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The English count the 12 days of Christmas as starting on Christmas Day itself, so Christmastide, or the Twelve Days of Christmas culminate tonight with Twelfth Night, ushering in the Christian season of Epiphany. Which customs did people follow to celebrate this during the Regency?

The more research you do to answer this question, the less of an answer you will find, for sources contradict each other and assumptions are made where information is lacking. Twelfth Night itself is ages old, and in earlier times eclipsed Christmas as a major holiday. The rituals and customs associated with it, and with the twelve days, are myriad.

Did people exchange gifts? On Christmas? On Twelfth Night? All through the Twelve Days? Evidence (newspaper ads for instance, and lists of gifts received kept by individuals) would suggest “all of the above”, despite some accounts that say the practice had faded out by late in the Regency. Did they still dress up as “12th Night characters” to entertain each other at parties? Jane Austen mentions this. Still celebrate with 12th Night cake, or choose a King and Queen of the Bean? Perhaps at least in the early Regency, and of course it depends on class, location, and other variables.

“…these venerable customs are becoming every year less common : the sending of presents also, from friends in the country to friends in the town at this once cheerful season, is, in a great measure obsolete: ” nothing is to be had for nothing” now ; and without the customary bribe of a barrel of oysters, or a fish, we may look in vain for arrivals by the York Fly, or the Norwich Expedition….” –Kaleidescope of January 1822.

Elsewhere in his article the writer says: “During the period which elapsed, between 1775 and the close of the 18th century, the periodical observance of old customs, festivals, and holydays, was much more attended to than at present. The recurrence of the time  hououred festival of Christmas, was commemorated in Liverpool, to an extent much beyond what is now the usage, though in a degree inferior to the manner in which it was observed in the age which was gone by.”

Were the old customs celebrated in Washington Irving’s fictionalized account of an English Christmas in “Old Christmas” from his larger work, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.(published serially 1819-20) truly inaccurate, as claimed by the same writer?? His complaint about Irving’s work: “It is true that the Sketch Book is merely a work of imagination and not of history, and that it describes Mr. Bracebridge as an eccentric elderly gentleman, who was fond of keeping up or reviving ancient customs and old pastimes, but it is so expressed that a stranger to English habits, on reading it, can scarcely avoid falling into the error of imagining that such a mode of celebration, was observed at Christmas, in some parts of England, at the time when that book was written, or at least, in very modern times. Even if all the ceremonies, sports and observances which are there described, ever were commonly practised at Christmas, in English families, it was in an age long since past, and there is no reason to believe that the mode of observing or celebrating Christmas, described in the Sketch Book, ever occurred in England, within the last hundred years.”

The writer seems to ignore Irving’s own words in the piece itself: “I felt an interest in the scene, also, from the consideration that these fleeting customs were posting fast into oblivion; and that this was, perhaps, the only family in England in which the whole of them were still punctiliously observed.”

My belief, as always, is that –humans being humans– not everyone did the same thing, so what may be true for one area of England, or even one village, or one family, might not be true for another. We also know that, especially in the countryside, memories in England were very long and tradition revered.

This is good news for us as fiction writers. We try to recreate an accurate sense of the time period we set our stories in –otherwise, why choose that period? But at the same time, we have a story to tell. Do we have leeway to bend the facts to serve our story?

I would say no, when the facts are definitely known and established. To me, that just undermines the believability the story needs to create. I’m a firm believer in the importance of research! But when the facts are not so definite, when sources disagree or are vague? When the variable eccentricities of human nature come into play? Then I say, bring it on!

I admit to creating a setting –a backwater village that clings to old traditions –in my yet-unfinished 12 days tale, The Lord of Misrule. Even the predicament of my hero, who is stranded in said village and quite accidentally (perhaps) selected to be the Lord of Misrule, is an anachronism, since for the most part as far as we know that custom of having a Lord of Misrule was abolished in the 17th century (and even that is subject to all sorts of variations, from ruling for 3 months, October-December, to the 12 days of Christmastide, to only ruling on the also abolished Feast of Fools, or only on Twelfth Night itself).

What do you think? Does a lack of solid information give us license to do what we please for the sake of a story? Whatever your opinion on this, I wish you a Happy New Year “and many of them” as one 1805 newspaper encouraged people to say. Happy Twelfth Night, too!

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 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.

(I first posted this blog on Dec 3, 2012 and, really, it still applies. I still need to prepare for Christmas….)

I am the lady of this house, not an exalted country house, but a respectable one and I must not dally any further. I must prepare for Christmas. It is a daunting task in this modern age – 1820. There is so much to do.

First I must check to see if Cook has prepared the Christmas pudding. She should have done so one week ago on Stir Up Sunday. I must discuss with her all the food we shall need for the holidays, because the rest of the family and some friends will gather here and they will stay through Twelfth Night.

