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Merry Christmas! Welcome to the second guest post in my Emma in the Snow series. I’m delighted to share with you Theresa Kenney’s survey of Christmas celebrations in Jane Austen’s time and her discussion of Christmas themes in Emma.

Theresa KenneyTheresa is a graduate of Penn State, Notre Dame, and Stanford. She’s an Associate Professor of English at the University of Dallas and former chair of the department. Her publications include Women Are Not Human: An Anonymous Treatise and Responses, The Christ Child in Medieval Culture: Alpha es et O!, “‘And I am changed also’: Mr. Knightley’s Conversion to Amiability,” and several other essays on Austen, Dickens, Bronte, John Donne, and Robert Southwell. She and her husband have two daughters, Annamaria and Stella. Theresa tells me both girls “love the Cozy Classics Emma, which has long been Stella’s favorite novel. She is two.”

(Like Theresa’s daughters, I’m a fan of the Cozy Classics Austen adaptations. I wrote about their Emma a couple of years ago.)

Last year, Theresa wrote a guest post on “Why Tom Bertram Cannot Die” for the celebration I hosted in honour of Mansfield Park. That post also includes an account of how she discovered Austen’s novels, and how she fell in love “with Austen’s bad characters and their self-congratulatory way of speaking.” 

Best wishes to all of you for a happy holiday season! Thank you for celebrating 200 years of Emma with us, and I hope you enjoy reading Theresa’s piece on “Emma’s Regency Christmas.”

"though Christmas-day, she could not go to church"

England was merry England, when

Old Christmas brought his sports again.

’Twas Christmas broached his mightiest ale;

’Twas Christmas told the merriest tale.

— Sir Walter Scott, Marmion

Christmas in Austen’s Time

How did Emma celebrate Christmas? Many, thinking of Sir Walter Scott’s nostalgic regret for medieval Christmas quoted above (from Marmion, which Austen knew well), think there was not much merrymaking in early 19th century England. Poet Henry Vaughan lamented how dire the Puritan suppression of the feast was in his 1650 “Christmas: How Kind is Heaven to Man”:

Can neither Love, nor sufferings bind?

Are we all stone, and earth?

Neither His bloody passions mind,

Nor one day bless His birth?

Alas, my God! Thy birth now here

Must not be numbered in the year.

During the Interregnum, churches were even locked up on Christmas Day to prevent liturgical celebrations, and ordinary homes were policed so Cromwell’s men could confiscate meat pies, roast fowl, Yule logs, sweets, and Christmas puddings. Thomas Lewis, in his sarcastic 1720 work English Presbyterian Eloquence, states of Puritan attacks on Christmas continuing after the Restoration, “Under the censure of lewd customs they include all sorts of public sports, exercises, and recreations, how innocent soever. Nay, the poor rosemary and bays, and Christmas pie is made an abomination.”

Emma, however, probably would have eaten many of the same foods and enjoyed many of the same festive customs her forbears had known. Many time-honored Christmas customs still prevailed in English homes in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The house probably would have been decorated with the traditional greenery Lewis mentions—rosemary and bay, as well as holly and ivy—although Emma would very likely not have had a Christmas tree. Because the John Knightleys are visiting with their children, however, a tree is nonetheless a remote possibility: these had already been introduced into England by Queen Charlotte, and Coleridge commented on those he saw in his European tour. Alison Barnes notes the spread of Christmas trees to many of the upper class families of England in the early 1800’s, especially those with children in the household. But Mr. Woodhouse, of course, would never have permitted a tree with candles and paper ornaments near his boisterous grandchildren!

Emma, like her author, would normally have gone to church, whether or not Christmas fell on a Sunday, which it does not in the novel’s calendar; Austen says Emma is prevented from attending by the heavy snow on Christmas Eve. Emma breathes a sigh of relief; she will not need to confront Mr. Elton or Harriet, both of whom would cause her deep embarrassment:

These were very cheering thoughts; and the sight of a great deal of snow on the ground did her further service, for any thing was welcome that might justify their all three being quite asunder at present.

