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.
Recently, I was surprised to discover that Oktoberfest goes back to before the Regency. I had no idea. In fact, the first celebration was in Munich, Bavaria (now considered part of Germany) in 1810 (when Thorn’s book is set and a year before the official Regency period begins). It began as a celebration of the marriage of the Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. The wine and beer flowed, and there were performances by choirs and children in costume. But the main event was a grand race of thirty horses. Those elements have been part of it ever since, along with other typical festival events, and it’s been canceled only twenty-four times out of the 209 years it’s been held (for example, it was cancelled in 1813 because of the Napoleonic wars, and in 1854 due to a cholera epidemic). So you would be perfectly at home if you celebrated Oktoberfest in your Regency costume!
The Regency contained little in the way of Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve) celebrations. Although the holiday is essentially descended from Celtic celebrations of Samhain, the period marking the end of summer and beginning of harvest, it didn’t have much place in Regency England. But the bonfires associated with Samhain became part of the Guy Fawke’s Day revelry, which occurred on November 5th and was meant to celebrate the arrest of an insurgent in 1605 England. So there was still plenty of trickery going on around All Hallow’s Eve.
By now, you may have already read The Secret of Flirting, so you might be curious about my depiction of Guy Fawkes’ Day, especially if you’re English. Nowadays, it’s mostly an excuse to set off fireworks and light bonfires and to celebrate with family, but that wasn’t true in our period. This was right before the Reform Act of 1832, when a lot of class conflict existed. The Fifth of November, the anniversary of when the Gunpowder Plot was thwarted, became an excuse for rioting, day and night. Asking a penny for “the Guy” was also popular as boys went around with their effigies of Guy Fawkes and collected money for fireworks that night. I tried to incorporate as much of that in The Secret of Flirting as I could. You know me—I love a holiday!
I found some fascinating research on Guy Fawkes Day. Check out this article I pinned to The Secret of Flirting board on Pinterest to find out more about this drunken and sometimes destructive “holiday.”
The hanging of greenery was the most common Christmas custom practiced by folks in the Regency. Dating back before our era was the custom of hanging a “kissing bough.” It could include not just mistletoe, but holly, ivy, rosemary, bay leaves, and laurel leaves. It was essentially a big ball of greens. And every time a gentleman kissed a lady (or a maid or a dowager or any female), he had to remove one of the mistletoe berries. Once the berries were gone, no more kissing was allowed. What great fun! If you’d like to see some actual kissing boughs, as well as prints of the kissing going on beneath them, be sure to check out my Pinterest page for What Happens Under the Mistletoe.
One thing that comes from England is fruit cake (our version of plum pudding), and there’s both goose and turkey in Scrooge’s story. Also, the Yule log and the hanging of holly, ivy, and mistletoe are English. You can thank those ancient Celtic druids for mistletoe—they loved it in their winter celebrations. No one is entirely sure whether the Yule Log originated in Anglo-Saxon times or much later, in the 17th century (the first English reference to it is dated from then), when someone brought the custom over from Europe. But it tended to be a regional phenomenon in our period. Those in North England called it the Yule Clog, and it was generally started from a piece of the previous year’s log that was kept all year to bring good luck and protection from evil to the household.
You may think I’m beginning a bit early to think about the Christmas meal, but I’m right on time according to British tradition. I’m writing this on the Thursday before Stir-up Sunday (this year on November 22nd), which is the day everyone in Regency England would have been “stirring up” their Christmas plum pudding. I’m sure plenty of you already know this, but British plum pudding is more like our U.S. fruitcake in its consistency and ingredients. What we call pudding is what the Brits would call custard or blancmange … but I digress. Stir-up Sunday always falls on the Sunday before Advent Sunday. There’s a complicated reason for why it’s called Stir-up Sunday, having to do with the Anglican liturgy, but the upshot of it is that plum pudding has to be prepared and cooked well in advance, and apparently it takes a lot of people to stir it up. (It sounds a bit like churning butter to me, and that’s hard.) After all, you need to have some strength left in your arm for hauling Yule logs and a Christmas tree!
The Dickensian Christmas is pretty close to how a Regency Christmas was, since Dickens was born early in the Regency period. There are no trees or stockings in A Christmas Carol, just lots of food, dancing, Christmas carols, and party games as well as greenery. Much of what we think of as an English Christmas did not come into being until the Victorian age. Christmas trees come from Germany, and the Dutch brought Sinterklaus to America long before Santa ever showed up in London.
That’s true of stockings as well, which is why I showed them as an anomaly in ’Twas the Night After Christmas (set in 1826). After Lady Devonmont reads the American poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (aka “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”), she decides it would be great fun to make stockings. But the custom of hanging them was practiced in America long before it started being practiced in England, because it was brought there by Dutch and German immigrants. The first reference I can find to it in England is in 1854. Eventually it became a big part of a Victorian Christmas.
The whole “Twelve Days of Christmas” song comes from the twelve days between Christmas Day and January 6th (Epiphany). In the Regency, Christmas was more of a religious celebration but Twelfth Night (either January 5th or January 6th—no one seems to agree which “night” it is) was a party. They had Twelfth Night Cake or what we call “king cake” in New Orleans. There were parlor games and balls, and a good time was had by all. Maybe that’s why the last four days of the song are about lords leaping, ladies dancing, pipers piping, and drummers drumming. Partay!!