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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

22 December 2010

A Little Bit of Christmas

An English Christmas conjures up all sorts of images: mulled cider and carols, candle-decked trees and frost-laced windows. You've got to hand it to the Victorians, they knew how to do Christmas well. Or, as that ultimate Victorian of the Victorians, Charles Dickens put it, "and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge".

This, however, poses a slight problem for those of us who dwell (metaphorically, at least) in those eras prior to the introduction of the Victorian English Christmas. My latest book, The Mischief of the Mistletoe, was set in Bath in 1803. As you've probably deduced from the title, it is a Christmas book. This meant a fair amount of scrounging around to try to figure out exactly how Jane Austen would have celebrated Christmas. (I'd like to say that was also meant metaphorically, but, since Jane Austen was coopted for a cameo in the book, I really did need to know how she would have celebrated the holiday season).

Here are a few of the more interesting things I learned. Holly and ivy? Absolutely. Christmas trees? In the immortal words of HMS Pinafore (more Victorians! They're everywhere!): "What never? Well, hardly ever." I'd always thought the Christmas tree was entirely a Victorian addition, brought to England with Prince Albert. It turns out that it actually came over a little earlier, with Queen Charlotte (formerly of Mecklenburg-Strelitz), who put up a Christmas tree in 1800. It didn't catch on. My characters would, however, have had plenty of greenery and seen the blazing Yule before them.

Which brings us to another Victorianism: Christmas carols. There were certainly Christmas songs and hymns, but Christmas caroling, as such, only became popular in the reign of Victoria. In fact, the entire Christmas season had a slightly different complexion. Whereas, for us, the big show is Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the earlier English Christmas comprised all Twelve Days of Christmas (I make no promises about the inclusion of partridges or pear trees), with the major celebration taking place on Twelfth Night.

What would Christmas be without Christmas pudding? My book involved a lot of Christmas pudding. It turns out we have George I to thank for that. Plum pudding, it seems, had rather fallen out of favor until the monarch put it back on the map in 1714. There are all sorts of interesting traditions around the pudding. Some claim that the thirteen ingredients are meant to represent Christ and the Twelve Apostles, while the holly garnish stands in for the crown of thorns, and that one is supposed to stir the pudding three times in honor of the Three Kings. My favorite of the Christmas pudding traditions included making a wish as one stirred the pudding and the practice of hiding coins, gold rings, thimbles, or, in humbler households, a bean and a pea, in the pudding, with those who found the item being proclaimed Queen of the Feast or Lord of Misrule, given a prize, or simply getting to go home with the coin, depending on which tradition people were following.

What really struck me, though, was just how much Christmas traditions varied by region or even by town, with all sorts of ideosyncratic local practices-- much as we all have our own bizarre family holiday traditions.

What's your favorite (or quirkiest!) family holiday tradition?

p.s. Speaking of holiday traditions, I'll be following one of my own this Christmas. Two years ago, I wrote a free Christmas novella as a present for my readers. I'll be posting it on my website again this year on Christmas Eve. Just visit my News page on December 24th to find it!

7 Comments:

Blogger Isobel Carr said...

My mom always wraps the presies from Santa in white tissue and real plaid ribbon. So they look very Victorian. Stuff from her and dad is in festive holiday paper with modern bows.

As for historic Christmases of old . . . The English Year has tons of info about what was done during "our" era: balls of mistletoe and kisses were period, as were musical serenades in the wee hours of the morning, parties, dances, and food were plentiful. Wassailing (a type of caroling) was practiced. The Pantomime was performed. And there are all kinds of regional traditions too.

2:14 PM  
Blogger knitttwittt said...

Merry Christmas, Lauren!! Thanks so much, can't wait for the novella!! Cheers!

2:32 PM  
Blogger Svea ~Muse in the Fog said...

What a fun post Lauren! You know I have never had the pleasure of a Christmas pudding? I must remedy that soon.

One of my favorite traditions as a child was when my aunt would make snowball gifts. She would take crepe streamer paper and wrap it into a snowball (like a ball of yarn), hiding little gifts in it as she went with the main item being at the very heart of it. So, on Christmas morning, my brother and I would have a race to see who could unravel their whole snowball first. I have not done this in years, but am eager to start the tradition again with my little girl.

Merry Christmas!

2:36 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Happy holidays! I loved how the Christmas celebrations in "The Mischief of the Mistletoe" (and also in "The Temptation of the Night Jasmine") felt so very holiday-ish and at the same time so true to the period. It is a challenge to separate out the Victorian stuff writing a Regency Christmas. I set the epilogue to "Vienna Waltz" at Dorothée Talleyrand-Périgord's Christmas Eve party at the French embassy in Vienna. She had a Christmas tree so I was able to include one. Apparently the tree set quite a fashion in Vienna that year--it was called "Christmas Berlin style." So I realized Charles/Malcolm and Mélanie/Suzanne can have Christmas trees in future books.

I'm getting ready to have my family over on Christmas, but I've sort of adopted the 12th Night celebration idea. I give my annual holiday party the Saturday after New Years (so this year it's a "!4th Night Party" :-).

5:32 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Merry Christmas, all! My family bakes fresh cookies on Christmas Eve, ostensibly for Santa. They must be carefully tested to see if they're acceptable for him, of course.

6:55 PM  
OpenID gwynnyd said...

We leave Scotch for Santa. He needs to be warmed up and milk just gets room temperature if left out waiting for him. My mother started that tradition and I have found no hardship in following it.

11:27 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Great post Lauren. I do love Christmas pudding especially with a lovely hard sauce. No real Christmas traditions in my house apart from the alcoholic fruitcake my mother used to make every other year. It had so much booze poured over it, you got high just from opening the tupperware lid.

9:12 AM  

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