Jude Knight Highlights Christmas romance and reminds us how it was celebrated in the Regency
With Christmas just around the corner, I’ve been wrapping presents, decorating the house, and making lists of ingredients for Christmas baking. I’ve been writing and reading Christmas stories set in the Regency, and thinking about the differences between then and now. And I’m publishing my own box set of novellas and novelettes set at Christmas.
Party on, dude
Many of the Christmas practices we think of as traditional began in Victorian times or even later. And practices we connect to Christmas Day belonged to other days in the longer season that was a vestige of medieval times, when important Church feasts were celebrated over weeks rather than all in a day.
Back in the middle ages, they knew how to party. Maybe it was because every feast day was preceded by fasting, and there’s nothing like abstinence for making the heart grow fonder of food, drink, and riotous living.
In the 17th Century, Oliver Cromwell’s Parliament did their best to stamp Christmas out, fining those who dared sing a Christmas carol or bake a goose. And as for hanging a kissing bough! Disgraceful!
In practice, it seems likely people kept on celebrating Christmas, and the Restoration brought the holiday back into favour, and the full twelve days, starting on Christmas Eve and running through to Twelfth Night (the evening of 5th January), were once again times of gift giving and feasting.
Christmas celebrations ran from November to January
Christmas preparations began with Stir-Up Sunday, when everyone in the household lined up to stir the Christmas pudding. Not that the name comes from that practice. Rather, it comes from the first lines traditionally said at the beginning of that day’s church service. “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of all thy faithful people.” Stir-Up Sunday was (and is) the Sunday before Advent begins, so five Sundays before Christmas.
In the Regency, those who could afford it planned house parties or family get-togethers that lasted from the first day of Advent (always a Sunday) through to Epiphany on 6th January, the day after Twelfth Night. They might have enjoyed card parties, dinners, and balls. They would have gone skating, if the weather were cold enough for the local pond or lake to freeze. And activities to throw young people into close proximity (under careful chaperonage, of course) provided plenty of opportunity for courtship.
Since the family were already together, they might also plan weddings for any time during the six or seven weeks. (And, perhaps, Christenings as a result of last year’s weddings.)
Christmas was a time for the rich to give to the poor
Christmas provided several opportunities for the less wealthy to receive gifts, money, and food from those who were better off.
Carol singers went door to door all season long, providing entertainment in return for money and food. Wassailing (originally a January activity involving drink, song, and apple trees) and carol singing became merged in many places. Instead of the wassailers bringing with them a bowl filled with hot spiced ale, roasted apples, toast, nutmeg, and sugar, to drink at each stop, the householders began supplying the bowl— and partaking.
Mummers plays and morris dancing also allowed poorer members of the community to entertain the rich in return for money.
On St Thomas Day, 21st December, elderly women could appeal for food or money, a practice known as thomasing. The Napoleonic Wars produced a number of widows without sons to support them, so the Regency saw an increase in thomasing.
And, of course, Boxing Day—the Feast of St Stephen referred to in the carol Good King Wenceslas—was traditionally a day for rich people to give gifts to poor people. Many local landowners held St Stephen’s Day as an open day, when local people could come and feast with their squire or lord.
Christmas meant gift giving, but not on Christmas Day
Today, the practice of giving gifts on Christmas Day is so ingrained that we often see it in novels set in the Regency. And it may have happened in some households, but most mentions of gifts in contemporary sources mention 6th December and the Feast of the Epiphany.
St Nicholas Day was 6th December, and people marked the day by exchanging small gifts to remember the saint who gave presents of gold to girls without a dowry.
The Feast of the Epiphany was the day that commemorated the visit of the Wise Men to Jesus, and probably the most common day for gift giving, since the Wise Men gave gifts.
Christmas decorations went up on Christmas Eve
People considered it unlucky to decorate for Christmas before Christmas Eve, or to leave the decorations up after 6th January.
So Christmas Eve would have been a busy day for those who decorated their houses. They would put up evergreen boughs, holly, ivy, hawthorn, rosemary, and hellebore. Some of this went into kissing boughs, with sprigs of mistletoe, paper flowers, bows of ribbon, and paper cutouts.
By tradition, any man could claim a kiss from an unmarried woman under a kissing bough, and for each kiss claimed, a berry would be picked. When all the mistletoe berries were gone, the bough would come down. In some places, tradition held that a girl who was unkissed when the bough came down would not marry in the coming year.
If mistletoe didn’t grow in your part of Britain, you might ask friends or family to send you some on the mail coach.
Christmas was also the time for cutting and hauling the Yule log, bringing it into the house and lighting it from the last bit of the log used the previous year. It would need to be big enough to last at least until the end of Christmas Day, and households would compete to find and mark the biggest log all ready for collecting on Christmas Eve.
Christmas had its own special food and drink
While Christmas Day was not the present-giving day we have today, it was still a day for a feast. After the Christmas Day church service, people of all classes would settle down to the biggest and best meal they could afford, with roasted meats, pies, and other traditional dishes. Until Victorian times, Christmas mince pies were made with shredded meat, fruit, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, often in rectangular cases to resemble the crib from Bethlehem.
Gingerbread was another favourite: either the old traditional gilded bread made from pressing a mix made with ginger, treacle, and breadcrumbs into moulds, or cut out shapes made from a sweet dough mix similar to the gingerbread men we eat today.
And, of course, Christmas Day was the day to meet the pudding that had been stirred and then boiled five weeks earlier, on Stir-Up Sunday.
Twelfth Night (5th January) also had a particular recipe: Twelfth Night Cake, cooked with a bean and a pea in it, and sometimes a clove. The person who got one of these in their slice had a role to play in the rest of the Twelfth Night festivities: the person with the bean in their slice was Bean King for the party, the pea crowned the Pea Queen, and the clove marked the Knave.
The Bean King inherited the medieval role of Lord of Misrule, and was in charge of the night’s festivities.
Let the party begin!
Bringing together the magic of Christmas and the magic of love
What better time to fall in love that at Christmas, when friends and family gather and the mistletoe hangs in the Kissing Bough?
In this 2017 box set, If Mistletoe Could Tell Tales, you’ll find Jude’s four published Christmas novellas plus two Christmas-themed novelettes from her lunch-length reads collections. All together in one 97,500 word volume for your holiday pleasure. Available for preorder as an ebook (published 15 December), or immediately in print for the stocking of someone who loves happy endings.
Candle’s Christmas Chair (A novella in The Golden Redepennings series)
They are separated by social standing and malicious lies. How can he convince her to give their love another chance?
Gingerbread Bride (A novella in The Golden Redepenning series)
Mary runs from an unwanted marriage and finds adventure, danger and her girlhood hero, coming once more to her rescue.
Magnus and the Christmas Angel (from Lost in the Tale)
Scarred by years in captivity, Magnus has fought English Society to be accepted as the true Earl of Fenchurch. Now he faces the hardest battle of all: to win the love of his wife.
Lord Calne’s Christmas Ruby
Lalamani prefers her aunt’s quiet village to fashionable London, its vicious harpies, and its importunate fortune hunters. Philip wishes she wasn’t so rich, or he wasn’t so poor.
A Suitable Husband
A chef from the slums, however talented, is no fit mate for the cousin of a duke, however distant. But Cedrica can dream. (first published in Holly and Hopeful Hearts, a Bluestocking Belles collection.)
All that Glisters (from Hand-Turned Tales)
Rose is unhappy in the household of her fanatical uncle. Thomas, a young merchant from Canada, offers a glimpse of another possible life. If she is brave enough to reach for it.
- In print on Barnes and Noble, Walmart, Amazon
- As an ebook at all major eretailers