Two hundred years ago, today, the Prince Regent drove out from Kew Palace to Richmond Hill. It was two days before his birthday, but more than three months since his name day. Though his name day was particularly important to England, it was celebrated in Britain in a very different way than it might have been before the reign of his father, King George III. With the exception of the king or the Regent, whether a person placed more emphasis on the celebration of their birthday or their name day in Regency Britain had a great deal to do with the religion they practiced.
Birthdays and name days during the Regency . . .
When the Regent left Kew Palace, that day in August of 1818, he had been there to visit his mother, Queen Charlotte, who had fallen ill on a journey from London to Windsor. Two of her younger sons had recently wed German princesses and the English marriage ceremonies for both royal brothers was to have taken place at Windsor Castle. Sadly, their mother, the queen, became so ill on her journey that she had to stop at Kew Palace. Since she was too ill to travel further, a double wedding, for both the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of Kent, was held in the drawing room of Kew Palace on Saturday, 11 July 1818. The queen had been feeling so weak that she retired to bed almost as soon as the marriage ceremonies were completed. She was completely unable to attend the grand wedding breakfast, served as an elegant picnic on the grounds of the palace, which followed. A month after the double wedding, Queen Charlotte was still too ill to travel on to Windsor Castle, so she remained at Kew Palace. Several of her children, including the Prince Regent, came to visit her there, when she was strong enough to make the effort.
On Wednesday, 12 August 1818, the Prince Regent would turn fifty-six years old. However, his official birthday had already been celebrated earlier that year, on his name day, Thursday, 23 April 1818, as had been the case with his father, since 1788. However, the Regent’s actual date of birth would not be ignored by his friends and acquaintances. Therefore, an informal, "private" celebration was planned as a grand outdoor fête at Richmond Hill that 12th day of August. Several large marquees, or tents, were pitched in the open fields on the slope of the hill, all with a grand view of the Thames flowing past below. An elegant repast was served, al fresco, to the many fashionably dressed ladies and gentlemen who attended the Regent’s open-air birthday celebration. And this particular birthday celebration was captured on canvas by the noted artist, J. M. W. Turner, who was in attendance and, as it happened, was himself born on 23 April 1775. Turner’s large oil on canvas landscape, England: Richmond Hill, on the Prince Regent’s Birthday, measuring about six feet by eleven feet, went on display to the public in 1819. Today, it is in the collection of the Tate Gallery, in London.
The actual birth date of the British monarch, even to this day, is not a day of official celebration. In modern times, the birthday of the British sovereign is celebrated on the second Monday in June. This day was chosen, in the 1930s, primarily for the chance of good weather, since so many of the celebrations, such as the Trooping of the Colour, are outdoor activities. But when the practice of officially celebrating the king’s birthday was first introduced, in 1788, during the reign of King George III, his actual birth date, of 4 June, was not chosen. Rather, the king’s birthday was officially celebrated on his name day, 23 April. This may have been done to further establish a man with German heritage as a truly English king, since 23 April is the Feast of St. George, the patron saint of England. St. George’s Day was already a major feast day, as well as a national holiday in England, and had been since the early fifteenth century. After the 1707 Act of Union of England and Scotland (patron saint, St. Andrew), the celebration of St. George’s Day had begun to abate, but it was still deeply ingrained in English culture. Therefore, it made perfect sense to those who wished to celebrate the birthday of their king to do so on the ancient holiday of the Feast of St. George, which was also the name day of the current king.
The celebration of birthdays as we know it, for both kings and ordinary folk, is a relatively modern practice. In pagan times, before the spread of Christianity across Europe, in the early Middle Ages, many people had celebrated their birthday, but such celebrations were essentially superstitious rituals to ward off evil spirits. However, as Christianity took hold, it brought with it a host of feast days, and a growing clerical class who kept track of all those important Church holy days. Eager to stamp out pagan practices, the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church urged their members to abandon birthday celebrations in favor of name day celebrations. Rather than celebrate the date of their actual birth with rituals to ward off evil, people would celebrate on the feast day of the saint after which they were named. There was also the fact that, during the Middle Ages, many people were quite illiterate and often had no idea of the actual date on which they were born. But it would be a very simple matter for them to be able to celebrate their name day, if they had been named for a saint in the liturgical calendar. Since most Christians named their children after saints, the majority of those children would have had a name day within the Church calender. And, regardless of whether or not they were literate, the clergy of the Church would have kept them informed about the dates on which those name days fell when they made the announcements of upcoming saint’s days during services. Throughout the Middle Ages, members of both the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches would have celebrated their name day, that is the feast day of the saint for which they were named, rather than their birthday.
Even in the early years of the Protestant Reformation, most people in Europe continued to celebrate their name day rather than their birthday. However, as the various factions of the Protestant faith began to separate themselves from the practices of the Roman Catholic church, the saints which were retained on the liturgical calendar for each religion began to change. In addition, more Protestant parents chose to give their children names which may, or may not, have been saints’ names and may, or may not, have been included on the Church calendar of the faith they observed. In addition, more and more people were becoming literate as the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance and then the Baroque periods. Therefore, by the seventeenth century, most people who continued to practice Catholicism continued to name their children after the saints of the Church. And those children were much more likely to continue celebrate their name day than they were their birthday, as had their parents and grandparents before them.
