When we think of the things we take for granted at Christmas, most of them turn out to be Victorian developments, not Regency.
The Christmas tree, elaborate presents, the Christmas pudding, Christmas cake, even the very special time of year, they were all invented or developed by the Victorians to help in their resurrection of family values.
When William IV died in 1837, the monarchy was at a low ebb. William was the last of the “wicked uncles” and his death draws a line under the era of debauchery and frivolity, and the feverish atmosphere of war that marked the early nineteenth century, particularly the Regency era.
Christmas was just one of many celebrations. The big one as far as the Church was concerned, was Easter, when Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead. Christmas was fairly arbitrary in any case, chosen by the early Catholic church to conveniently cover the period when the pagans went nuts at the winter solstice.
The remnants of the solstice are still there. After all, what does the Christmas tree have to do with the Christian story? Precious little. Then there’s the Christingle orange, one that does have religious significance, but has been dragged kicking and screaming into the church.
Our Christmas is a cunning mix of religion and happy party times. It is supposed to bring families together, but in the Regency era, it was a much quieter celebration, marked by churchgoing.
It overlaps with the Twelve Days, the Roman Saturnalia, when everything was turned upside down, when masters became servants and vice versa.
Many of our Regency ancestors did celebrate that one. A party where the masters served the servants and the servants gave the orders, often held at Twelfth Night. But any servant who wanted to keep his or her place would take care not to make the party too realistic! I can see it being embarrassing for some. Maybe the maid didn’t want to order her mistress to fetch her some figgy cake!
Saturnalia originally had a religious theme. The Romans liked that one, and they held it between the 17th and 23rd December. It was supposed to recreate and celebrate the golden age of the gods, when everything was perfect.
It would appeal to the flip side of the Regency zeitgeist—order overturned, the unthinkable happening. The kind of society that produced the Hellfire Club would celebrate it with relish.
It died out in the more staid Victorian era, when Christmas completed its transition from a wild, half-pagan celebration, to a religious celebration of family.
Which do you prefer?