Traditional Regency Christmas

Regency Christmas traditions varied widely from region to region and even family to family. Generally, the upper classes of Regency England didn’t treat it as a special day beyond a Christmas church service and the exchange of small, mostly hand-made gifts within the family. Ordinary household items such as pen wipers and fire spills seem to have been common gifts, as well. The middle classes made a bigger event out of Christmas than their so called “betters.” Lucky them!

The reason why Christmas became so understated is largely due to Thomas Cromwell, who served as Chief Minister during the reign of King Henry VIII. Cromwell and his cronies virtually stamped out Christmas celebrations due to their pagan licentious superstition which often resulted in drunken brawls and even vandalism. Although I seldom approve of the destruction of any holiday, I can’t really blame him for his disapproval of that sort of misbehavior. Fortunately, the Restoration revived Old Christmas into a new, toned-down version of its former bawdy revelry to one of quiet worship and time together with family. During the Regency, more and more celebratory customs cropped up. I suspect many families practiced many of those customs all along secretly. Yorkshire is an area that seemed to hold on the most tightly to the Old Christmas traditions, and the did them openly when it became permissible to do so.

While researching English Christmas customs, I found journal entries and letters describing family events at the Big House, many of which I incorporated into my newest novel, Christmas Secrets. I exercised my creative license to have the local tradition include a ball at the big house, gathering greenery including a mistletoe “kissing ball,” the Yule Log, and especially carols, along with other fun aspects of the season on Christmas Eve.

Largely thanks to Queen Victoria’s husband bringing his German traditions with him to England, Victorian Christmas customs grew into the ‘traditional’ Christmas we all know and love with carolers, a wider variety of gifts and recipients, Yule logs, Christmas puddings, cards, Christmas trees, many of the carols we know and love, and so forth.

Travel in winter in England during the Regency was extremely hazardous, therefore it was rarely done. Christmas house parties had to wait until railroads made winter journeys more feasible which happened after 1840. Of course, I and every other author I have read largely ignores this, although I did make mention of people not wishing to travel far due to the weather.

A odd custom that dates back centuries is telling scary ghost stories. This age-old tradition dates so far back that I couldn’t find its origin. Aside from the traditional Christmas story, A Christmas Carol, I’m happy that telling ghost stories is no longer part of our Christmas customs. Can you imagine getting a child to bed who is both excited about presents and frightened of the ghosts? Now that is scary!

What are some of your favorite Christmas customs?


2 thoughts on “Traditional Regency Christmas

  1. Pat Hathaway says:

    My favorite Christmas tradition was Christmas Eve at the grandparents’ house. My father’s family was Swedish and lived next door to us so first we went to their house for a Swedish dinner. The food was begun about a week before with making sausage called something like “potatus curve” (my phonetic spelling). That means potato sausage. We would get together at Grandma’s house and grind up the meat, and potatoes, mix with spices, then fill the sausage casings with the mix by cranking the handle of the same grinding machine but with a tube attached that sent the ground mix into the casing. Grandma cooked the sausages in boiling water with allspice and cloves, then on Christmas Eve the sausage would be browned in a skillet and served with mashed potatoes; lutefisk (which Grandma made from dried cod she had soaked in lye for days until the black hard pieces of fish were white and fluffy); lingen-berry sauce, and “oust-a-kaka” supplied by the cousins who lived on a farm so they had easy access to the eggs and milk needed for the custard type dessert. (Actually it was made like a cheese with an activator from the grocery store that curdled the milk, I think, but I always thought it was more like a custard.) I’d sit on Grandpa’s daybed by the window and watch our house trying to see Santa Clause land. I’d stay by the window until the very last minute hoping to catch him and leave only when I was called to the table to eat. Somehow he always knew just the minute I was called away because I never caught him coming to my house, but the gifts were always under the tree when we came home.
    Then we drove the 15 miles to my Mother’s family for a German Christmas. They always went to Christmas Eve service at their church so we would try to arrive about the time they were coming home. Mom’s family was much larger so dinner was a potluck. Grandma always made ham and her homemade “head cheese”. Ick, I couldn’t eat it; I think it was pork cooked off the bones and served in a jelly-like aspic. The adults loved it. One of my mother’s sisters always brought cranberry sauce made with fresh oranges and fresh cranberries ground up and mixed together. It definitely wasn’t traditional German food, but I loved it. Grandma baked her own sandwich buns and we could make our own ham sandwiches with them, yum. Then we opened presents, played with our cousins until we were exhausted and it was time to drive home. At least one year we had to drive through a blizzard to get to Grandma’s but there was no way Mom was going to miss Christmas with her family.
    If we weren’t too tired we got up again for Christmas Church service. Sometimes it was at midnight, other times early in the morning while it was still dark. I think the time may have depended on the pastor who was serving at the time. But Grandpa was the church custodian so it was his job to ring the church bell. (On Sunday’s he let me help and I remember holding on tight to the rope and being lifted off the floor as the bell pulled the rope up as it moved side to side to ring.) Then on Christmas day we slept late and spent the day playing with our new toys.
    As an adult I was never able to catch the magic of Christmas experienced as a child, but I was pleasantly surprised to hear my adult daughter talk about how she loved Christmas as a child. I had no idea our Christmases as a young married couple had been that much fun, but I’m glad she has good memories since I had always wanted her to have as much fun as I had as a child.

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