This week marked the 240th anniversary of Jane Austen’s birth. She was born on December 16 1775, on a snowy day in the southern English county of Hampshire.
Her birthday isn’t the only Austen-related anniversary this month — JA’s novel Emma was published in December 200 years ago. As Christmas is fast approaching, I thought it would be fun to explore how Jane Austen would have celebrated the festive season.
Jane Austen lived during the Georgian era of British history, which I wrote about here during my Between the Pages series. A Georgian Christmas would have some recognizable similarities with popular Christmas traditions today, but equally there were aspects that are different to modern eyes.
Many of the customs that we associate with the festive season — Christmas trees, sending Christmas cards with festive scenes, exchanging gifts on Christmas Day — stem from the Victorians, an era that followed the Georgian period. Images and details about Victorian celebrations are prevalent, but representations of Georgian Christmases are less common. That doesn’t mean that they didn’t celebrate Christmas, however.
We know that Jane Austen’s festive season wouldn’t have included decorating a Christmas tree.
What she would have seen, instead, was houses decorated with garlands of fir branches, holly and mistletoe. Georgians loved the natural world — country houses and stately homes built during the era are noticeable for the elegant simplicity of their architecture and landscaped grounds.
This enthusiasm for bucolic, pastoral scenes is reflected to some extent in the large amount of greenery that was necessary for a Georgian Christmas. These decorations would have been strung up around mantelpieces, kissing boughs hung up over doorways and garlands up the stairs.
Fresh herbs, like rosemary and bay, perfumed the air along with the other scents of Christmas — spices, oranges and candles.
Twelfth Night was an important part of a Georgian Christmas celebration. It marked the end of the festivities, and included customs such as playing games and enjoying Twelfth Night cake. Fanny Knight, one of Jane Austen’s nieces, wrote in 1812:
“We have in general had cards, snapdragons, Bullet pudding etc. on any particular evening, and Whist, Commerce and others and Tickets were the favourite games. I think when cards failed, the boys played every evening at Drafts, Chess and Backgammon. On Twelfth Night we had a delightful evening”
Bullet pudding may sound like a strange type of dessert, but it was actually a game that was very popular. Helpfully, Fanny wrote down the rules, so we have a complete description of what it involved.
You must have a large pewter dish filled with flour which you must pile up into a sort of pudding with a peek [sic] at top. You must then lay a bullet at top and everybody cuts a slice of it, and the person that is cutting it when it falls must poke about with their noses and chins till they find it and then take it out with their mouths of 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 and mouth and choking you: You must not use your hands in taking the Bullet out.
I can imagine this adding to the merriment of a Georgian Christmas! Fanny Knight was the oldest of 11 children, and these sorts of parlour games would have been heartily enjoyed by adults and children alike.
Food and drink contributed to the festivities, with wassail punch made from sweetened wine and spices, plum pudding, goose, fruits, jellies and custard among the dishes served.
Although Jane Austen’s Christmas was different compared to the ways in which many of us celebrate today, it was still a time for gathering together with family and friends and enjoying their company. The days after Christmas would have been filled with social engagements, attending balls and dancing.
Jane Austen loved dancing (you can read my post, Dresses and Dancing here) and met a young suitor, Tom Lefroy, at Christmas balls in 1795. We don’t know whether she was truly in love with him and there is a lot of speculation by Austen biographers about their supposed love affair. But one thing is certain: she enjoyed his company and spoke of him to her sister, Cassandra, when she wrote letters.
These passages from Austen’s novels give a taste of the atmosphere of the season:
Sense and Sensibility, chapter 9:
“He is as good a sort of fellow, I believe, as ever lived,” repeated Sir John. “I remember last Christmas, at a little hop at the Park, he danced from eight o’clock till four, without once sitting down.”
“Did he indeed?” cried Marianne, with sparkling eyes, “and with elegance, with spirit?”
“Yes; and he was up again at eight to ride to covert.”
Mansfield Park, chapter 29:
“Was his letter a long one? Does he give you much account of what he is doing? Is it Christmas gaieties that he is staying for?”
Emma, chapter 13:
“At Christmas every body invites their friends about them, and people think little of even the worst weather. I was snowed up at a friend’s house once for a week. Nothing could be pleasanter. I went for only one night, and could not get away till that very day se’nnight.”
Wishing you all a very literary Christmas!