As we near the heart of the holiday season, I thought it might be fun to look ever so briefly at what the holidays might have been like in Regency England.
A Regency Christmas
During the fortnight before Christmas, the Waits—sweet, low music is performed in the streets during the middle of the night—are played by itinerant musicians. The music is played so softly that if you should awaken, it soothes you back to sleep. After Christmas, they receive a small payment for their efforts from the houses included in their rounds. The Bell-man, one of the officers of the parish police, also walk the streets at night, ringing a bell and chanting verses. He too receives a small payment for his efforts and will leave a copy of his verses at houses along his path.
All the houses, both inside and out, are decorated with branches of evergreens, including laurel, bay, ilex and holly. The greenery is stuck in windows, over the mantles, and wreaths are hung on the walls. In the servants’ hall, a large bunch of mistletoe is suspended from the ceiling and of course any maiden underneath is kissed if caught by a male member of the household.
Many junior and collateral branches of families will visit the houses of the head of the family, as well as close friends, and dinner on Christmas day commences at an earlier hour to allow more time for celebrating. For Christmas dinner, an enormous piece of roasted beef is often served for the first course and an enormous plum-pudding for the last, as well as mince pies. The ladies are allowed to remain longer at the table and the gentlemen join them sooner in the drawing room.
In the drawing room, everyone, including children, gather to celebrate. They play cards, sing, dance, and the children play games including forfeits, blind-man’s bluff and others.
Christmas in Whitby
During the fortnight before New Year, women stroll from door to door carrying circular baskets containing a wax doll image of Christ, sprigs of boxwood, and apples or oranges. The baskets are called vessel cups. The women stand by the doors and sing hymns and if they are sent away empty-handed, those living in the home will forfeit all luck for the coming year.
Christmas Eve is celebrated with a family supper featuring frumenty, apple pie, cheese and gingerbread. The frumenty is made of steeped wheat, boiled with milk and seasoned with sugar and spice. When supper begins a Yule clog, a short block of wood, is laid on the fire. Sometimes a piece of the Yule clog is saved and placed beneath the bed until the next Christmas, when it is burned with the new clog. This was supposed to protect the house from fire during the coming year. A tall Yule candle is also lit and set on the table. It is considered unlucky to light these before Christmas Eve, snuff them out during supper, or leave the table during supper.
After supper, a game of card is played and it’s unlucky to have an odd number at the table.
Many feast on roast beef, plum pudding and goose pie between Christmas and New Year’s day. Visitors are usually treated with cheese and gingerbread along with a glass of wine or spirits. Yule cake, a spiced cake, is often served instead of gingerbread.
The frumenty supper is repeated on New Year’s Eve.
While boys in the morning are out and about, it is considered unlucky for a woman to enter the house first on either Christmas or New Year’s day, so women usually stay inside until later in the day. On both days, it is also unlucky to give a light out of the house, throw out ashes, or sweep out dust.
St. Stephen’s Day, Dec 26, is considered a great hunting day, and the game laws are relaxed on that day. Many gentlemen and ladies who indulged in the sport hunted that day.
Childermas Day, Dec 28, is thought to be an unlucky day and any day of the week on which it falls is considered a “black day” for the rest of the year to come!
Hope you enjoyed this brief glimpse in the past!
Best luck for the holiday season and the year ahead!