating and everything begins Christmas Eve. Christmas celebrating and parties and all the fun continue for 12 days, everything ending between Twelfth Night and Plough Monday. Quite a bit different than what we have now!