The Georgian Christmas

A brief idea of Christmas in Georgian period (1714 – 1830) can be found in the novels of Jane Austin. In Pride and Prejudice Lizzie writes, “Mr. Darcy sends you all the love in the world that he can spare from me. You are all to come to Pemberley at Christmas.” or Caroline Bingley writes to Jane, “I sincerely hope your Christmas in Hertfordshire may abound in the gaieties which that season generally brings”. In Sense And Sensibility Sir John describes John Willoughby by saying “last Christmas at a little hop at the park, he danced from eight o’clock till four, without once sitting down.” In Mansfield Park there’s a holiday ball held at Christmas which Sir Thomas gives for Fanny and William. In Emma, Emma looks forward to Christmas because her sister’s family will visit for a week. In Persuasion, Austen paints a charming Christmas scene; “On one side was a table occupied by some chattering girls, cutting up silk and gold paper; and on the other were tressels and trays, bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies, where riotous boys were holding high revel; the whole completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard, in spite of all the noise of the others.” In Northanger Abbey, Catherine worries about what “gown and what head-dress she should wear” because “her great aunt had read her a lecture on the subject only the Christmas before”. A Christmas in every novel.

Portrait of Queen Charlotte by Thomas Gainsborough

Even though, under the Puritan rule of Oliver Cromwell around 1600, many Christmas Carol were discontinued or banned as they were inappropriate for the solemnity of the church and festive get-together were deemed far too frivolous and against the law, with the restoration of Charles II, Christmas charm was re-inducted. And with the establishment of George I as the king of Great Britain and Ireland the fun and charm of Christmas was rediscovered and became a popular celebration among people. Even though, Georgian Christmas was not as fascinating as the Victorian Christmas, it had its own charm and gusto filled with parties, balls and festive get-togethers. The Georgian Christmas would last from December 6th to January 6th, from St. Nicolas’ day to Epiphany and was a period of gifting, parties and prayers. It was during the time of George III (1760-1820), his wife, Queen Charlotte brought the first version of the present day Christmas tree in 1800 and decorated it with gifts, dolls and tapers after her German traditions.

William Hogarth – The Assembly at Wanstead House 1728-31

Food played a very important role in Georgian Christmas. Christmas meal during this era differed vastly from Medieval and Tudor era as agriculture had come a long way since. So it was more likely that every house would have a bird for the table. Though venison was a popular choice among elites as it’d be an indicator of status to show off to those invited. Mince Pie and Christmas Pudding was among the popular choices as well. Even though, Christmas Pudding was banned during the Puritan rule for being unfit for God-fearing people, it became popular again in the time of Georges whereas the tradition of eating mince pie remained popular since the 16th century. Wassail at the Christmas dinner table was in vogue as well. It was a bowl of spiced punch prepared from spiced and sweetened wine or brandy which would pass around the table and sipped from in turn.

Although Queen Charlotte brought the Christmas tree in 1800, it did not become a popular custom until the Victorian era. Traditional Christmas decoration would include holly and evergreens and It was considered unlucky to bring them into the house before Christmas Eve. The tradition of gift giving, balls and kissing boughs made from mistletoe and rosemary became really popular by the late 18th century.

Another popular custom in Georgian Christmas was the distribution of Twelfth Cake (The precursor of today’s Christmas cake) among friends or visitors on the festival of Twelfth Night. The cake would contain dried beans and dried peas. The person whose slice would contain the bean would be the King for the night; whereas a slice with a pea would indicate the Queen. Once the twelfth night was over, all the decorations for Christmas were taken down as they would bring bad luck in house. Even today, many people take down all their Christmas decorations on or before 6th January to avoid bad luck for the rest of the year. Unfortunately, the extension of Christmas celebration to 6th January was cut short during the Regency and Victorian period by industrial revolution.

Featured Image: A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. By Winslow Homer Published by Harper’s Weekly, December 24, 1859.

Images: WIkimedia Commons.

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