The Season of Christmas during the Regency was not portrayed to the degree that it later was; nor was it fashionable to be overtly religious or overly sentimental in one’s celebrations; people did not feel the sense of obligation about gift giving that they later developed. Likewise, one did not see the vast commercial exploitation of the holiday that was later evident and seen today. What we did have in a Regency Christmas was an observation of the Season based more on tradition and less on obligation; more on spiritual observance (for those who observed it) than on social expectations or pretensions.
The Regency in England was actually quite a short period, lasting only nine years from 1811 to 1820. Due to what we now know was a condition called porphyria, the King was considered to have gone mad. In 1811, Parliament declared George, Prince of Wales, Regent in place of his father, George III. To understand the Christmas customs of the Regency, one must really begin back in the 17th century, nearly two hundred years earlier, when the holidays were celebrated so boisterously that it led to drunkenness, riotous revelries that often lasted through whole nights, and many kinds of social disorder. People who were not truly celebrating the religious holiday of Christmas were going all out to make it the pagan winter festival of ancient times—or so it seemed. So by the time of Cromwell the holiday was frowned upon, then discouraged, and finally outright banned! Anyone found celebrating Christmas could be seized from his own home and thrown into prison, heavily fined, or even, at times, put to death! The end result was that Christmas in England was dealt a hard blow. Even when it was legalized again in 1660, the repercussions of it having been banned took time to stamp out. Slowly, slowly, however, the old traditions came back, the festive atmosphere returned, and Christmas was once again respectable.
By the time of the Regency people were most assuredly celebrating Christmas, but not with the same expectations of the holiday as is usual today. Instead of, for instance, the intense excitement centered upon December 25th, the Regency Christmas celebration was really spread out over what was considered to be the Christmas Season.
From the beginning of Advent until Epiphany on January 6th, people planned, and held, many different sorts of festivities, balls, parties, card-parties, dinners, small gatherings, skating parties, and other visits and social events. Christmas Day itself was an acceptable time for gift-exchanges, but the emphasis on giving presents was not what it is today. People have always welcomed gifts at Christmas, and giving to charity and the servant class was expected (especially on Boxing Day, December 26th), but December 25th was primarily a day for religious observance and a special Christmas dinner.
Let us now begin our journey in earnest. We are somewhere in the years between 1811 and 1820. Like Jane Austen, we are genteel but not wealthy. It is nearing the end of November and Stir-up Sunday has arrived, and with it, the unofficial start to the Christmas Season. (The official beginning of the Season will be next Sunday, with the start of Advent.) We have just returned from church, and now we are back home helping prepare the Plum Pudding which will be central to our Christmas Day feast!