Easter was a time for visiting family. Remember the long visit Darcy and his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam make to Lady Catherine? It happens at Easter. While Easter celebrations didn’t yet include bunnies and chocolates, dyed hard-boiled eggs were part of them. Since eggs were generally given up for Lent, the excess hen eggs were saved by being boiled. They were even part of a traditional English Easter past-time called “egg rolling,” where people rolled their dyed, boiled eggs down hills to see who could roll theirs the farthest.
The Regency contained little in the way of Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve) celebrations. Although the holiday is essentially descended from Celtic celebrations of Samhain, the period marking the end of summer and beginning of harvest, it didn’t have much place in Regency England. But the bonfires associated with Samhain became part of the Guy Fawke’s Day revelry, which occurred on November 5th and was meant to celebrate the arrest of an insurgent in 1605 England. So there was still plenty of trickery going on around All Hallow’s Eve.
The hanging of greenery was the most common Christmas custom practiced by folks in the Regency. Dating back before our era was the custom of hanging a “kissing bough.” It could include not just mistletoe, but holly, ivy, rosemary, bay leaves, and laurel leaves. It was essentially a big ball of greens. And every time a gentleman kissed a lady (or a maid or a dowager or any female), he had to remove one of the mistletoe berries. Once the berries were gone, no more kissing was allowed. What great fun! If you’d like to see some actual kissing boughs, as well as prints of the kissing going on beneath them, be sure to check out my Pinterest page for What Happens Under the Mistletoe.
One thing that comes from England is fruit cake (our version of plum pudding), and there’s both goose and turkey in Scrooge’s story. Also, the Yule log and the hanging of holly, ivy, and mistletoe are English. You can thank those ancient Celtic druids for mistletoe—they loved it in their winter celebrations. No one is entirely sure whether the Yule Log originated in Anglo-Saxon times or much later, in the 17th century (the first English reference to it is dated from then), when someone brought the custom over from Europe. But it tended to be a regional phenomenon in our period. Those in North England called it the Yule Clog, and it was generally started from a piece of the previous year’s log that was kept all year to bring good luck and protection from evil to the household.
The Dickensian Christmas is pretty close to how a Regency Christmas was, since Dickens was born early in the Regency period. There are no trees or stockings in A Christmas Carol, just lots of food, dancing, Christmas carols, and party games as well as greenery. Much of what we think of as an English Christmas did not come into being until the Victorian age. Christmas trees come from Germany, and the Dutch brought Sinterklaus to America long before Santa ever showed up in London.
That’s true of stockings as well, which is why I showed them as an anomaly in ’Twas the Night After Christmas (set in 1826). After Lady Devonmont reads the American poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (aka “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”), she decides it would be great fun to make stockings. But the custom of hanging them was practiced in America long before it started being practiced in England, because it was brought there by Dutch and German immigrants. The first reference I can find to it in England is in 1854. Eventually it became a big part of a Victorian Christmas.
The term “Boxing Day” actually shows up during our period, but the concept of giving a “box” to the poor or to those in service began much earlier, at least as far back as the Middle Ages. I read an account from the mid-18th century that described a man with a comfortable income giving anywhere from a shilling to a half-a-crown to servants and several merchants he had dealings with. On a large estate, the owner might give boxes of food and other gifts to each tenant and servant. It mirrors the American practice of offering Christmas gifts to public servants or business associates, except that in countries which practice it, it occurs the day AFTER Christmas.