Book covers were boring in the Regency; i.e., there weren’t any images on them. But there were lots of images in them. George Cruikshank did a thriving business in black and white etchings for books, notably the novels of Charles Dickens and Laurence Sterne. As you might imagine, color illustrations were prohibitive. In fact, books were pretty expensive, too, which is why private circulating libraries flourished, and why all those rich dukes and earls were the only ones with big libraries. To own a book was a mark of wealth. Thank goodness books are now much more readily available for everyone.
Letter-writing was a favorite Regency pastime — albeit a pricey one. The recipient bore the cost of delivery, which was calculated by the distance the courier had to travel. Long-winded epistles faced surcharges: the cost doubled for a second sheet of paper. People became quite crafty in using every bit of space a sheet of paper afforded. Some ladies were known to write horizontally, vertically and diagonally across the page. Envelopes didn’t exist, so letters were folded and sealed with a dab of melted wax.
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.
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!!
For Twelfth Night in Regency England, the custom of choosing a king and queen from whomever got the bean and pea in the twelfth-cake evolved into choosing characters out of a hat to pretend to be for the evening, a sort of masquerade. In some cases, they wore masks and the person was required to remain in character the entire night. Sounds like fun to me.