Two hundred years ago, today, Jane Austen was celebrating her forty-first birthday. Sadly, it would be the last birthday she would ever celebrate, since she would loose her battle with an unknown and debilitating illness the following summer. Though she was feeling weak, she was not completely bedridden that December of 1816, so she was also able to enjoy one of her favorite times of the year, the Christmas season, which had always been a cheerful and lively time in the Austen household. Last Christmas, I was given a gift of the book, A Jane Austen Christmas, by Carlo Devito. Today, I am reviewing that book as a way to remember some of the happy holiday seasons which Jane Austen enjoyed during her lifetime.
Some of Jane Austen’s Christmases . . .
The full title of this charming little book is A Jane Austen Christmas: Celebrating the Season of Romance, Ribbons and Mistletoe. The author of this book, Carlo Devito, has not only written a number of books, he is also a former executive at several major publishing companies. He now owns and operates a winery in New York state and clearly enjoys life in all its aspects, including the Christmas season. In this book, he focuses on how the Austen family and their friends celebrated Christmas during the Georgian period. Devito has drawn on information from Austen family letters, memoirs and other records, as well as scenes in Jane Austen’s novels which touch on Christmastide to understand the celebration of the holiday season before the Victorian era.
One of the things I particularly like about this book is that, rather than an overview of Christmas in general, it is divided into six parts, each of which is a detailed account of one specific Christmas over the course of Jane Austen’s life. The information in this book is not restricted to the Regency period, but covers Christmas seasons for the years 1786, 1794, 1795, 1802, 1809 and 1815. Jane’s last Christmas, that of 1816, is addressed in the Epilogue. Most of our modern-day Christmas celebrations originated in the Victorian period, but that was all in the future for Jane Austen and her family, who were living at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth. The holiday season had yet to be commercialized on the scale we see in the twenty-first century. Christmas in the Georgian period was first and foremost a family time.
There were no Christmas trees to be found during this season in the Austen home, as that feature of holiday celebrations would be rare in England until the Victorian period. However, it was the custom to decorate one’s home with holly and evergreens. Such natural decorations were not restricted to the wealthy or the upper classes. Most people of all classes would decorate their homes with evergreens, and holly, if they could find it. Holly was considered symbolic of the circlet of thorns used to crown Christ, so it had powerful religious associations. Though holly was not always easy to find, it is likely that Jane and her sister, Cassandra, would have done their best to find some to decorate the Austen home each Christmas. And many households also hung kissing balls, usually made of holly, mistletoe, ivy and rosemary. Apparently, very religious homes usually chose not to hang kissing balls, though Devito believes that mistletoe was generally hung in the Austen house. Of course, one tradition of long-standing was observed by the Austen family every year, that of the burning of the Yule Log. Devito notes several aspects of the Yule Log tradition in England at this period.
Gift-giving during the Georgian Christmas season was on a much more modest scale than we are accustomed to today. During the Georgian period, what was most important at Christmastime in the Austen home was the opportunity to spend time with family and friends, to play games, stage theatricals and enjoy a good meal. And the Georgian Christmas season was celebrated over a much longer period than it is today. In Georgian times, the Christmas season began on St. Nicholas’ Day (6 December) and ran for a full month, to Twelfth Night (6 January). And this time was primarily focused on enjoying visits with friends and family, it was not spent scouring the stores at the mall for gifts for all and sundry. During Jane Austen’s lifetime, Christmas gifts were typically small, personal items given in token of affection for the recipient. Lavish gifts would have been considered ostentatious and pretentious.
Jane Austen’s earliest Christmases were special family times, for it was then that the young boys who boarded with the Austen family for lessons with the Reverend Austen went home to their own families. It was also during the Christmas holiday that her brothers came home from their own schools, so that the whole family was once again together. Beginning on St. Nicholas’ Day, many people began rounds of visits to family and friends which would continue right through the month, culminating in a grand celebration on Twelfth Night. In fact, during Jane Austen’s life, it appears that Twelfth Night, rather than Christmas Day itself, was the most anticipated celebration of the entire Christmas season. These celebrations included the playing of group games, such as Charades, as well as a meal at which some special foods were served, including a Twelfth Night cake.
Devito notes a number of traditional dishes and libations which would have been served at the Christmas season in the home of the Austens as well as most other English families. He has even provided a few recipes for beverages which would have been made in the Austen home over the holiday season, including ginger beer, mead and alcoholic fruit punch. In fact, some of those recipes are from the collection of Martha Lloyd, perhaps Jane Austen’s closest friend. In addition, Devito has also included a selection of recipes for "Yorkshire Christmas Pie," "Lemon Mince Pie" and "A Whipt Syllabub." All of these viands may have been part of an Austen family Christmas celebration.
But Jane Austen’s literary bent is not ignored in this book. Devito has quoted not only pertinent passages from her novels, but also some of her poetry. In some instances, these verses are related to the Christmas season, in others, they are specific to the events which were taking place in her life during Christmastide. He also includes quotes from several of Jane’s letters which were written to family and friends during the holiday season. In those letters, one sees Jane not as an author, but as a member of a middle-class English family who is preparing for the Christmas season. A selection of images in this book provide illustrations from some of Austen’s novels, as well as portraits of a number of people who are mentioned in the text. There are also illustrations of contemporary celebrations during the Christmas season in the Georgian period.
A Jane Austen Christmas can not be considered a profound scholarly work, as it contains no information on Jane Austen that is not available elsewhere. However, it is a handy compendium of information on the celebration of Christmastide in England during Jane Austen’s lifetime, with a focus on the celebrations which took place within her family and how she viewed the holiday season through the lens of her novels. This book must admit to a few historical errors, not to mention a number of misspellings, grammatical errors and typos. Nevertheless, it is a book which many Austen fans will want to add to their library, and perhaps, use it as a source to expand some of their own holiday celebrations in the twenty-first century.