In which I attempt the ridiculous feat of beginning, smoothing, and publishing a Christmas post one day before Christmas. I did not start this in early December when I should have, and I may not actually post it until after the 25th, but remember traditionally the 25th is only the First Day of Christmas, and thanks mostly to the work of others linked or quoted here, this post may communicate some interesting things.
As you may recall, in an earlier post I reviewed a Jane Austen variation novel titled, Twelve Days of Christmas, a retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Jennifer Lang, which I highly recommend for those who love Jane Austen variation fiction and like to read seasonal stories this time of year. Well that book got me to thinking about Christmas traditions and how the holiday may have been observed and celebrated in Jane Austen’s lifetime. I knew, of course, that it would be different from any of my memories of Christmas, in Southern California in the United States. I was born in 1956, so that should give you a basic timeline for my memories.
Christmas when I was a child
When I think about Christmas, of course I think about the holidays I enjoyed while growing up, which were always celebrated on Christmas Eve, mainly because that was my parents’ wedding anniversary. I’m not sure how enjoyable those holidays were for my hardworking parents, though I think they were very much so. Their own childhoods were more difficult, made so by the Great Depression. But they did most of the work and spent all of the money required to produce some sweet memories for us, their offspring. If my parents were still with us, this Christmas Eve would have been their 80th anniversary.
Now that I’m older and have no offspring my own, I think a lot at this time of year about those Christmases growing up, with gratitude to the adults in my life who made them special, and to my siblings for sharing them with me.
As an American — and I know this has happened in other countries as well — I’ve been surrounded all my life by the more and more frantic commercialization of the holiday. As a child I went from seeing simple, sweet shopping-center mechanized displays of dancing skaters and electric lights festooning houses, and dreaming with siblings over the Sears Christmas Book catalog in the early 1960s, through an odd journey past shiny aluminum artificial trees reflecting colored lights in the late 1960s. It wasn’t until about mid-life or later for me that we emerged into our modern era of Black Friday sales and Amazon Prime deals, and seeing Christmas-themed store displays before Halloween. Sigh, it really isn’t the same anymore. When you start seeing Christmas images all through the autumn months, somehow, to me anyway, the holiday seems less special, and falsely glamorized.
My family managed to keep some simpler traditions of our own, and in the course of growing up we realized the presents weren’t as important to us as the coming together as a family, and even when we couldn’t be together, that of keeping in touch. There was a time when I was an adolescent and teen, when my sisters, younger brother and I spent a few Christmas Days in succeeding years at the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, an historic lighthouse that’s part of the Cabrillo National Monument in the San Diego area, where we went to enjoy some blustery weather and to watch for whales. It usually became more of a nature walk and quiet visit than actual whale sighting. But it was such a different way to spend a day than was usual for the rest of our year that it made for special memories. I haven’t been to that lighthouse in ages, but Christmas still comes with memories of those outings. Every family makes their own traditions, and I imagine that was probably true throughout history. While there might be some more commonly shared practices, I’m sure each family is somewhat unique.
Nowadays I have many newer interests, and one is Jane Austen and the era and place in which she lived and wrote, as well as the audience she wrote for, and the world she wrote about. So it is with some fascination that I took a peek at the kind of holiday she might have enjoyed, and came away a bit surprised to realize that, as elenandjim of the blog, Reveries Under the Sign of Austen points out in their post, Christmas in Jane Austen’s letters (and novels once again), Christmas did not feature in many of her novels or even in as many of her letters as much as one might expect. The most attention it gets in her novels is in Emma, where BookLady Deb of the Jane Austen in Vermont blog indicates that we seem to encounter Jane Austen’s Very Own Scrooge in an unexpected place, well before Dickins invented his M. Scrooge.
Some have said that modern British Christmas traditions were to a great degree invented by Charles Dickens, a couple of decades after Jane Austen’s death. I would venture to say, however, that possibly he was only the first to write very extensively in published form about something that was experienced by people mostly keeping Christmas in their own families. And of course, every family has its own version of celebration. Perhaps it’s simply that no one before him saw fit to write about it much. It was something writers assumed everyone was familiar with. This is a question discussed by Rachel Knowles in the blog, Regency History, by way of her post Regency Christmas Celebrations.
History Helps Us Understand Literature
I confess, I have no deep knowledge of British history, before or after Dickens, or Austen for that matter, especially as regards holiday customs, though I am convinced that some knowledge of history helps one understand and enjoy the writings of Jane Austen, and any other historical authors of note.
There was a time when I studied English literature, but I wasn’t much interested in history. Now that I’m older, that lack of balance seems terribly naive, and I have found that for every era from which I draw on the written story, I’m equally fascinated by how people actually lived. There’s an important reason for this. Understanding more about a place and a portion of its history can help me understand the fiction of that place and time. Jane Austen wrote for a specific audience, the middle to upper classes of late Georgian/Regency Great Britain, and the more I know of that audience, and what they may have been seeing in the newspapers (there were a lot of them published during her time), the better I understand her stories.
