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I’ve never written a holiday novel or novella, but I have written books that include Christmas, and it’s fun to look and see what traditions that are familiar to us now would also have been familiar to my characters. Sometimes, the answers are surprising. I turned, as I often do, to THE ENGLISH YEAR by Steven Roud. A lot of what we associate with Christmas now is decidedly Victorian, and was built upon a mythos of a “Merrie England” that never existed. But if you dig back, there are LOTS of local traditions that fell by the wayside during the industrialization of England (as people moved away from home, they didn’t practice their traditions which would have been strange to their new neighbors, and didn’t adopt those of their new homes, as they were strange to them). But those of us who write in the 18th century and the early 19th century can still draw on those local traditions. And those writing in the Victorian era can make hay with the reinvention of that “Merrie England” to which most of our current Christmas traditions harken back. If your book is set post 1847, you can even have Christmas Crackers!

Yule Log with bands by Roger Griffith
Wikimedia Commons

Many places had traditional dances, murmmers, plays, wassails, etc. A book like Roud’s is great for researching these local festivities, as is Wikipedia. And there is always the Yule log. Not writing someone in a grand house with a giant fireplace? Perhaps “the ashen faggot” is more their speed? A bundle of twigs around a larger log, all held together with fresh/green branches (willow was also used). People would sit around and sing carols and cheer when the “withes” burst. Cider would be passed and drunk as the bands broke, and in some traditions, the bands were assigned to girls, prediction who would marry first. I can see lots of fun being had with this in a village hall or a more modest home.

In places with a church with bells, someone (or a team of someones) might have been found “ringing the devil’s knell” on Christmas Eve. There must be one ring (about every two seconds) for every year since Christ’s birth, timed to end at Midnight. This is something you can do in any setting.

Decorations. Historically, they were not put up early as we do now. That was considered unlucky. And they usually consisted only of greenery and candles (anything that was evergreen could be used, but of course holly and mistletoe were popular). Mistletoe, then as now, was a kissing game, but you had to pluck a berry off the ball of mistletoe for each kiss and when the berries were gone, so were the kisses.

Trees. Yes, it is commonly asserted that Christmas trees were introduced by Prince Albert in the late 1840s, and that’s certainly when they spread to the masses, but they were introduced much earlier by other Germans who immigrated (including Queen Charlotte). Charles Greville noted one in 1829, that the Princess Lieven had three large trees in pots put upon a table, lit with small candles, and surround by gifts for the children.

Do you have a favorite Christmas tradition or a favorite Christmas romance? I think mine is the way my parents always wrapped our presents from “Santa” in white tissue paper with real cloth tartan ribbon. It was very “Merrie England” and “Ye Old Christmas, and I absolutely adored it. I think this Christmas I’ll start doing that for my niece and nephew.

 Do you read holiday romances? I do. I read them, and re-read them when the season comes around, and keep adding them to my collection. Addicted much? I admit it. But I have questions for you.

1) Since these stories often center around Christmas activities, do you read them even if you are not of the Christian faith?

2) Does the historical context of the period make the “religious” parts of these stories, if there is some, acceptable if you don’t like “inspirational” romances?

3) Do you read them at any other time of year??

You may wonder why I am asking all these questions! I have been working on my first “holiday romance” –a Regency set in the countryside over the 12 days of Christmastide, starting on Christmas Eve day and ending on Twelfth Night. But my major medical issues and those of my husband are interfering with my ability to get it done when I had hoped, and I am considering releasing it AFTER Christmas. So here’s my biggest question:

would you buy a holiday romance after the holidays?

Book sales usually decline during December, when folks are too busy, and they tend to pick up afterwards –I guess people have time to read again once they get through the press of getting ready and celebrating!! But I would love to know if you think it would be lame to release a holiday story after Christmas, say for Twelfth Night (January 6) instead?

LOL, that’s if I can even make that deadline. But I’m considering it. My poor characters really want their story to get out there, and not have to wait until next year!! I would love to know what you think.

THE LORD OF MISRULE: On a snowy Christmas Eve day, a vicar’s daughter runs into the Devil himself, or is he just the Lord of Misrule? In a season of miracles and magic, can love bind two unlikely hearts in the days leading to Twelfth Night?

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How do you celebrate the January holidays? I think I have only just recovered from celebrating New Year’s Eve, when I hosted a group of old friends who gather to enjoy a festive dinner every year. My health has improved tremendously (9 months of physical therapy has helped a lot) but my stamina is still not what it was. And yet, tomorrow I am heading off to an all-day celebration of Twelfth Night (including a feast) in a beautiful Gothic church hall in Fairhaven, MA. I LOVE this event and am so pleased I’m well enough to go this year! I fully endorse the idea of twelve days in the Christmas season.

 

 

 

The characters in my new release, LORD OF MISRULE, celebrate both of these holidays in the course of the story, which begins on Christmas Eve day and ends on Twelfth Night (not counting the epilogue). On New Year’s Eve, they are traveling, so they celebrate with other strangers in the public room of an inn. On Twelfth Night they are back in the little village of Little Macclow, and they –well, I recommend you read the book, LOL.

We know that many of the old traditions surrounding Christmas and these January holidays had been forbidden by the Puritans in the mid-17th century. Celebrating Christmas in any form was actually illegal. (No doubt some families continued to celebrate secretly.) However, once the Puritans fell from power, it took time and an actual campaign by one man determined to see the customs revived to bring them back into fashion by the early 18th century. The revival faded a bit (too “old-fashioned” by Regency times) but was then not only revived again but expanded in the Victorian times, when new customs were added from the German traditions. But I only recently discovered how the revival really came to pass. While researching for LORD OF MISRULE I stumbled across a most excellent blogpost from 2009 on the Austenonly.com website, which addresses the misconception some people have that all the old customs weren’t being observed during the Regency. The article “But Surely Christmas in England didn’t exist until Dickens invented it?” talks about the role played by writer William [or Robert] Wynstanley, who through his annual publication of Poor Robin’s Almanac over a period of thirty-eight years [1663-1701] promoted the revival of Christmas traditions. How’s that for perseverance?

Later, a version under the same name was published by Ben Franklin’s brother and served as the model for his more famous Poor Richard’s Almanac. I see confusion between the different versions and end-dates that don’t pay attention to where these almanacs were published. (the researcher’s headache.) The publication continued to be issued by others (including possibly Robert Herrick whose name is also associated with it) as late as (pick one!) 1776? 1828?

From the 1664 edition:

“Provide for Christmas ere that it do come
To feast thy neighbour good cheer to have some;
Good bread and drink, a fire in the hall,
Brawn, pudding, souse and good mustard withal;
beef, mutton, pork, and shred pies of the best,
Pig, veal, goose, capon, and turkey well drest;
Apples and nuts to throw about the hall,
That boys and girls may scramble for them all.
Sing jolly carols, make the fiddlers play,
Let scrupulous fanatics keep away;
For oftentimes seen no arranter knave
Than some who do counterfeit most to be grave.”

I hope you have enjoyed a wonderful holiday season shared with people you love! We here at the Riskies wish you all the very best in 2019, and we thank you for following our humble efforts here. Do you have any special holiday traditions for New Year’s or Twelfth Night? We would love to hear about them.

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