A Jane Austen Christmas: Regency Christmas Traditions, by Maria Grace – Preview & Exclusive Excerpt

Regeny Christmas by Maria Grace 2014 x 200Austenesque author Maria Grace has written five Regency-era novels inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, notably the Given Good Principles series and Remember the Past: …only as it gives you pleasure. Writing period accurate novels requires extensive research, so it seems only logical that Maria should turn her hand to nonfiction. Her latest book, A Jane Austen Christmas, focuses on Regency-era holiday traditions. Here is a preview and exclusive excerpt for your enjoyment.   

PREVIEW (from the publisher’s description) 

Many Christmas traditions and images of ‘old fashioned’ holidays are based on Victorian celebrations. Going back just a little further, to the beginning of the 19th century, the holiday Jane Austen knew would have looked distinctly odd to modern sensibilities.

How odd? Families rarely decorated Christmas trees. Festivities centered on socializing instead of gift-giving. Festivities focused on adults, with children largely consigned to the nursery.  Holiday events, including balls, parties, dinners, and even weddings celebrations, started a week before Advent and extended all the way through to Twelfth Night in January.

Take a step into history with Maria Grace as she explores the traditions, celebrations, games and foods that made up Christmastide in Jane Austen’s era. Packed with information and rich with detail from period authors, Maria Grace transports the reader to a longed-for old fashioned Christmas.  

EXCERPT 

Celebrating a Jane Austen Christmas  

Each year the holiday season seems to begin earlier and earlier. Complaints about holiday excesses and longings for ‘simpler’ and ‘old fashioned’ holiday celebrations abound. But what exactly does an ‘old fashioned Christmas’ really look like?

Many Christmas traditions and images of ‘old fashioned’ holidays are based on Victorian celebrations. Going back just a little further, to the beginning of the 19th century, the holiday Jane Austen knew would have looked distinctly odd to modern sensibilities.

How odd? Families rarely decorated Christmas trees. Festivities centered on socializing instead of gift-giving. Festivities focused on adults, with children largely consigned to the nursery. Holiday events, including balls, parties, dinners, and even weddings celebrations, started a week before Advent (the fourth Sunday before Christmas) and extended all the way through to Twelfth Night in January.

As today, not everyone celebrated the same way or observed all the same customs, but many observances were widely recognized. Some of the traditions and dates that might have been observed included:

New Year’s Eve

For some, New Year’s Eve meant thoroughly cleaning the house to start the new year clean. Old superstitions required ashes, rags, scraps and anything perishable to be removed from the house so that nothing carried over from one year to the next. In this way, the family would preserve their good luck and banished the bad.

Some celebrated with the family or a party gathering in a circle before midnight. At the stroke of the midnight hour, the head of the family would open the front and back doors to usher the old year out the back and welcome the New Year in the front.

First Footing

Some Scots and residents of northern England believed the first visitor to set foot across the threshold (the first-footer) after midnight on New Year’s Eve affected the family’s fortunes. Ladies, in particular, wished for a tall, dark, and handsome male stranger without physical handicap, especially if his feet were the right shape.

High-insteps implied that water would run under—that is bad luck would flow past. A flat foot meant bad luck, as did women in most cases. Not all agreed on these omens. For some, blonde or red-headed, bare-foot girls brought good luck.

The first-footer entered through the front door, ideally, bearing traditional gifts: a coin, a lump of coal, a piece of bread or shortbread, whiskey, salt and a black bun—representing financial prosperity, warmth, food, good cheer, and flavor in the new year. Tradition held that no one spoke until the ‘first-footer’ wished the occupants a happy new year.

Once inside, the first-footer would be led through the clean home to place the coal on the fire and offer a toast to the house and all who lived there. Then the first-footer might be permitted to kiss every woman in the house. The first-footer would leave through the back door and take all the old year’s troubles and sorrows.

Dark haired young men often made the rounds of the neighborhood houses, bringing good luck to the homes and to themselves when invited in for a holiday toast.

New Year’s Day

A variety of traditions for New Year’s Day suggested how one might discern or influence fortunes for the coming year.

In one, a farmer hooked a large, specially baked pancake on one of a cow’s horns. Others gathered about to sing and dance around the unsuspecting bovine and encourage it to toss its head. If the cake fell off in front of the cow, it foretold good luck, if behind, bad.

In Hertfordshire, at sunrise on New Year’s Day, farmers burned a hawthorn bush in the fields to ensure good luck and bountiful crops.

Creaming the Well

In some regions, young women raced to draw the first water from the well, a practice known as ‘creaming the well.’ Possession of this water meant marriage within the coming year if she could get the man she desired to marry to drink the water before the end of the day.

Others believed the water had curative properties and even washed the udders of cows with it to ensure productivity.

Until the 18th century, gifts of food, money and clothing (especially gloves) were exchanged on New Year’s Day instead of Christmas or Twelfth Night.

In Scotland and the northern regions of England, traditional New Year’s foods included: shortbread, venison pie, haggis, black bun (similar to mince pie) and rumbledethumps, similar to bubble and squeak or colcannon.

wassailng cow  x 350

Wassailing

Wassailing and caroling are often used interchangeably as terms for singers going from house to house. But in the Regency era, particularly in cider producing regions, wassailing had a different meaning.

Wassailers might go from door to door, with a large wassail bowl filled with spiced ale. They sang and drank to the health of those they visited. In return, recipients of their blessings gave them drink, money and Christmas food.

On the Twelfth Night or its eve, wassailers also blessed orchards and fields and sometimes even cows. A wassail King and Queen led the singers in a tune as they traversed from one orchard to the next.

In some traditions, the Queen would be lifted into one of the trees, often the largest, where she placed wassail soaked toast as a gift to the tree spirits.

Other customs had the men bless the tree and drink to its health. They would circle the largest tree in the orchard while singing and splashing it with cider. The rest of the group would sing, shout, blow horns, and bang drums or pots, until gunmen fired a volley into the branches in hopes of chasing away evil spirits. Sometimes, fires were lit and tended through the night while the wassailers went to the next orchard.

In Herefordshire, wheat fields were lit with bonfires and wassailed similarly to orchards.

END OF EXCERPT

Many thanks to author Maria Grace for sharing a peek at her new nonfiction book with us during the holiday season. I would love to see the tradition of Twelfth Night established in the US. The beautiful cake alone has won me over.

Twelfth Night Cake © Ivan Day x 350

Image courtesy of Austenonly ©Ivan Day 

AUTHOR BIO

Maria Grace 2014 x 150Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate in Educational Psychology. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

She has one husband, two graduate degrees and two black belts, three sons, four undergraduate majors, five nieces, sewn six Regency era costumes, written seven Regency-era fiction projects, and designed eight websites. To round out the list, she cooks for nine in order to accommodate the growing boys and usually makes ten meals at a time so she only cooks twice a month.

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A Jane Austen Christmas: Regency Christmas Traditions, by Maria Grace
White Soup Press (2014)
Trade paperback & eBook (131) pages
ISBN: 978-0692332332

Cover image courtesy of White Soup Press © 2014; excerpt Maria Grace © 2014, Austenprose.com

4 thoughts on “A Jane Austen Christmas: Regency Christmas Traditions, by Maria Grace – Preview & Exclusive Excerpt

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