Christmas in Regency England, during 1811 to 1820 when Prince George ruled as Prince Regent, was a more subtle celebration than the one we observe today. To my way of thinking, perhaps they were better for it. Christmastide, as they called the season, began with Christmas Eve and continued to Twelfth Night, or January 5th, followed by the Feast of the Epiphany the next day, the official end of the Yule season.
In country homes and estates where Christmas was typically celebrated, decorations went up on Christmas Eve and stayed up until Epiphany when the greens would be burned in the fireplace. Evergreens were the central part of the decoration, with boughs of holly, ivy, hawthorn, rosemary, and Christmas Rose (hellebore), depending on where you were in England.
Of course, there was also mistletoe, although it grows mostly in the western and southwestern parts of Britain. Friends or relatives in other parts of the country might send you some by the mail coach. The mistletoe would more likely have been a “kissing bough”—a hanging structure of evergreens, apples, paper flowers, and sometimes even dolls representing Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus. Most of the traditions were steeped in the Christian faith.
Christmas Eve might also find folks sipping cups of hot wassail (spiced cider) or eggnog as they watched a performance by traveling actors, called “mummers.” The actors would parade the streets and ask at almost every door if the mummers were wanted. Dressed in the most outrageous fashions with gilt and spangled caps and ribbons of various colors on their bodies, they performed plays, ending with a song, and a collection of coins.
Christmas Day would, typically, begin with a trip to church. After, there would be a dinner of roast goose, boar’s head (really the head of a pig, as wild boars became extinct in England as of 1185), and perhaps turkey (brought to England from the New World in 1550). Vegetables such as potatoes, squash, Brussels sprouts and carrots were also served, along with stuffing for the fowl.
Wonderful desserts ended the meal, including march pane (what we call marzipan), and gingerbread. Another favorite dessert was Christmas plum pudding, a mixture of 13 ingredients (representing Christ and the twelve apostles): suet, brown sugar, raisins, currants, citron, lemon and orange peels, spices, crumbs, flour, eggs, milk and brandy. All this was boiled in a pudding cloth. Very tasty. You can see the recipe on my website here: http://www.reganwalkerauthor.com/regency-christmas-recipes.html.
Another dessert that would often appear was Mince pie. While recipes varied by region, ingredients usually included beef, suet, sugar, raisins, lemons, spices, orange peel, goose, tongue, fowls, eggs, apples and brandy. This was also called Twelfth Night Pie because it was originally made with the leftovers of the Christmas dinner. The pies were eaten every day during Christmastide to ensure good luck for the twelve months of the New Year.
Carols sung around the piano might include Deck the Halls, Here We Come a-Wassailing, and While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks. Joy to the World, though first published by Isaac Watts in 1719, wasn’t in the modern version until 1836. Hark the Harold Angels Sing was first written in 1739 by Charles Wesley, and amended in 1753 by George Whitfield. However, Mendelssohn didn’t write the modern version we sing today until 1840. Silent Night was written in 1816 by Joseph Mohr, but wasn’t translated into English until 1863.
Christmas Day was also the day on which a gift or tithe was given to the landowner. It was not a widespread tradition to give each other gifts, though a small toy might be given to children in the family.
The day after Christmas was Boxing Day, on which you gave presents or “boxes” to those who had given you good service during the previous year. It was also a traditional day for fox hunting. You did not necessarily have to worry about snow near Christmas, despite the story of Good King Wenceslaus. According to several sources, weather in most parts of England is often warm and damp. The winter of 1818, the year in which my story The Holly & The Thistle is set, was a particularly warm one.
The day and night of the 5th – Twelfth Night – was a time for masks and playacting. Cakes were part of this day, not Christmas. Twelfth day cakes were light and covered with colored sugar, and they contained a bean and a pea. The man who found the bean would become king for the night; the woman who found the pea would become queen. Another similar Twelfth Night tradition was for the ladies to pick a man’s name from a hat, and he would be her partner for the night. At the end of Twelfth Night, all the decorations should be taken down, and the greenery burned or the house risked bad luck.
