Jane Austen celebrated Christmas, but much of what I say in this post could apply to other faith traditions, so if that applies to you, please interpret through the lens that suits you. 2020 has, by all accounts, been a strange year on a global scale. Here we are at the end of it, in the midst of what would, in a normal year, see plenty of parties: friends and family get-togethers, work parties, church parties, charity dinners, etc. For many, these social events are what you love about the holiday season, Christmas 2020 might be easy to write off as a dud. But it doesn’t have to be. In considering how to observe the holiday this year, I came up with a few tenets of Christmas we could borrow from the era Jane lived a good portion of her life in, and from Jane herself.
Incorporate both religious and secular traditions. Christmas was a national holiday in England during the Regency, and since it’s origins were founded in Christian beliefs, Christmas morning church services were traditionally observed, with a special Christmas sermon, but the rest of the day was reserved for festivities. In my own family tradition, we spend Christmas Eve focused on the sacred, reading the scriptural accounts of the events around Christ’s birth, and singing Christmas songs. Christmas day itself is more relaxed and festive, unless it falls on a Sunday, in which case we do go to church in the morning. The reminder not to forget “the reason for the season” has enriched my lifelong observance of this day.
As we discover in Emma, when she didn’t want to face Mr. Elton after his Christmas Eve carriage-ride debacle, ill health or inclement weather were considered acceptable excuses not to attend Church services.
“The weather was most favourable for her; though Christmas-day, she could not go to church. Mr. Woodhouse would have been miserable had his daughter attempted it, and she was therefore safe from either exciting or receiving unpleasant and most unsuitable ideas.”
Keep it simple. Christmas in Georgian England, particularly during the Regency period, was not the overblown celebration we have today, although the Christmas season ran from December 6 to January 6. This season was full of parties, balls, and family get-togethers both leading up to and in the aftermath of Christmas Day. Evergreen boughs, holly, and mistletoe weren’t even brought into the home to decorate until Christmas Eve, however. I’m not suggesting that you change your celebration or take down your decorations, I’m just saying that if budgetary concerns are a factor due to the lean year, a simple Christmas can be just as joyous as celebrating on a larger scale.
Observe the feast. The central event of Christmas Day, after church services, was the Christmas dinner. Feasting is a tradition commemorating abundance. The Christmas feast is no different, celebrating the spiritual abundance given to mankind by the birth of the Savior. Provided that the means existed to do so, the quantity of food cooked exceeded the amount that would be consumed, with the leftovers providing the ingredients for (hopefully) twelve mince pies. Eating a mince pie each day from Christmas through Twelfth night was considered to bring good luck for each of the twelve ensuing months. I’m not suggesting that you turn all your leftovers into pie, but to see the leftovers as a gift of abundance. On Epiphany, another feast day occurred, commemorating the visit of the Magi to the Christ child.
Give handmade gifts. Purchased gifts were certainly given, such as the chain for a cross pendant that Edmund Bertram and Mary Crawford each gave to Fanny Price, but a thoughtful, handmade gift was considered as much, if not more, meaningful. An embroidered handkerchief, hand-carved toy, personalized poem, or watercolor painting are examples of handmade gifts. Personalized gifts, such as jewelry containing a lock of hair, or a miniature portrait were also given. Georgians often exchanged gifts on December 6, Saint Nicholas Day, the first day of the Christmas season, rather than on Christmas Day as is the modern tradition.
When you party, party. I’m a little envious of the Georgians and their parties. Images and accounts tell me that they had tons of fun, even if their numbers were small. Play games*, sing, dance, revel a bit. Laugh and share your talents. Light a Christmas fire in your fireplace, or if you don’t have a fireplace, do what I do and simulate one on the TV. Eat those special treats, and enjoy the company.
Give to charity. One tradition that has survived the intervening centuries is the spirit of goodwill that inspires generosity to one’s fellow men. If you have the means, impart some of it to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or keep Chawton House going.
Keep the celebration going into January. Christmas happens during the darkest months of the year. I for one intend to incorporate the post-Christmas spirit for at least twelve days, and perhaps beyond.
Did any of these ideas speak to you? Are there other Georgian or Regency Christmas traditions that you’ve tried or want to try? We at Austen Authors would love to hear from you, including those of our readers from other faith traditions that celebrate in different ways. Your comments are welcome!
*The games at this link are cited as coming from Victorian times, but many are of older origin. The point is to play, not when the games were invented.