However, at about the same time, some of the more austere of the Protestant Christian sects began to reduce, or even eliminate, the number of saints’s feast days which were officially included on the liturgical calendar for that particular church. In addition, more and more members of these Protestant Christian sects had learned to read, since they wished to read the Bible for themselves. With fewer saints on the church calendars, a rise in literacy rates, and more efficient record-keeping when it came to both marriages and births, gradually, members of most Protestant churches, including the Church of England, began to celebrate their birthday, rather than their name day. These birthday celebrations had become decidedly secular by the eighteenth century. Name day celebrations had often included a church service, or at the very least, some time spent in private prayer to one’s namesake saint in the local church. But most birthday celebrations did not include a visit to the local church and were typically held at home, among family and close friends. Small gifts may have been given, but the main point of the observance was to celebrate another year of life, and hopefully, health, happiness and good fortune, for the person whose birthday it happened to be.
Despite the growing trend to celebrate a person’s birthday rather than their name day, some people did both. This was most common among Catholic families living in non-Catholic countries, particularly those countries in which Catholicism was considered suspect or outside the common norms. In such cases, Catholic families might celebrate the name day of one of their members quietly, privately, at home, among trusted family and friends of the same faith. There may have been a visit to the local church, or just a group prayer to the namesake saint at home. In fact, many families began the celebration of the name day of each of their children on the night before, usually with some special prayers to the namesake saint with the child just before they went to bed. In many cases, the child was encouraged to make up their own prayer, and a number of parents also suggested that their child include their hopes for the future in those prayers. It was believed that such a prayer session would help the child to sleep more deeply that night and they would then awake especially refreshed for their name day celebration. The birthdays of the members of Catholic families would have been celebrated more publicly, and in much the same way as were the birthdays of most other people in the community. It must be noted that members of some of the more sober and austere religious sects did not celebrate either name days or birthdays.
By the Regency, most people celebrated their birthdays in Britain, while those living in primarily Catholic countries in Europe were more likely to celebrate their name days. There would have been many Catholic families living in Britain who celebrated both, with a quiet, private celebration for a name day, and a more public celebration for a birthday. However, Regency birthday celebrations were nowhere near as lavish as some modern-day birthday celebrations have become. With a couple of exceptions. For most boys in Regency Britain, their fourth or fifth birthday typically coincided with the day on which their breeching ceremony was held. The sons of wealthy or upper-class families might have a very grand ceremony indeed, which included the gathering of relatives and the presentation of a number of fine gifts. The sons of lower-class families would typically have a bit more notice taken of them on that day, though they were seldom showered with gifts. In fact, many received only a set of hand-me-down boys clothes on that day, to replace the gowns they had worn previously. Though it was not as momentous as a breeching ceremony, many Regency girls might receive special attention on their sixteenth birthday. This was considered to be the day on which they reached marriageable age and, though they were still dependents of their parents, they had taken their first step toward adulthood. Girls of wealthy or upper-class families might be given gifts suitable for their social debut, such as a pearl necklace, fine white gloves or even a ball gown. Girls from lower-class families might have bit more notice taken of them on their sixteenth birthday, though they seldom received any expensive gifts on the occasion.
The concept of the birthday cake had evolved in the German states after about 1700, primarily for children, but only for those of very wealthy families. Small candles, one for each year of the child’s life, were often placed on top of these special cakes. The ritual of blowing out those lighted candles harkened back to pagan birthday celebrations, as it was believed that by extinguishing those candle flames, all evil spirits would be banished from the child’s life for another year. It is not clear how widespread the birthday cake custom had become in Regency Britain, or whether or not success in blowing out all the candles on the cake in one breath would ensure the granting of a special wish to the child. In the Regency, birthday gifts were not considered mandatory, but were certainly not forbidden, and usually pleased the recipient. Fruits and candies were the most common birthday gifts for children during the Regency, though a small toy or a few coins might also be given to them. Flowers and/or small gifts like a lacy handkerchief or a packet of writing paper were sometimes given as gifts to Regency ladies on the occasion of their birthday. A good bottle of wine or spirits might make an appropriate gift to a Regency gentleman, though his favorite blend of snuff or an embroidered pair of slippers might be given by close friends or family members. Birthday gifts were typically given only by family and close friends. It would have been considered very inappropriate for someone to give an expensive or extravagant birthday gift to someone with whom they had only a casual relationship, particularly if that person was of the opposite sex.
Dear Regency Authors, might the distinction between birthday and name day celebrations offer a bit of a twist to the plot of an upcoming romance? Mayhap the heroine is Catholic and wishes to spend her name day in prayer and contemplation, but another character, perhaps the hero, is importuning her to spend all or part of that day with him, unaware of her faith. Will she confess the truth, though it might risk her relationship, or will she find some excuse to have the day to herself? Perhaps the heroine is the governess of a spoiled and selfish young woman who has received a very expensive birthday gift from one of her suitors, a man she barely knows. Though the young woman is well aware that she should not accept such a gift, she is determined to keep it. How will the heroine deal with this turn of events? Or, if your tale of romance is set in August of 1818, might one or more of your characters attend the open-air celebration of the Prince Regent’s birthday on Richmond Hill on the 12th of August? Maybe even take some time to watch Turner capturing the scene? Are there other ways in which either birthday or name day celebrations, for children or adults, can be incorporated in to a Regency romance?