I sincerely hope your Christmas… may abound in the gaieties which the season generally brings.Jane Austen
Christmas was a special time for Jane. December was the month of her birthday after all, which fell on the 16th in the middle of Christmas celebrations.
All Jane’s family came together, so it was a time of celebration, charity giving, balls, parties, masquerades, play acting, games and lots of food.
And since families and friends were already gathered together, it was also a time for weddings which were often shared with other couples at the same service.
Jane’s brother Edward married Elizabeth Bridges on Boxing Day 1791 at a double wedding with her sister.
The season stretched from Saint Nicholas Day on 6 December to 6 January, Twelfth Night, Epiphany, and sometimes Jane would stay with her brothers or stay with friends for weeks at a time.
On Christmas Day, Jane and her family went to Church, and whilst living at Steventon Jane’s father Reverend George Austen would deliver the sermon.
Jane would have sung the same Christmas carols we sing today, including God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen written in the 13th century and published in a carol book in 1760, and The First Noel which was actually French and written in the 14th century.
The prayer for Christmas in the Book of the Common Prayer was the same prayer book Jane’s family would have used,
O God, You make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Jane’s home was decorated with foliage such as bay leaves and cuttings from holly bushes, trees and rosemary. It was traditional to exchange gifts marking the first day of the Christmas season. Food was plentiful and usually a goose or turkey was eaten followed by plum pudding, that would be cooked together with the villagers in the bake house.
The day after Christmas, St Stephen’s Day, was the day when people gave to charity and servants were presented with Christmas Boxes by their employers. This is why St Stephen’s Day is called Boxing Day today.
Jane mentions Christmas in all her novels. John Willoughby dances from eight o’clock until four in the morning in Sense and Sensibility. In Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas gives a ball for Fanny and William at Christmas time. 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.’
The Bennets play host to their family in Pride and Prejudice, and Caroline Bingley writes to Jane saying, ‘I sincerely hope your Christmas in Hertfordshire may abound in the gaieties which that season generally brings.’ Charlotte Lucas in married, and Elizabeth writes to her aunt Gardiner, ‘You are all to come to Pemberley at Christmas.’
In Emma, Mr. Elton says, ‘This is quite the season indeed for friendly meetings. At Christmas every body invites their friends about them.’ Just as we look forward to seeing friends and family at Christmas, Emma is looking forward to a visit from her sister, ‘Many a long October and November evening must be struggled through at Hartfield, before Christmas brought the next visit from Isabella and her husband, and their little children, to fill the house, and give her pleasant society again.’
In Persuasion, Jane gives us a perfect image of a happy Christmas day. ‘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. Charles and Mary also came in, of course, during their visit, and Mr Musgrove made a point of paying his respects to Lady Russell, and sat down close to her for ten minutes, talking with a very raised voice, but from the clamour of the children on his knees, generally in vain. It was a fine family-piece.’
All of these events give us wonderful insights into Jane’s Christmas season.
Christmas Letters to Cassandra
In a Christmas Eve letter to Cassandra, Jane says that she enjoyed a ball held that week and lists her charitable giving. Many of Jane’s plays written for the family survive, and in 1787 the children staged a full length production which included cousins and friends.
Jane wrote to Cassandra on 7 January 1807, ‘When you receive this our guests will all be gone or going; and I shall be left to the comfortable disposal of my time, to ease of mind from the torments of rice puddings and apple dumplings, and probably to regret that I did not take more pains to please them all.’
As Jane would say at the end of her letters, ‘I wish you a cheerful and at times even a Merry Christmas.’