Christmas during the Regency

The first commercially-produced Christmas card, sold in London
in 1849. Note the multi-generational family in the center,
and the acts of mercy depicted on either side.

When I picture an English Christmas, I think of Christmas trees, plum puddings and Jolly Old St. Nick. But all these Christmas traditions developed after the Regency period. So, how did people celebrate Christmas during the Regency?

By having a lot of fun, apparently. For the gentry, Christmas was the highlight of the year. Their homes were filled with family and friends, who expected good food and amusements for many days. Gifts were exchanged during the season (such as the needle bag Jane Austen made for a friend) and festive meals with roasted turkey and other special Christmas treats were enjoyed.

One of those treats was a plum cake, a likely precursor of the plum pudding. In his 1808 book Letters from England, Robert Southey informs us that at Christmas shops were filled with large plum cakes, crusted with sugar and decorated in “every possible way.” Sounds a lot like a Christmas cookie to me! 

An assortment of traditional English holiday cookies.
 I'll bet there's a plum cake in there somewhere.

Acts of charity were also customary at Christmas. In one of her letters Jane Austen said that the only thing better than eating turkey at Christmas was boxing up parcels of food and clothing and giving them to the poor. (But then, Jane was a clergyman's daughter.)

Christmas amusements could include a shooting party for the men, an impromptu dance or recital, a visit to a church or even amateur theatricals. The prospect of acting out a play for family and friends thrilled some and terrified others. Jane Austen's sister-in-law Eliza couldn't persuade her cousin to visit the Austens at Christmas - her cousin was too afraid she'd have to participate in a play. 

Singing carols and just sitting by the fireside and catching up on family gossip (perhaps while drinking a cup of punch or wassail) were also fun entertainments on a cold, dark winter’s night. 

A bowl of wassail. This modern version of the traditional holiday beverage
contains seven  pints of brown ale, a bottle of dry sherry, ground ginger
and nutmeg, a cinnamon stick and  lemon  slices. Yum!

Games were also very popular, and these included the card game whist and a gambling card game called commerce. Games more familiar to us, such as drafts or draughts (what Americans call checkers), chess and backgammon were also played.

Livelier games for those who didn't mind burnt fingers and lots of mess were snapdragon and bullet pudding.

Bullets like these round musket balls were most likely used in
bullet pudding - conically shaped bullets were developed later.

Snapdragon, often played on Christmas Eve, was especially dramatic. To play it you’d get a shallow bowl, fill it with brandy and raisins and heat the mixture until it was really hot. To increase the wow factor, you could cut the lights in the room so that the space was lit only by the blue flames of the burning brandy. The object of the game was to snatch the hot raisins out of the flaming alcohol and pop them in your mouth. Ouch!

Whimsical image of a dragon playing a game
of snapdragon - illustration from the 1879
 Book of Days by Robert Chambers

Bullet pudding was less incendiary, but even messier. Here’s how Fanny Knight, Jane Austen’s niece, breathlessly describes the way she played this game during the 1812 Christmas season:

“You must have a large pewter dish filled with flour which you must pile up in a sort of pudding with a peak at the top; you must then lay a Bullet at top & everybody cuts a slice of it & the person that is cutting it when the Bullet falls must poke about with their noses & chins till they find it & then take it out with their mouths which makes them strange figures all covered with flour but the worst is that you must not laugh for fear of the flour getting up your nose & mouth & choking you . . .”

Not laugh during a Christmas game? Impossible, especially when you are covered with flour. 

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, the Winter Solstice, or even Festivus, I hope your holiday is filled with just the right proportions of laughter, friends, family and good food. 

Photo credit: Malene Thyssen


Sources for this post include:
  • Voices from the World of Jane Austen by Malcolm Day, published by David and Charles Limited, 2006
  • The Pageantry of Christmas, Vol. 2 in the Life Book of Christmas, Time Inc., 1963
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

1 comment:

  1. Another fun and interesting post, Maureen! Happy holidays to you, and see you soon! xo Jennifer


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