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17 December 2012

Of Wassailing and Holiday Traditions


Where did time go? It seems like it was just Thanksgiving in the U.S. and suddenly the holidays are in full swing. My daughter Mélanie and I spent today at two very fun holiday parties, an (early) Solstice party and a Wassail party, a word which conjures up images of old English Christmases. Though our wassail party did not include a Wassail King and Queen or drinking the health of the trees, and our Wassail punch was not topped with slices of toast, which it was historically. The punch itself was delicious and very potent, with the nutmeg and cinnamon that are part of many historical recipes.


Following my daughter - an eager explorer - around the party and slowly sipping my Wassail punch (a small cup went a long way!),  I couldn't help but think about Christmas for my characters. Of course an "old English Christmas" is not a static thing but a melange of customs that changed and grew through the years, with a number of things that seem part of a classic British Christmas coming in in the Victorian era, when Prince Albert married Victoria and brought customs from his native Germany to their family. In the Regency, houses might well have been decorated with greenery for the midwinter holidays, such as the garlands twined round the stair rail at the party tonight, but they wouldn't have had my hosts' lovely Christmas tree (a tradition that came in with Prince Albert).

My new novella, His Spanish Bride, takes place in December and ends at Christmas. Though the story is set in Lisbon, it revolves around the British embassy, so the holiday details are mostly British - a band playing “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” (I had “Deck the Halls” until my wonderful copy editor pointed out that while the tune is old enough the words aren’t) and a Christmas Eve party at the end. A reader pointed out on my website that the hero and heroine in my series, Malcolm and Suzanne, grew up in different cultures, Malcolm British (technically Scottish, where the big holiday would have been Hogmanay, New Year's Day) and Suzanne French-Spanish. Given the fact that her father was a secular Jew and her mother was a lapsed Spanish Catholic and she grew up in a traveling theatre company, I imagine her childhood holiday traditions combined elements of different religions and cultures.

My book Vienna Waltz finds Malcolm and Suzanne in Vienna two years into their marriage at the Congress of Vienna. It ends at a Christmas Eve party given by Dorothée Talleyrand at the French embassy where she really did have a Christmas tree – apparently they called it “Christmas Berlin style” in Vienna that year. I have Suzanne telling Malcolm their little boy loved the tree and they talk about perhaps having one themselves some day. Writing that scene made me realize I could believably have them have a Christmas tree and other Continental traditions in pre-Victorian England. I think we tend to think of the blending of different cultural holiday traditions as something more contemporary, but in the Regency as now marriages and travel could lead to elements of different cultural traditions being combined to make holiday traditions unique to a family. The book I’m writing now has moved into December 1817 so I can include their anniversary and their daughter's first birthday. Not sure it will go as far as Christmas, but maybe in the epilogue…

What are your favorite holiday traditions, in your family or in literature?


photo: Raphael Coffey


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