Jane Austen’s family was a lively, affectionate one, so their Christmases were filled with the traditional merry English games, treats and family visits. If you’d like to add a touch of an Austen Christmas to your festivities, here is a closer look at how it was celebrated by Jane while growing up in the Steventon Rectory.
An Austen Family Christmas
Christmas preparations began about a month before Christmas Day, but the official festivities in England traditionally didn’t begin until the day itself. However, people still celebrated the twelve days of Christmas, including St. Stephen’s Day on the 26th, New year’s Day, and Twelfth Night on January 6th.
The field in Steventon where the Austens' home once stood.
Mr. Austen was a clergyman, so the Christmas Day service would have been an integral part of their celebration while they were living at Steventon. Unless they were snowed in, as the Woodhouses are in Emma, they would have walked up the lane to St. Nicholas Church to sing hymns and hear Mr. Austen read the service and the scripture passages recommended in the Book of Common Prayer:
The Nativity of our Lord, or the Birth Day of CHRIST, commonly called Christmas-day.
Almighty God, who hast given us they only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and as this time to be born of a pure Virgin; Grant that we being regenerate, and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit, through the same our Lord Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
God, who at sundry times, and in divers manners, spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds: Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high...
In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God … That was the true light, which lighteneth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name...
One of the hymns of the Church of England that the Austens might have sung at Christmastime is Hark, the Glad Sound! The Savior comes, written by Philip Doddridge in 1735:
Hark, the glad sound! The Savior comes,
the Savior promised long!
Let every heart prepare a throne,
and every voice a song.
He comes the broken heart to bind,
the wounded soul to cure,
and with the treasures of his grace
to enrich the humbled poor.
Our glad hosannas, Prince of Peace,
your welcome shall proclaim,
and heaven’s eternal arches ring
with your beloved name.
Many of the carols and their tunes we now sing come from the Victorian era, but there are a few that have survived in some form from the Georgian era. Charles Wesley wrote the words to Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus in 1745 and Hark! How All the Welkin Rings! (today known as Hark, the Herald Angels Sing) in 1739.
Of course, eating treats was as much a part of Christmastime then as now! About a month before the special day, the Austen ladies would have boiled a Christmas pudding and made the mincemeat for pies so they would have time to ripen before being eaten by visiting family and friends. Brawn could have been made in advance, as well. (Brawn--also known as head cheese--is a meat jelly cold cut, traditionally made of the meat of the boar’s head, although it would have been made from pigs in the Austen family, as they kept pigs).
The inside of St. Nicholas Church in Steventon.
Jane’s niece Fanny writes about a dinner being served on Christmas Day at her home Godmersham Park, and although when Jane was young her family’s dinner might have been less grand, their menu would have consisted of similar dishes such as turkey, apple sauce or apple butter, brawn, pies and other dishes made of meat from the pigs, plum cakes, candied fruits and fruit peels, various puddings, including the plum or Christmas pudding, and mince pies. There would have been plenty of warm things to drink, such as mulled wine and wassail.
Take a look at our Christmas Menu for some recipes to try!
Holly, ivy, mistletoe, and other greenery were still the order of the day, as they had been in England for centuries. They would have been easy to find in the Hampshire countryside, and would have been hung on the mantelpiece, from lanterns and chandeliers, on portrait frames, on doors, and more, maybe with the occasional wreath.
The kitchen in Chawton Cottage.
Like Jane, her family had a way with words, so they would have indulged their delight in literary games by writing charades and creating theatricals to an even greater extent during the holidays than they did usually. Here is a charade written by Jane:
When my first is a task to a young girl of spirit,
And my second confines her to finish the piece,
How hard is her fate! But how great is her merit,
If by taking my all she effects her release.
Jane’s brothers, who might be off at the naval academy or at Oxford, would have come home and no doubt would have eagerly joined in such boisterous games as Snapdragon, Bullet Pudding, and Apple in the Water, which Jane’s niece Fanny mentions playing during her own Christmas holidays. Snapdragon involved plucking raisins from a bowl of burning brandy and popping them into your mouth – just the sort of dangerous game that boys would love! Bullet pudding presented the challenge of keeping a bullet (or you can use a bean), placed on the top of a pile of flour, from toppling off while you cut underneath it with a knife; whoever is cutting when the bullet topples into the flour must search for it without using their hands – using their mouth instead – resulting in a face covered with flour!
A popular card game at Christmas for many people was Whist, but a noisier option that the young people might have preferred would have been Commerce, as we see Fanny, Edmund, William, Miss Crawford and Mr. Crawford playing at Christmastime in Mansfield Park. Lydia Bennet would no doubt have enjoyed a noisy game of lottery tickets, and Mr. Woodhouse a quiet game of backgammon.
One amusement the Austens would have certainly excelled in would have been putting on a special Christmas theatrical, complete with costumes.
Distributing gifts, food, and clothing to the poor and less fortunate was certainly a part of the Austen’s Christmas. Jane writes in a letter dated December 24, 1798:
Of my charities to the poor since I came home you shall have a faithful account. I have given a pair of worsted stockings to Mary Hutchins, Dame Kew, Mary Steevens, and Dame Staples; a shift to Hannah Staples, and a shawl to Betty Dawkins; amounting in all to about half a guinea.
Burning a great Christmas fire, like the “roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard, in spite of all the noise of the others” at the Musgroves’ in Persuasion, would have been something to make the season special, and a tradition probably originating with the Yule Log.
It was usual during the Georgian and Regency periods to exchange gifts before breakfast or at the breakfast table. To wrap a gift Regency-style, you need nothing more than a bit of brown paper and some twine. To add a more decorative touch, seal your knots with sealing wax or tie the paper with a bit of ribbon.
There seem to have been balls and dances as a part of the Christmas festivities, for Jane mentions attending a ball at Manydown, the home of her friends the Biggs, on December 23, 1798. Cassandra attended one given by her brother Edward while she was staying with him at his home, Godmersham Park, at nearly the same time in 1798.
So, whether you’d like to add just a touch of the warm, merry Austen family Christmases to your own festivities, or if you’re looking to duplicate it as far as possible, it may be simpler than you thought! With some greenery, Regency recipes, home-made theatricals, a bit of dancing and happy times with family and friends, you can celebrate Christmas like the Austens!
The Vyne, home of Chute family, who threw some balls attended by the Austens.
A room inside the Vyne where Jane may have danced.