Christmas presents in Georgian England

No presents, and no tree to put them under. Not on a Regency Christmas Day

Authors of Regency stories face an interesting challenge when writing a Christmas novel. Our modern readers are so accustomed to the association between gifts and Christmas Day that historical accuracy can be jarring for them.

Not that people didn’t give presents during the long Christmas season before the Victorians picked up a few German customs and marketed them through newspaper columns on the habits of royalty, Dickens stories, and popular magazines. People in the northern hemisphere have always given presents at some point during that season when winter seems as if it is going to last forever, but at last the night of the winter solstice passes and the days slowly begin to grow longer.

The day varied. Solstice night itself, the first day (or week) of the new year. People gave their children food treats hoarded against the feast, and gifts of dolls and carved animals, often home made. Wealthier people very likely gave richer gifts, as happens today. And kings and other leaders undoubtedly gave gifts to their followers, who would judge their personal standing with the boss by the size of the present.

Christian missionaries didn’t invent gift giving and feasting in the darkest part of the year. But they did Christianise it, ascribing the feast to the birth of Christ. And boy, was it a feast. In medieval times, people partied for 12 days (after fasting all December).

But they didn’t give presents on Christmas Day (or Christmas Eve, either). Instead, Christmas was a time for church going and feasting. The 24 day fast might have disappeared with the dissolution of the monasteries and the foundation of the Church of England, but the food blowout on Christmas Day remained, with all but the very poorest of the poor managing a special meal to mark the day.

The Puritans during the Commonwealth knocked off even that. No Christmas at all. But the Restoration meant all those Christmas customs crept back out of the shadows for people to rejoice in once again.

St Stephen’s Feast Day was the traditional day for giving to servants and tradespeople, and the needy (as good King Wenceslas did). The Feast of Stephen is 26th December. Family members didn’t get presents then, though. They had to wait.

In Scotland, 31st December, or New Year’s Eve, was gift day. English children had a few more days to go; family and friends were given presents on Twelfth Night, the day before the Feast of the Epiphany (6th January).

Different places, different customs. Children in various parts of Northern Europe received their presents from St Nicholas of Myrna on 5th December, the eve of his feast day or on the day itself. St Nicholas was born in France and buried in Italy, and quite why he favoured Dutch and German children with a visit is a mystery lost in history. He visited Central Europe, too, but not until 19th December, his feast day there.

In modern times, all these visits have been moved to 24th December, which makes the poor bishop’s task much harder. However, he has inherited Odin’s magic reindeer to pull his sleigh, so that must help.

Greek children had St Basil, whose feast day is 1st January. He arrived in the night on New Year’s Eve, leaving presents, and the families would exchange the gifts they’d bought or made at or after the New Year’s Day feast.

To make things even more complicated, different countries moved their calendars from Julian to Gregorian at different times.

All of which presents a minefield for a conscientious author.

My Christmas novellas include Candle’s Christmas Chair, Gingerbread Bride, and two novellas in Holly and Hopeful Hearts: A Suitable Husband and The Bluestocking and the Barbarian. Holly and Hopeful Hearts is on special at 99c, but the sale ends soon.

See my books page for more information.

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