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 Gambols

 

The games kids play.

During the Regency,  the conduct of young persons, particularly in company, was a topic of intense discussion. Any prospect of activities between eligible females and males was of primary concern.

The onset of Christmas amusements was viewed as particularly dangerous:

“..there are employments which pass under the name of gambols that are quite unworthy of engaging the attention of rational creatures, and ought at least to be confined to children.”

The Repository of arts, literature, commerce, etc. by Rudolph Ackermann Ser.2,v.7(1819)

What are these gambols that elicit such alarm? They are physical activities, not unlike Twelfth Night dancing. What objection is there to games such as blind man’s buff or drawing king and queen?

Blind Man’s Buff: as popular as ever

Why must such diversions as hunt the slipper and its “co-evel and co-savage companion,” hunt the whistle be consigned to children?

“..hot cockles, questions and commands, and the various modifications of forfeits, ..may do very well for such as are only two or three degrees removed infancy, either in age or intellect.”

The Repository of arts, literature, commerce, etc. by Rudolph Ackermann Ser.2,v.7(1819)

How very lowering!

The very thought of engaging in such games seemed to arouse intense disparagement. Particular contempt was reserved for those country cousins consigned to such silliness. The very nature of their holiday celebration was looked down upon by their sophisticated town relatives:

“..the thoughts of all your grotesque sports, Christmas gambols, mistletoe kissing, stupid rubbers, starched parties, and scandal manufactories, so operated in my mind… for me to take the chance of another season in town.”

-The Repository of arts, literature, commerce, etc. by Rudolph Ackermann, Vol II (1809)

“..a circle game in which players attempt to pass a slipper from one to another without being discovered by the player who is it.”

It wouldn’t be until the Victorian period that sentiment for gambols, extended festivals and decorations for Christmas would come into full-fledged favor. A flowering, if you will, of the Dickensian image we know and love today.

“A Christmas gambol oft could cheer–The poor man’s heart through half the year.”
Sir Walter Scott

 

 

A Parthian Glance at Christmas

The following are excerpts from the December portion of an article entitled, “Annas Mirabilis, Or, a Parthian Glance at 1822.” These observations, often amusing, sometimes cynical, are snapshots of a Regency-era Christmas:

Sad sameness of Christmas dinners.

Every tablespoon in the house flaming with burnt brandy.

Growing civility of sweeps, dustmen and patrols: plainly denoting that the era of Christmas-boxes is at hand.

Grave papas, usually seen about without an accompaniment, were met dragging along children in couples, and occasionally stopping to peep into toy-shop windows.

Premature twelfth-cakes stealing behind confectioners’ counters.

Grimaldi and the new pantomime: front rows filled by urchins, who, at every knock-down-blow, fling back their flaxen polls, in delight, into the laps of their chuckling parents on the seat behind.

— The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal, Vol. VII, 1823

A glance at Christmas Past, albeit Parthian, as we speed on to the Christmases of tomorrow.

Season’s Greetings and Happy New Year!

This mulberry-coloured promenade dress looked decidedly festive with epaulettes and sleeves fashioned to look like leaves. The skirt is edged in chinchilla, matching the large muff. From Ackerman's Repository of Arts, Vol. 14, 1822

This mulberry-coloured promenade dress is decidedly festive with epaulettes and sleeves fashioned to look like leaves. The skirt is edged in chinchilla, matching the large muff. From Ackerman’s Repository of Arts, Vol. 14, 1822