I should send invitations to the families near here to come for a Christmas meal. I believe I shall have my daughter write them. She has a better hand than I. Soon it will be time to send the footmen out to gather greenery and we must hang a ball of mistletoe to generate some excitement during the party.

Then there are gifts to purchase. I shall make a list and have my husband’s people purchase them in London and send them to me here. And I must exert myself to embroider some handkerchiefs for everyone, because that is the sort of generous person I am.

Speaking of generous, we will also make up baskets of food for those less fortunate than we. I am certain the kitchen staff and maids might take an afternoon away from their duties to assist in filling the baskets. My dh, Lord P–, and I will, of course deliver them to the families. It will take the better part of the day.

Elena reminded me I must make brandy butter and that it needs a great deal of tasting to make it just right.
Now I shall lie down for a bit. All this planning has quite exhausted me (not to mention making the brandy butter)

It is such a busy time!
What are you doing to prepare for the holidays??

illustration of wassailing the apple trees

Illustration by Birket Foster, from Christmas with the Poets (1851)

Today is Epiphany, the day when Christians celebrate the arrival of the Three Magi (or Three Wise Men or Three Kings) with (not particularly useful) presents for Baby Jesus. In some countries, like Spain, this is still the day when children are given their Christmas presents.

While in the English tradition today, Epiphany simply marks the day when you are supposed to take down the Christmas tree and all your other Christmas decoration, back in the Regency era, Epiphany formed a very important part of the whole Christmas festivities as it marked the end of the 12 Days of Christmas.

Especially the evening before Epiphany, Twelfth Night or Twelfth Day’s Eve, was a time for fun and partying with dancing and drinking. In importance, the celebrations were second only to Christmas.

In the country, Twelfth Night was in many places the time for the custom of wassailing the fruit trees, especially the apple trees, in the orchards. The custom was common in most of the southern and western counties of England, though the date could vary, and in some places, the wassailers would visit the orchards several days in a row (hey, it’s a good excuse for a night out with your buddies!).

Typically, the wassailers would go to the orchards at night with lanterns in order to sing songs (no doubt some of them were a bit… eh… vulgar) under the fruit trees and making a great racket by beating against pans and drums. Then the trees (or just the best tree in the orchard) would be beaten with sticks, before cider was poured over the roots (the order of these actions might vary from place to place). According to popular superstition, this would ensure a fruitful year and a good harvest in the next autumn.

In Christmas with the Poets, the following lyrics are given for a typical wassailing song:

“Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
Whence thou may’st bud, and though may’st blow!
And whence though may’st bear apples enow!
Hats full! Craps full!Bushel – bushel – sacks full!
And my pockets full too! Huzza!”

If you look at the illustration above, I’d say it strongly suggests that the wassailers had to try the cider too before giving it to the apple tree (I mean, where would be the fun of going wassailing, if you can’t have a bit of drink yourself, right?)

Today, wassailing the apple trees is very popular with revivalists, who nowadays often wear costumes when visiting the orchards. Sometimes, as in Chesterfield, this is also paired with Morris Dancing:

And speaking of trees: last summer I went to the Black Forest and was interviewed by Michael Portillo about the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm for the BBC documentary Great Continental Railway Journeys. The episode with yours truly was broadcast last November. If you’d like to see me walking through a very, very muddy forest, you can check out a rather bad quality version of the interview here (the sides of the film have been cut off).  🙂

Posted in Regency | Tagged , | 4 Replies

Today is Twelfth Day, the day after Twelfth Night and the traditional end to the Christmas festivities. Twelfth Day or the Epiphany marks the day the wise men arrived to present their gifts to the baby Jesus.

800px-Twelfth001During the Regency, Twelfth Night, the eve of the Epiphany, would have been a time for parties and balls, for drinking wassail. One feature of such parties would be a cake into which a bean was baked. Whoever found the bean became the Lord of Misrule.

In preparation for Twelfth Night, the confectioners shops put on elaborate displays of Twelfth Night cakes, which could cost anywhere from several guineas to a few shillings. In Chambers Book of Days, he states: “We remember to have seen a huge Twelfth-cake in the form of a fortress, with sentinels and flags; the cake being so large as to fill two ovens in baking.”

Robert_Baddeley_as_Moses_in_Sheridan's_'The_School_for_Scandal'_c1781,_by_Johann_ZoffanyChambers also tells of another Twelfth Night tradition. In 1795, the will of comedian Robert Baddeley made a bequest of one hundred pounds to provide cake and punch each year to the performers at Drury Lane Theatre. It is a tradition that continues at the theatre today.

On Twelfth Day all Christmas decorations  the traditional day to remove all your Christmas decorations. In Regency times all the greenery gathered to decorate the house would be taken down and burned. To leave decorations up after this date would be considered bad luck.

I took down and packed away all my decorations last Friday.

Have you taken your decorations down yet?

A Marriage of Notoriety is now available in ebook as well as paperback.

Posted in History, Regency | Tagged | 4 Replies
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