Christmastide (the Christmas season from Christmas Eve or First Night through Twelfth Night and Epiphany) during the Regency Era seems to be more easily defined by the differences in traditions and what they didn’t have or do at the time rather than the specifics of what they did or didn’t. A quick survey of what’s written up on the web reveals a few highlights that people seem to focus and mostly agree upon.
Some now familiar traditions that were not observed during the Regency include, Santa Claus (Victorian), elaborate kissing balls (although simple mistletoe boughs were popular), and stockings. Queen Charlotte, introduced the German idea of an evergreen being brought indoors and decorated to celebrate the season, but many resisted as it was thought to bring bad luck to bring greenery inside before Christmas Eve and the idea was not made popular until Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s time.
Also, during the Regency, many household hearths, especially in the city, would not have had the capacity to hold traditional Yule logs that could burn the entire twelve days, although the custom of a Christmas fire remained popular. Christmas candles, lit on Christmas Eve and expected to burn through Christmas Day were much more common during this period.
Christmas Day was a serious religious celebration with the family attending their local parish church in the morning and coming home for the Christmas Feast. The next day has come to be known as Boxing Day as old clothing and surplus items were boxed up and handed out to the servants and tradesmen who made the rounds that day.
In addition to schoolboys returning home for the holidays, visiting family or neighbors during this season was commonplace and people gave little regard to the weather as they knew they could find welcome and shelter even with strangers.
Celebrating New Year’s Day also held superstitions as a central part of the festivities. The family or gathering would sit around in a circle before midnight and when the clock began to strike the hour, the head of the family would go to the door and open it, “ushering out the old, and bringing in the new”. The more superstitious would cleanse the house of ashes, rags, scraps and anything perishable so that nothing was carried over from one year to the next, in order to preserve their good luck and banish any poor luck.
One thing that seems to be consistent is the emergence of the New Year’s Eve tradition of singing Old Lang Syne, which literally translates to “old long since” or colloquially to “days gone by”. After a long tradition of being sung during the Scottish celebration of Hogamany on New Year’s Eve, the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, collected and wrote down the lyrics in 1788 and it was first published in 1796. It quickly spread to much of the English-speaking world and is now sung at the stroke of midnight instead of when the guests leave the party.
Next week we’ll take a look at Twelfth Night and why it falls on January 5th, not December 25th as the marketing people have recently been pushing. Christmastide reform is not a new notion as we’ve seen with the increased nostalgic traditions that were added during the Victorian Era.
Wishing everyone a happy and prosperous New Year and glad to be counting so many of you among those “old acquaintances”!
Do the winter holidays hold special traditions for you and your family? Have you ever participated in traditions from with friends or extended family from another religion or country that you’ve come to incorporate into your own celebrations?
More information regarding a variety of other Regency-themed topics can be found on my Regency Resource page. If you’d like more information on a specific place or topic, please let me know in the comments section below.