For me, learning more about Jane Austen’s era during the past several years has been fun, a bit of an escape, at least into the more picturesque aspects of it. One of my teachers was Georgette Heyer, because she was so meticulous about much of her research into the manners and customs of the era for her novels. Once I’d read most of her Regency romance novels, I was able to visualize the world of Jane Austen in that much more detail, especially to understand the etiquette of that time. For instance, why would Mr. Bennet need to visit Mr. Bingley in order for the ladies of the Bennet household (in Pride and Prejudice) to become acquainted with him? I had no idea until Georgette Heyer explained it by way of her stories, and that led me to read Georgette Heyer’s Regency World by Jennifer Kloester, which elaborated more specifically. While I don’t recommend reading fiction to learn history, especially with so much of the inaccuracy in modern historical fiction, that path I took, allowing fiction to lead me into a more serious look at history, does seem to be an exception to the rule. One thing it did was take history from a dry topic some of my teachers and textbooks had seemed to drone on about, to something closer to story (I confess it may have been my own fault that I perceived the teachers and textbooks that way). I found Helena Kelly’s Jane Austen, the Secret Radical a fascinating glimpse into the politics of the day, with her theory about the intentional literary activism of Jane Austen. I’ve also looked into a few books by historians about the Napoleonic Wars (led to them by Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army), and another fiction source, Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, beginning with Master and Commander. Now, I’m still far from an expert, but I feel much more immersed in Miss Austen’s time than before.
For me, though, story is everything.
Back to Christmas …
So, where am I to learn about the Christmas traditions of Jane Austen’s time? While I don’t dispute that many of the Christmas traditions and days on which things are celebrated probably grew out of earlier pagan traditions, which is a story for another post and maybe another blog, it’s important to note that before the 20th century, most Christmas traditions were much more directly tied to religion than they seem today, and of course many people today still celebrate the season as primarily a religious one. I don’t want to disrespect that fact, though I celebrate it myself in a more secular way. In fact, my spouse and I have gone back and forth between celebrating on the Solstice and on Christmas, because the religious aspects aren’t important to us.
Jane Austen herself, having grown up with a clergyman father, was a devout Christian and would have naturally connected at least some of her observations of the season to her religion. And that connection to religion may be why not much was written about the specific ways people celebrated before Charles Dickens scribbled A Christmas Carol. In that book, though, he linked a generous, open attitude of joy and festive celebration to Christian charity. It’s possible that made a lot of difference, after some earlier suppression of celebration as a part of the year.
Ben Johnson, in an article in Historic UK, explores A Georgian Christmas, beginning with a reminder that Christmas had been banned in 1644 by Oliver Cromwell. After Cromwell, people began celebrating again with parties. But it would seem to me that the very religious as well as the very poor might not have been willing or able to celebrate in that festive a fashion.
In any case, the return of the monarchy, and later the Georgian era, seem to have ushered in renewed festivities surrounding Christmas, though more subdued than before, and without some of the earlier disruptive or threatening behavior. According to Ellen Castelow, in her Historic UK article on Wassailing, some of the odd, alternative lyrics to “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” grew out of a disturbing trend at one time of rough characters taking advantage of Christmas generosity, turning the tradition of Wassailing into a threat to people’s homes:
The house-wassailing tradition has evolved into what we now recognise as carolling, where groups of people go from door-to-door singing Christmas carols. Some aspects of the original practise however can still be detected in the words of these carols; listen carefully as the wassailers demands begin, “now give us some figgy pudding”, and then as those demands turn to threats “and we won’t go until we’ve got some”.
Johnson goes on to mention when plum pudding may have become part of the Christmas tradition, in the time of George I, and how the German tradition of the Christmas tree was adopted in 1800 by Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, but didn’t become more commonly a part of popular celebrations until “after the Illustrated London News printed an engraving of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their family around their Christmas tree in 1848.”
Learn more about how the Georgians celebrated Christmas by viewing How Decadent Was A Georgian Christmas? | How Christmas Was Celebrated In The 18th Century at YouTube, provided by the channel, History’s Forgotten People.
I’m currently reading A Jane Austen Christmas by Carlo DeVito, which is a combination biography (of Jane Austen) and exploration of how Christmas was celebrated in Regency England. It’s not a book I planned to read, as I came across it late in the holiday season, but as soon as I began reading it, I found myself unable to put it down. I’m only a little ways through it, but it’s well worth mentioning here for anyone interested in pursuing an interest in the traditions of Austen’s time.
In that era, people tended to celebrate Christmas for an entire month, beginning with St. Nicholas Day on December 6, through Advent, and then the Twelve Days of Christmas, ending with Epiphany around January 6. Wow, an entire month of Christmas. I like the idea of a month-long time of reflection, family gatherings, and nostalgia. Perhaps the darkest month of the year is appropriate as a time to brighten and warm our hearts through closeness with family and friends and the comforts of home life.
Another book I’ll mention, though I haven’t read it, is A Jane Austen Christmas: Regency Christmas Traditions (Jane Austen Regency Life, Book 1) by Maria Grace (of the Jane Austen’s Dragons series). Maria Grace also has a blog, where she’s posted several articles about Christmas celebrations in Regency times.
I hope this meander of mine offers the reader a path toward learning how Jane Austen and her characters might have enjoyed the holiday season. Please note, this post draws on the research and writings of others. I have paraphrased or quoted their work only a little and linked to them. I’m happy to share these links to other blogs and websites, and I invite you to make them regular stops in your own reading, especially if you’re interested in Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Regency or Georgian history, Jane Austen Fan Fiction (JAFF) or Austenesque stories in any form, or if you perhaps love history of any era for its own sake. I found my brief journey into the topic enlightening and plan to learn more about this subject by this time next year. For writers, research like this can happen at any time of year.