Christmas is my favorite time of year. Even before I began writing Regency romance, I was interested in holiday customs and entertained a vision of an idyllic English Christmas. Wow, was I surprised to discover many enduring traditions threaded through our present life are vastly different from those associated with the classic Regency ideal depicted in novels and cinema.
Aristocratic celebrations of Christmastide and the happenings often described were not commonplace during the Regency. Like many historic recollections, the holidays have become romanticized to fit neatly into our perception; still if one digs into research, a glimpse of past to present is there.
Christmas was mostly a country celebration. Lighting of a Yule Log for good luck and feasting on pig or turkey, accompanied by plum pudding, were practices one would expect in rural England. Londoners, while they may have come together with friends to share a meal, were not enraptured with prolonged celebrations of the Christian holiday.
Rural England practiced more of the customs we associate with traditional Christmas. In the country, simple decorations were hung on Christmas Eve and stayed up until Epiphany. These adornments included evergreen boughs, holly, rosemary and hawthorn.
Adults gave gifts to children, rarely exchanging with other adults, and Christmas cards were unheard of at this time. There might have been singing, although most carols we enjoy now were not part of the celebration, and evening hours were often spent reading prayers.
An endearing tradition that dates back to the Regency is kissing in the doorway, although you would be caught under the “kissing-bough” rather than a sprig of mistletoe. The kissing-bough was made of evergreen and apples, sometimes decorated with paper flowers or dolls to represent Mary, Joseph and Jesus.
One of my favorite aspects of Christmas is decorating the tree. So much so, I have a tree in every room of my home. As much as I adore writing about Regency England, I would have been sadly disappointed had I lived during the time period as Christmas trees did not become a widespread custom until years later. When trees did become popular, ornaments were simple. Candles, small paper folding, and bits of yarn were used to make decorations. Some historic recollections explain the presence of a Christmas tree during the Regency period only if the family had a connection with America or Germany.
All this modern day mumbling about whether to say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” did not exist in the early 1800s and people greeted each other after church with “Happy Christmas”. The following day was dedicated to Boxing Day, a tradition where “boxes” or gifts were given to servants and others who served the family.
There was little chance of experiencing a white Christmas as England’s weather proves warm and damp during December, but with a stretch of imagination (so easily provided by fiction authors) sledding and skating, more common in England during January and February, could be incorporated into the ideal holiday setting with a “sudden unsettling cold spell”.
Another heartwarming tradition still enjoyed today, belongs to the heart of the home, and with my love of gingerbread suits me fine. The spicy smell of freshly baked cookies is an instant trigger to childhood memories. People of Regency England also enjoyed the treat along with baked apples, bread pudding and sugarplums. At least there’s one connection to the past that has endured with accuracy.
Whatever your traditions, new or old, I hope you have a lovely holiday and enjoy the spirit of inspiration far into the new year.