The weather was most favourable for her; though Christmas-day, she could not go to church. Mr. Woodhouse would have been miserable had his daughter attempted it, and she was therefore safe from either exciting or receiving unpleasant and most unsuitable ideas. The ground covered with snow, and the atmosphere in that unsettled state between frost and thaw, which is of all others the most unfriendly for exercise, every morning beginning in rain or snow, and every evening setting in to freeze, she was for many days a most honourable prisoner. No intercourse with Harriet possible but by note; no church for her on Sunday any more than on Christmas-day; and no need to find excuses for Mr. Elton’s absenting himself. (Volume 1, Chapter 16)

If Emma had been able to go to the Christmas service, she would not have sung Christmas carols there. Not until 1820 was the ban on non-biblical hymn singing in church lifted. She could not have heard or sung “Silent Night” (1818, Mohr, Catholic priest), “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (1868, Brooks, Episcopalian minister), “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” (1849, Sears, Unitarian minister), or “O Holy Night” (1843, Cappeau, anticlerical atheist). Among the few Christmas songs familiar to a modern audience that Austen might have known, from celebrations outside church, are “O Come, All Ye Faithful” (Wade 1751, Catholic layman, probably translating a text by Catholic King John Of Portugal, ca. 1640), “Whilst Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” (Tate, Puritan dramatist, 1700) and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” (C. Wesley, Methodist minister, 1739, though the original melody was not the Mendelssohn melody used today). (See Daniel Pyle and Rebecca H. Jamison for more on carols.)

Sir Walter Scott refers to Yule logs, festive greenery, singing, and mumming as part of Christmas celebrations of old, in a passage Jane Austen would have read in Marmion (her famous comment about “dull elves” is an emended quotation from this work). Would Austen and her Emma have had Yule logs? Although they were probably brought in with less ceremony than of yore, and their lighting and extinction attended by fewer superstitious speculations about good fortune and deaths in the new year, the Yule log certainly appeared in the form of spectacular Christmas fires, a detail Austen notes especially when referring to Christmases in the novels: at the Box Hill picnic, Mrs. Elton speaks of stories being told by the fireside at Christmas; in Volume 2, Chapter 2 of Persuasion, Austen speaks of the “roaring Christmas fire” at the Musgroves’, where we also find the girls cutting up gold paper and silk and the boys holding “high revel” as the table “bends under the weight” of brawn and pies. Like the Musgroves, Mr. Woodhouse is a host in the old style, however much he warns his guests against eating the food he provides. His Christmas tables would have been generous affairs, and Mr. Elton’s drunkenness assures us that “Mr. Weston’s good wine” had flowed liberally at Randalls, emboldening the curate to bestow upon Emma the unfortunate Christmas gift of a Dreadful Proposal in the carriage on the way home.

Emma probably would have drunk spiced wine herself, and eaten meat and mince pies (condemned by special provision by the Puritan government but reintroduced after the Restoration). Austen’s brother Edward’s family enjoyed a Twelfth Night celebration in 1809, so it is safe to assume the feasting at Randalls and Hartfield lasted the full twelve days of Christmas, even if John and Isabella left as soon as the roads were passable.

The crèche scene so universally known nowadays had not been a normal part of English Christmas decorations even before the Reformation (in fact, the figure of Baby Jesus, if present at all, was usually molded of bread and occupied the top of the mince pie, which before Cromwell’s reign, was shaped like a manger bed. Baby Jesus never came back, even after the Restoration). Emma would not set up a stable with figures of the Holy Family and shepherds. Nor would she set candles in the windows, an Irish custom, and no doubt she would never have heard of luminarias, poinsettias, or las posadas.

The Importance of Christmas Themes in Emma: Dangerous Games

Austen sets up the calendar of Emma carefully to (among other things) bring Jane Fairfax to Highbury in November and John and Isabella Knightley to Hartfield in December for the Christmas festivities. Jo Modert and Ellen Moody have worked out the timeline of Emma and shown that it revolves around the cycle of the year, and in particular that it emphasizes certain periods of the liturgical year. Christmas is not just important as a marker of temporal flow, however: it has a persistent if subtle presence through the novel. There are six mentions of Christmas in Emma. There are actually more—seven—in Mansfield Park, most of them associated with Edmund’s taking orders then. Among these is Mary Crawford’s important question to Fanny about Edmund’s prolonged stay in Peterborough: “Is it Christmas gaieties that he is staying for?” in Volume 2, Chapter 11. When Mary Crawford speaks of Edmund’s staying with the Owens family for Christmas gaieties, it is because the feast lasted through the twelve days of Christmas in Austen’s day, just as it had before Cromwell. As mentioned above, we know from an 1809 letter from her niece, Fanny Knight, that Austen’s family celebrated up through Epiphany:

… after Dessert Aunt Louisa who was the only person to know the characters … took one by one out of the room and equipped them, put them into separate rooms and lastly dressed herself. We were all conducted into the library and performed our different parts. Papa and the little ones from Lizzy downwards knew nothing of it and it was so well managed that none of the characters knew one another … Aunt Louisa and L. Deeds were Dominos; F. Cage, Frederica Flirt (which she did excellently); M. Deeds, Orange Woman; Mama, Shepherdess; Self Fortune Teller; Edward, beau; G, Irish Postboy; Henry Watchman; William, Harlequin; we had such frightful masks that it was enough to kill one with laughing at putting them on and altogether it went off very well and quite answered our expectations.