The things that would be missing from Christmas in the Regency would be the Christmas Tree and stockings hung by the fire. Christmas trees were a German tradition that while brought to George III’s home by his wife Charlotte, were not widely incorporated into the holiday traditions until Queen Victoria’s time. Instead, a Regency Christmas contained the simple traditions of holly and candles and a roaring fire in the hearth, the smell of wassail steaming in a large bowl over the grate, and the pungent aroma of the Christmas pudding and roast goose watering the mouth and filling the imagination. Children home from school might add the typical noise to the family gatherings but the emphasis was on social interaction that is, unfortunately, so often missing in our celebrations today.
The Twelfth Night Wager
THE REDHEADED RAKE
It was a dull day at White’s, the day he agreed to the wager: seduce bed and walk away from the lovely Lady Leisterfield, all by Twelfth Night. This holiday season, Christopher St. Ives, Viscount Eustace, planned to give himself a gift.
THE INNOCENT WIDOW
She was too proper by half—or so was the accusation of her friends, which was why her father had to find her a husband. But Lord Leisterfield was now gone a year, and Grace was at last shedding the drab colors of mourning. The house felt empty, more so during the coming Christmastide, and so tonight her coming out would begin with a scandalous piece of theater. The play would attract rogues, or so promised her friend the dowager countess. It would indeed. The night would bring about the greatest danger—and the greatest happiness—that Grace had ever known.
“Love sought is good, but giv’n unsought is better.”
—William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
London, January 5, 1819
It never would have happened if he hadn’t been so terribly bored that night at White’s. Staring into the crackling fire in the parlour on this frosty night and reflecting back on the last several months, Christopher St. Ives, Viscount Eustace, recalled the evening well; the deep leather chair he sat in, the lit cheroot dangling from one hand and a brandy in the other. He had only been half listening as Hugh Redgrave, the very married Marquess of Ormond, droned on about the virtues of the leg-shackled state. Happily married men could be so tiresome. Looking back on it now, it seemed years not months since they’d traded quips in the conversation that led to the wager:
“I say, Ormond, just where are you going with this praise for the wedded state? You know me too well to believe I’m convinced.”
“You might at least consider taking a wife, Eustace. There’s much to be said for the change it would bring about in your otherwise tawdry existence of late. After all, thirty-five is past the age where dissipation wears well, don’t you think?”
Tawdry existence? Dissipation? “Surely you cannot mean those words, Ormond. I’m just after a bit of fun.”
“You go after women like you go after the fox. It’s all in the chase for you.”
“And that is wrong? Just because you have your heir and a spare at thirty-two does not mean I wish to accumulate the same baggage.” At the frown that appeared on Ormond’s face, Christopher, Lord Eustace, hastened to add, “No offense meant toward the beautiful Lady Ormond, whom I admire above all women, but I am not ready for such a change, as my recent indulgences confirm. Besides, I like women and have my own way of handling them, which suits me quite well. I see no reason for change.”
“As far as I can see, your way of ‘handling’ them is not to have one at all.”
“Ho, now that ain’t so, and well you know it! Though, being a gentleman, I’ll not disclose the number ‘had’ even if I could recall. My method, I assure you, works perfectly for me.”
“You have a method?” Ormond asked, incredulous.
“Well, perhaps not a method as you would count it. I seduce ’em, bed ’em and—”
“Leave them. Yes, I know. But not always smiling, I’ve heard.”
Christopher looked up at the chandelier above and back to his friend as he let out a sigh. “Perhaps not, but none complain till the end is in sight. Then, well…I admit things have on occasion become a bit sticky. But they are all willing players in the game.”
“Your way of handling women cannot work with all. You must have failed with some.”
“Quite the contrary, my good man. I’ve succeeded with every lady I’ve gone after.” Christopher held back a grin. He did not lack confidence when it came to his success with women. And a worthy adversary made every game more exciting.
“I would wager there is one you cannot seduce.”
“Ho! Wager? Do I hear a challenge being laid down?” Snuffing out his cheroot, Christopher leaned forward. “Who might this unassailable paragon be?”
Ormond glanced about the sparsely populated club room filled with tables and chairs. Christopher’s eyes followed, noting the small group of men at a round table engaged in muted conversation some distance away. None appeared to be eavesdropping.
Leaning forward, Ormond whispered, “Grace, the Lady Leisterfield.”
