You may be like me, dusting off the holiday theme hist-ro to get you in the mood for the season. But what was Christmas really like in the Regency?
The Protestant Reformation in England condemned Christmas as a pagan celebration, and it wouldn’t regain its more contemporary fervor until the Victorian Era when scholars uncovered traditions. During the Puritanical zealotry, carols were banned from church, forcing them on to the streets which is why “caroling” is now associated with singing from door to door.
Although Christmas was once again legal to celebrate in England before the Georgian reign, it was most likely relegated to the home of rural farmers and non-peerage. A good meal was always affiliated with the celebration, even before Dickens’ a Christmas Carol used the symbol of the Christmas feast (and fat goose). Puddings, sweets, and other expensive goodies would be laid out as a treat for children and families. What better time, really, for a rural family to enjoy hearth and home when the snow and assorted crummy weather kept them indoors?
But families wouldn’t have ventured out to cut down a tree to decorate until much later. According to her biographers, Queen Charlotte was the first to introduce a lighted yew tree in 1800. The fir was adorned with gifts of almonds and sweets as well as toys hung amid the candles on the tree. Children of visiting families were allowed to select treats from the tree, including a skipping rope, a muslin handkerchief, and a pretty necklace. This was revived by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, becoming an institution that is even now continued by secular entities like towns and cities.
To the Ton, Christmas was just after the “little Season” of September and November where balls, rout parties, and other fetes kept people in Town busy. Many families would probably retire to their country estates or other destinations where smaller parties and balls would be attended weather permitting. These events might be strung with holly or mistletoe, but gift exchanges were not commonplace. Father Christmas, or Pere Noel, (the spirit of Christmastime–not to be mistaken with St. Nick or Santa Claus) made his occasional appearance in broadsheets and dramas, but he was more associated with Viking traditions than the Coca Cola advert image.
So Regency Christmas would have been a much more understated affair, underscoring what we knowadays refer to as “the true meaning” of Christmas—ie spending time with friends and family and giving thanks for our blessings.
To read more about the various traditions and customs of Christmas check out http://www.christmasarchives.com/toc.html.