This letter highlights important activities associated with Christmas: masking and game playing. Among the mentions of Christmas in Emma, the most important is probably Mrs. Elton’s dismissal of the dangerous, subversive games that Frank Churchill proposes in midsummer on Box Hill:

I had an acrostic once sent to me upon my own name, which I was not at all pleased with. I knew who it came from. An abominable puppy!—You know who I mean—(nodding to her husband). These kind of things are very well at Christmas, when one is sitting round the fire; but quite out of place, in my opinion, when one is exploring about the country in summer. Miss Woodhouse must excuse me. I am not one of those who have witty things at every body’s service. (Volume 3, Chapter 7)

There is clearly something unseasonable about the games Frank proposes in the height of the summer heat, and as a displaced lord of misrule he encourages the atmosphere that leads to Emma’s greatest trespass in the novel, which is a casual and cruel reinforcement of social status, the opposite of the social reversals known to accompany Christmas games under the auspices of the rulers themselves. We would not expect to look for wisdom in Mrs. Elton, but she seems to be right, that the safe and convivial fireside of Christmastime somehow would make game playing a more secure and amicable activity than it is in midsummer on Box Hill.

Austen may even be thinking of Christmas games when in the June after the first Christmas, Frank, Emma, Harriet, and Jane play the alphabet game left behind from the children’s visit. Austen records that Frank says it is “a dull looking evening, that ought to be treated rather as winter than summer” (Volume 3, Chapter 5).

Even Christmas activities at Christmastime seem fraught with danger in Emma, as Emma’s subjection to Mr. Elton’s drunken proposal makes clear. Does Austen’s attitude toward the feast align with Mrs. Elton’s, since the playing of games of wit, charades, and puzzles are deployed throughout Emma as deceptions and underhanded mockeries of others? There is a distrust of parties and sport and game that certainly bespeaks the opposite of the merry old England Sir Walter Scott celebrates, and that aligns Emma’s creator with the severity of a Fanny Price and an Edmund Bertram when it comes to acting and playing parts. Does Emma even care about Christmas celebrations? She does not lament being forced to stay home from church; the reader must also acknowledge that if John Knightley’s advice had been followed, they never would have gone to Randalls that night and Emma would not have been offended by Mr. Elton; if no one had played any games, Jane and Miss Bates might not have had their feelings hurt and their dignity offended. As Emma sums up in reflecting upon the past in her embarrassed first visit to the parsonage after Mrs. Elton’s arrival: “A thousand vexatious thoughts would recur. Compliments, charades, and horrible blunders” (Volume 2, Chapter 14).

But one thing is sure: after their October wedding and trip to the sea, the next Christmas will see Mr. and Mrs. Knightley ensconced by their first Christmas fire as a couple, at Hartfield. The very hearth from which Mr. Knightley fled the night he confronted Emma over the taunting of Jane in the letterbox game, that “fire which Mr. Woodhouse’s tender habits required almost every evening throughout the year,” will replace with its festive, familial warmth “the coolness and solitude of Donwell Abbey” (Volume 3, Chapter 5).


Austen, Jane. Emma. 3rd edition. Ed. R. W. Chapman. London: OUP, 1933.

—. Emma: An Annotated Edition. Ed. Bharat Tandon. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2012.

Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. W. Strahan, 1784.

Hampson, RT. Medii Aevi Calendarium or Dates, Charters, and Customs of the Middle Ages, with Kalendars from the Tenth to the Fifteenth Century. London: H.K. Causton and Son, 1841.

Johnson, Kevin Orlin. Why Do Catholics Do That? New York: Random House, 1994.

Knight, Fanny. Letter 1809 CKS U951 C107/2. Fanny Knight’s diaries are deposited in the Centre for Kentish Studies (CKS), Maidstone, and all rights belong to the Knatchbull Family Archives.

Lewis, Thomas. English Presbyterian Eloquence. London: T. Bickerton, 1720.

Stoyle, Mark. “No Christmas Under Cromwell?”

Scott, Sir Walter. Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field. Edinburgh: Archibald Constable and Company, 1808.

Timbs, John. Something for Everybody (And a Garland for the Year). London: Lockwood and Co., 1861.

Vaughan. Henry. Silex Scintillans: or Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations. London: Blackie and Son, 1650.

Wakefield, Julie. “Jane Austen and Christmas: Celebrating Twelfth Night.”

Second in a series of blog posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Emma. To read more about all the posts in the series, visit Emma in the Snow. Coming soon: guest posts by Dan Macey, Emily Midorikawa, Emma Claire Sweeney, and Deborah Knuth Klenck.

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