Tomorrow, December 16, is Jane Austen’s birthday, the 235th anniversary of her birth. Poor Jane. Poor anyone who has a birthday near Christmas, because often their birthday celebrations are slighted in the hectic days around the holiday.
Birthday and Christmas celebrations were not as grand as they are today. What, then, would Jane Austen have been anticipating at Christmas?
Would she be decorating a Christmas tree? Probably not. Queen Charlotte, who was German, was known to have Christmas trees, but it was not yet a common custom. Jane and her family would probably have decorated the parsonage with holly and ivy and evergreens of fir and pine. They might have hung mistletoe. In Jane Austen’s time there was a tradition of a gentleman and lady kissing beneath mistletoe, as there is today, but with each kiss the gentleman plucked a berry. When the berries were gone, so were the kisses. I’d like to think Jane had her share of kisses.
Jane might have helped make the Christmas pudding. The tradition was to make the pudding on “Stir Up Sunday,” the Sunday before Advent and to serve it on Christmas day. The pudding was a porridge of sugar, raisins, currants, prunes, and wine that was “stirred up” and boiled together in a pudding cloth.
Christmas was mainly a religious holiday during Jane Austen’s time. As the daughter of clergyman, certainly Jane and the rest of the family would have attended church and Reverend Austen would have preached a sermon and would have given the sacrament.
Gifts were exchanged at Christmas. In Jane Austen’s Christmas by Maria Hubert (1996), Hubert includes a diary kept by Jane’s niece and listing her Christmas gifts. In 1813, a tambourine, a compass case, a straw box, a parallel ruler. In 1816, a gold chain, a coral broach, a nitting (sic) box, a china candlestick, a silk box.
The Austens would probably have hosted or been invited to a Christmas dinner with a goose or turkey as the main course. Jane Austen’s Christmas mentions a Christmas dinner having minced pie and “a dish made of wheat cakes boiled in milk with rich spices.”
Games would have been played, perhaps some with these strange names: Hoodman Blind, shoe the wild mare, hot cockles, steal the white loaf. Maybe some theatricals would have been performed and dances danced.
Do you have a favorite Christmas or holiday tradition? How about a favorite food? If you lived in Jane Austen’s time what would you like to do most at Christmas time? And if you have a birthday around this time, do you get short-changed?
Don’t forget! We’re still doing the Harlequin Historical Holiday Contest. Today is Deborah Hale's day. Keep entering every day for daily prizes and the chance to with the grand prize of a Kindle.