A Pictorial Regency-era Christmas

Irving by Jarvis (1809) “Christmas is the season for kindling the fire of hospitality in the hall, the genial flame of charity in the heart. ”

It is ironic that an American author describes the sights and sounds of Regency Britain as well as any native diarist of the time. In a previous post, this blog examined Washington Irving’s (1783-1859) remarkable talent for charming the jaded ton. Today’s post takes a look at his first great success, the 1819-1820 serial Sketch Book.*

The chapters on Christmas are written in a visual way that is unusually striking. They have since been printed in a separate volume many times–

A coffee-table book of late-Georgian Yuletide.

Colorful, accessible to everyone’s understanding, Irving’s style might be considered unduly sentimental. Regency-era readers in particular, steeped as they were in the Romantic movement’s faraway, exotic locales, were bound to find a Yankee’s observations of everyday British life provincial and dull.

On the contrary,

“…(the Christmas sketches) are written to engage the finer feelings of the heart, they operate upon the imagination like the polished weapons of modern surgery; they make a deep, but a delicate wound.”

— The Atheneum, Vol I No. 10, February 1828

“Every ragamuffin that has a coat to his back thrusts his hands into the pockets, rolls in his gait, talks slang and is an embryo Coachey.”

The chapters begin with a journey to Squire’s estate via public coach. As an aside, I consider this snippet as good as any primary resource on Regency-era holiday travel.

There is the coachman “with a large bunch of Christmas greens stuck in the button-hole of his coat.” The English inn kitchen is detailed down to the last pot.

Young students returning home from school for the holiday are among the passengers in the coach. They seem perfectly ordinary to the naked eye. After Irving gets through with them, these schoolboys are impossible to forget. When the coach finally rolls to a stop before an ornate country estate gate, they eagerly look to see who has been sent up from the house to wait for them. It is Old John, the family footman. He has brought with him their childhood pony Bantam, an intrepid steed who will clear any hedge. The beloved dog that greets them “wriggles his whole body with joy.”

“..(the boys) held John’s hands, both talking at once, overpowering him with by questions about home, and with school anecdotes.”

Arriving at his own destination, Irving joins a large company of extended family and friends hosted by Squire at Christmas. No creature escapes his keen attention. Squire sings a stanza of an ancient carol, “his eye glistening, his voice rambling out of all the bounds of time and tune,” and the parson scolds the sexton for decorating the church with pagan mistletoe amongst the greens.

Squire’s cousin, Master Simon, acts as master of ceremony.

“..a tight, brisk little man, with the air of an arrant old bachelor…an eye of great quickness and vivacity, with a drollery and lurking waggery of expression that was irresistible.”

 

A disapproving Mama finds Master Simon’s efforts deplorable, as they encourage giggling that is only barely stifled and unbridled merriment among the younger set.

The Christmas Eve meal displays Squire’s singular character. He is a man who loves nothing more than researching the old customs so he can recreate them on important occasions. The sideboard is laden with generous amounts of rich, elaborate dishes, but  Squire forsakes them to eat the simple, traditional meal of frumenty —  ‘England’s oldest national dish.’

For his part, Irving was glad to see the familiar minced pie.

Christmas Day dinner is full of ceremony. The wassail bowl, the boar’s head and meat pie decorated with peacock feathers all warrant extensive explanatory footnotes at the end of the Christmas chapters. It seems Irving was compelled to prove to his astonished London audience that ‘the grave and learned manner of old custom’ was still being carried on in many parts of the country.

‘The tide of wine and wassail fast gaining,’ one might just recognize the outlines of the timeless Christmas party getting out of hand.

Of course there are games and dancing afterward the main meal. Squire’s sons, an army officer and an ‘Oxonian,’ step out with their maiden aunts. Most amusing is the boisterous schoolgirl trying Master Simon’s patience when he partners her in a stately rigadoon. There are masques and mummeries, enacted in costume fashioned from old clothes brought down from the attic, and an ancient hoodening rite whereby the young parade a hobby horse covered in cloth, demanding tribute from the adults.

Charles Dickens by Gillies — He, too had an ‘eagle eye,’ according to  Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Squire worries the Christmas spirit will disappear without the pastoral traditions to sustain it. He may not have been aware that his American guest was about to revive the Yuletide holiday’s former glow. Certainly he did not know that another great storyteller would follow Irving, one who would rekindle the Christmas spirit into a roaring blaze.

*Quotes (unless otherwise noted) are taken from Old Christmas by Washington Irving. This extract is from volume II of the original Sketch Book published in serial form in 1821. The clever illustrations by Randolph Caldecott appear in the 1886 printing.

Regency Valentine Scrooge

“..well, to speak roundly, sir, she imagines herself to be violently in love with him..”
This book is fast supplanting Cotillion in my affections.

Topographer Edward Wedlake Brayley (1773 – 1854) compiled Regency-era social customs he gleaned from past road-trip publication notes. In this new book, he approaches Valentine’s Day rituals with mixed emotions. A pity the celebrations of the day do not spring from chivalrous motives, he laments, nor do they encourage courteous behavior as they ought.

Indeed, Valentine’s Day customs tend to inspire far more dangerous feelings:

“..as they tend too early to awaken those strong desires which nature has implanted in the human heart, but which are far better developed by exuberant health than by an inflamed imagination.”

Popular Pastimes, being a selection of picturesque representations of the customs & amusements of Great Britain, etc. by Edward Wedlake Brayley (1816)

February 14th was the day illiterate and superstitious pagans believed birds chose their mates. Brayley puzzles over the assignment of a venerable saint to a day associated with such an earthy theme as mating. It is not surprising, he surmised, that Chaucer would transfer the practice from birds to men.

Consider how foolish the latter become on Valentine’s Day.

A near-contemporary of Chaucer, the Monk of Bury, composed a Valentine poem to Queen Catherine, Henry V’s consort. Brayley does not find much to fault with Lydgate’s method of currying political favor. Curious that he passes over one particularly tantalizing compliment the monk pays to his queen: “but I love one whiche excellith all.”

The wood effigy of Catherine of Valois, carried at her funeral, is on display in the new Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Gallery in the Westminster Abbey triforium.

The general practice of sending valentines, Brayley surmises, seems to have arisen when the Hanoverians came to the throne. Such greetings early on consisted of the following:

“..slight engravings (from emblematical designs expressive of affection), printed on one side of a sheet of letter paper, and coloured; but others are curiously cut, or stamped, into different forms, chiefly of true lovers’ knots, hearts, darts, altars, lace-work..”

By the time of the Regency, valentines had become far more intricate. Brayley marvels at how the paper is contrived in such a manner as to resemble baskets of flowers, nosegays and birds; in particular the dove of Venus.

For an example of the cut paper valentine of the day, see this lovely post on the matter.

Things go downhill, however, once the sender attaches a verse to the confection. Some of these messages are witty, Brayley admits. Others, he notes with strong disapproval, are down-right ridiculous. He further complains that the post office must be made to transport such nonsense all ’round the country, further compounding the folly of the day.

Even worse, valentines are expensive. A valentine greeting can range from a few shillings to upwards of a guinea. Those who can least afford the time and money (serving maids) are precisely the ones who indulge in the practice of sending valentines the most.

“.. yet no inconsiderable portion of these articles are sold to young men, whose education and stations in life would seem to have kept them far removed from such kinds of folly (!)”

Valentine’s Day Scrooge.