“..there were contested interpretations of Christmas in the 1820s played out in the periodical press, a battle between an unashamed outpouring of joy and familial love set against satirical accounts of Christmas celebrations blighted by sustained contact with irritating friends, relations and acquaintances.” — Abstract of “England and German Christmas Festlichkeit, c.1800–1914″ by Neil Armstrong, Oxford Journals, Vol. 26, Issue 4
One such “satirical account” of the Regency Christmas was “A Country Christmas—Agreeability,” which came out in the February 1823 edition of New Monthly Magazine. I’m persuaded the author, known only as “M,” was the celebrated Mary Russell Mitford, whose sketches of English country life (Our Village) during the Regency were quite popular. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, her particular friend in later years, used to say dear Mary was even more amusing in person, her wit sending everyone into peals of laughter.
And now, the “evil destiny” of spending a Regency Christmas in the country.
“At this time of the day, the men are all muzzy with the last night’s claret, and the women’s faces, and consequently their tempers, are discomposed by their late hours. A pun, a quotation, or a smart sensible remark, falls as flat as the great poet on the plains of Waterloo* …”
The author describes a hilarious scene of bored adults huddling around the fire or lying full length on sofas, trying to ignore the children romping in the middle of the floor. Female conversation is dull indeed, designed to “vex the drowsy ear,” with prosing on about the “wonderful charities of the lady of the house,” or the “most detestable set of interminable good qualities” of the vicar’s wife. Worse, some country gentleman is bound to:
“plunge you incontinently into a sea of grand jury politics, neighborly disputes about game, the intricate operations of a turnpike, intrigues for draining a duck-pond, and maneuvers for inclosing a common.”
“People who have nothing to do, always eat luncheons.”
The country visit:
For those who live in London, the author congratulates them on having avoided this “misery,”– this “consummation of a bore.” After having driven several miles in splendid turnout, splashed with cold mud and fainting from the carriage’s steamy interior, you arrive at the hostess’ frigid drawing room which contains a smoking fire only laid moments before. When the hostess makes her entrance,
“she is as cold as her room, and as formal as the regiment of chairs marshalled, with the drum major of a sofa at their head, along its walls. The conversation, a repetition of all you have already heard in the morning..”
“Unless someone of the company has been kind enough to go out skating on horseback, and has broken his own or his horse’s bones, for the amusement of the party, nothing remains but the claret for getting through a long, long evening.”
What follows from this is a little homily on the importance of being agreeable at Christmas. When one expects to be cooped up by isolation and weather, among the same set of persons, being agreeable is a gift to all around you, so that “hours, days, years under its influence, ‘roll unperceived away.'”
A little claret won’t hurt, either.
* quotes an anonymous critic of Sir Walter Scott’s lyrical work on the great battle