Christopher leaned back in his chair and took a sip of brandy. In his mind’s eye he saw a slim blonde in a rather modest gray gown standing next to the elderly Lady Claremont. “Yes, I recall her from the last ball of the Season. The young widow lives like a nun, or so I’ve heard.”
Ormond grinned. “That, old man, is the challenge.”
“She’s in mourning, is she not?”
“Just coming out. And a worthy contender to test your…method.”
“I see.” But did he? Was there more to this than a wager? It was clear Ormond had something in mind, and the marquess could be exceedingly cryptic at times. Still, whatever was behind the challenge, and whatever the stakes, Christopher was drawn by the opportunity, even more by the encouragement, to entice the lovely Lady Leisterfield to his bed.
“I’ve been very impressed with the lady,” his friend continued, “and I would love to see you fail miserably trying to scale her castle walls. I would consider it sweet justice for the fairer sex.” Ormond winked.
Christopher was tempted to decline, still miffed at Ormond’s comment about his tawdry existence. Yet the memory of the beautiful Lady Leisterfield permeated his thoughts. “Perhaps I shall accept your delightful challenge.”
Ormond grinned, then his expression turned serious. “One thing. If you do this, Eustace, you must promise to preserve the lady’s reputation no matter the outcome. That must be part of the challenge, as I would not see a good woman ruined at the end of it.”
“Well, I know of no woman who has suffered overmuch from being associated with me, but I assure you I will be discreet.”
“All right—and so we are clear,” said Ormond. “You must seduce, bed and walk away from the baroness, else I will have won.”
Christopher nodded, wondering all the while if he’d missed something. Ormond always seemed to have an agenda not fully disclosed. With him, much was hidden beneath the surface.
The marquess suggested with a pointed look, “Ninety days should be sufficient; do you agree?”
“We are indeed agreed. And let me add, it will be my pleasure.”
It wasn’t just the thought of bedding the lovely widow that put a grin on Christopher’s face; he was thrilled with the prospect of a real challenge with a virtuous woman. It was a wholly different sport than he normally engaged in, but Lady Leisterfield was a worthy quarry. A challenge indeed. One for which he felt himself uniquely qualified.
“Shall we reduce the wager to the book?” Ormond inquired with a wry smile. “Say, one thousand pounds to make it interesting?”
“Done.” Casting his reservations aside, Christopher set down his empty glass, reached for Ormond’s extended hand and gave it a hearty shake.
And so, that night, Christopher entered the following into White’s book:
Ld Eustace has wagered Ld Ormond 1000 pounds
that by Twelfth Night he can seduce, bed and walk away from a certain lady understood between them.
Buy The Twelfth Night Wager at: Amazon.com
As a child Regan Walker loved to write stories, particularly about adventure-loving girls, but by the time she got to college more serious pursuits took priority. One of her professors encouraged her to pursue the profession of law, which she did. Years of serving clients in private practice and several stints in high levels of government gave her a love of international travel and a feel for the demands of the “Crown” on its subjects. Hence her romance novels often involve a demanding Prince Regent who thinks of his subjects as his private talent pool.
Regan lives in San Diego with her golden retriever, Link, whom she says inspires her every day to relax and smell the roses.
You can find Regan at:
Author website: http://www.reganwalkerauthor.com/
Regan’s Romance Reviews blog: http://reganromancereview.blogspot.com/
Twitter: @RegansReview https://twitter.com/RegansReview
3 thoughts on “Christmas Traditions in Regency England – Guest Post by Regan Walker, Author of The Twelfth Night Wager”
Thank you so much for this post. My grandmother was English born in Windsor. She raised my till she died when I was seven and steeped my in her Christmas traditions. Because of her I grew up with several of the customs you mention but I was too young to understand much about them. I am most grateful for your explanations of these rituals that are so dear to me and have become a part of my own holiday tradition. Thank you again and as Grandma would say — God send you a happy new year.
Alice, I am so glad my little bits on Regency Christmas provided a warm memory for you of the season. It’s what I love about writing stories that feature Christmas in the Regency era. May God also send you a happy New Year!
Babette: thanks for hosting me on your blog! It’s a delight to be here.