Monday, November 25, 2013
The Regency Holiday Season
On November 5 bonfires burned in mockery of Guy Fawkes and memory of the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament. The Feast of St. Martin, or Martinmas, fell on November 11, and St. Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland, had his day on November 30. St. Andrew's day also marked the beginning of Advent to celebrate the four weeks before Christmas. In November, the landed gentry still dined on wild foul as well as domestic poultry—which was now getting a bit old and aged (meaning tough and needing sauces to make the meat palatable). They also had beef, venison and pork with their meals. Fish could still be caught and served, and winter vegetables graced the dining room, including: carrots, turnips, parsnips, potatoes, leeks, cabbage, celery and lettuces. With November, walnuts and chestnuts came into season.
More celebrations lead to Christmas Eve when the Lord of Misrule danced and the Mummers traveled to perform their pantomimes. Then came Christmas Day, and Boxing Day on December 26, which was St. Stephen's Day. Boxing Day did not get its name from gift boxes, for the exchange of gifts was a German custom still new to Regency England. Instead, Boxing Day got its name from the older tradition of it being a day in which pleadings could be placed in a box for a judge to privately review. In December, besides beef and mutton to eat, pork and venison were served. Goose was cooked for more than just the Christmas meal, and there would be turkey, pigeons, chicken, snipes, woodcock, larks, guinea-foul, widgeons and grouse to eat. Cod, turbot, soul, sturgeon and eels joined the list of fish in season. Forced asparagus added a delicacy to the usual winter vegetables. Stored apples, pears and preserved summer fruit appeared on the better, richer tables. Mince pies made from mincemeat, which has no meat in it, were another traditional fare, with the tradition being that everyone in the household should stir, for luck, the mix of dried fruit and spices before it was baked.
But households also celebrated not just according to the season, but also to the customs of the area. In the Regency, local customs in the countryside might well hold to the old ways.
For one of my books, Under the Kissing Bough, I needed a Christmas wedding and customs that suited the countryside around London. In ancient days, a Christmas wedding would have been impossible for the English Church held a "closed season" on marriages from Advent in late November until St. Hilary's Day in January. The Church of England gave up such a ban during Cromwell's era, even though the Roman Catholic Church continued its enforcement. Oddly enough a custom I expected to be ancient—that of the bride having "something borrowed, something blue, and a sixpence in her shoe"—turned out to be a Victorian invention.
For Christmas customs, I relied on those that have carried down through the ages: the Yule log from Viking winter solstice celebrations (which gives us Yule Tide celebrations), the ancient Saxon decorations of holy and ivy, and the Celtic use of mistletoe on holy days, which transformed itself into a kissing bough. Carolers might well travel from house to house, offering song in exchange for a wassail bowl—a hot, spiced or mulled drink, another tradition left over from the Norse Vikings.
The holidays were a time of games as well, and the game of Snapdragon is a very old one. It's played by placing raisins in a broad, shallow bowl, pouring brandy over them and setting the brandy on fire. Players then must show their courage by reaching through the spirit-flames to snatch up raisins. And the game even comes with its own song:
Here comes the flaming bowl,
Don't he mean to take his toll,
Snip! Snap! Dragon!
Take care you don't take too much,
Be not greedy in your clutch,
Snip! Snap! Dragon!
Celebrations continued to mix tradition and religion when the Twelfth Night feast arrived on January 5, which combine the Roman Saturnalia with the Feast of the Epiphany, when the three wise men were said to have paid tribute to the Baby Jesus.