Why must I not bitch and moan about my back and neck pain? Because a big superstition connected to New Year’s Day in Regency England was that whatever you did on New Year’s Day, you were doomed to repeat for the entire year. Our Regency foremothers would particularly suggest that you avoid cleaning your house (you might sweep out your good luck, not to mention having to spend the coming year sweeping), getting into debt, leaving your cupboards bare (which might foretell poverty in the new year), and crying (which means you’ll be sad all year—duh!). Definitely do kiss your beloved (well, that one is probably more modern). And be sure to open your doors and windows just before midnight to let out the old year and beckon in the new one.
It’s a bit early to talk about the holidays, but since my Christmas story is coming out any day now (and decorations are already showing up in places), I figure y’all will forgive me. Most people are unaware that many of our most popular Christmas carols don’t date back very far. “Silent Night” was first composed in 1818 and didn’t make it to other countries until decades later. “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” and “Away in a Manger” are mid-Victorian. All of our secular carols are from the 20th century and on. So instead of putting a carol in my Christmas story, I put phrases from an assortment of carols from all periods into the mouths of my unwitting characters. There are nine of them. Have fun finding them!
Although the U.S. has several New Year’s Day traditions, especially involving certain meals eaten for good luck, there was no such equivalent in most of Regency England. For that, we have to go farther north. While most of the English were engrossed in the countdown to Twelfth Night (on January 6th), those who lived up north joined the Scots in having big parties on Hogmanay. Hogmanay is New Year’s Eve and also spills over into New Year’s Day in its traditions. You may have heard of first-footers, who vied to be the first person to cross the threshold of a friend’s house in the New Year, and thus were bringers of good luck for the year. Gifts were carried in and distributed—salt, coal, shortbread, whisky, black bun (food and drink for the guests), and other items that might bring luck. But you probably don’t know about local customs—people bringing a decorated herring into the house (Dundee) or roaming the streets swinging fireballs (Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire) or baking special cakes (St. Andrews). I could go on, but suffice it to say, the Scots really knew how to celebrate the new year!
According to William Hone’s period tome, The Every Day Book, New Year’s Day in London was primarily celebrated with small social gatherings and the wearing of new clothes (out of a superstition that not doing so was unlucky—which Mr. Hone disparages). He also says, “The only open demonstration of joy in the metropolis, is the ringing of merry peals from the belfries of the numerous steeples, late on the eve of the new year, and until after the chimes of the clock have sounded its last hour.” I think I’d prefer that to fireworks.
The Risk of Rogues takes place partly on St. Valentine’s Day, which was celebrated even then. Before Christmas cards became a thing in the Regency, St. Valentine’s Day cards were exchanged with loved ones. These were usually handmade and decorated, although in 1815, companies started mass-producing Valentines. In the Victorian age, a class of cards called “mocking Valentines” (“vinegar valentines” in the U.S.) started to be produced. Essentially, they insulted the person who received them. Can you imagine getting one of those in the mail? Especially since, at this time, it was the receiving party who paid the postage. Talk about adding insult to injury! Anyway, you can see a variety of Valentines from the period on my Pinterest page.
Regency Valentines were much the same as ours, except that they were home-made, because commercially produced cards weren’t yet available. Well, that’s sort of true. The decorations could be your own, but as usual, not everyone could come up with a good verse for their Valentine. So you could get books to tell you what to write. My favorite is Hymen’s Rhapsodies, or Lover’s Themes. A collection of original Valentine Verses Written expressly for this Work, for Gentlemen to Address Ladies in Sonnets, Superior to Any Other. Phew! That’s a long title. But at least you knew what you were getting when you bought it. There was even a book that gave you verses for various trades! And the author of the book, the title page of which is pictured below? It’s “Love.” Yes, Love itself wrote the book. Anyway, if you’d like to see some Regency-era valentines, you can visit my Pinterest page for them. You might also be interested in my guide to making your own Regency valentines. Have fun! For more Regency tidbits, click here.
You may not be aware, but it was considered unseemly for a Regency gentleman to write letters to a young lady or vice-versa. Communication was supposed to go through the parents. That didn’t stop ladies from checking the mail while Papa was preoccupied, of course, so papas were particularly careful on Valentine’s Day, which was when gentlemen (and rogues) sent valentines. Thus it was with some enjoyment that I read an old blog by Two Nerdy History Girls (authors Loretta Chase and Susan Holloway Scott) about a father who intercepted a couple of “obscene” Valentines before they could horrify his daughters. I found the original letter to the editor concerning this event and was greatly amused. Today the equivalent would be dirty pics in Messenger. In my day it was obscene phone calls. Apparently, in the regency, “depraved” valentines contained what were probably the equivalent of bawdy limericks. But I still wish I knew exactly what was in those valentines, don’t you?
April Fool’s Day (aka All Fools’ Day) goes back at least to the 17th century in England. In 1698, someone invited lots of people to go see a fictitious “washing of the white lions” at the Tower of London (where they used to keep the menagerie). It worked so well that some bright fellow in 1860 decided that the prank deserved a repeat and actually sent out invitations to the “washing of the white lions.” Several people showed up, only to find that there were no longer any lions at the Tower, much less any that needed washing.
Easter was a time for visiting family. Remember the long visit Darcy and his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam make to Lady Catherine? It happens at Easter. While Easter celebrations didn’t yet include bunnies and chocolates, dyed hard-boiled eggs were part of them. Since eggs were generally given up for Lent, the excess hen eggs were saved by being boiled. They were even part of a traditional English Easter past-time called “egg rolling,” where people rolled their dyed, boiled eggs down hills to see who could roll theirs the farthest.
May Day has been celebrated throughout the United Kingdom for centuries, although the festivities had started dying out a bit during the Regency. Still, Jane Austen mentions the neighborhood maypole blowing down in a storm, and the Hampshire Chronicle speaks at length about the celebrations in 1815, which involved couples dancing in or on a flower-laden bower (I couldn’t picture this from the description). See this blog for more about these citations. Other parts of May Day included crowning a May Queen, and the more obscure practice of leaving small May baskets of treats for people.