We all enjoy our family Christmas traditions at this time of year, and for many of us that includes putting our feet up with a nice romance novel in between decorating trees, wrapping presents, baking cookies, and all of the other Christmas fun. When the setting is the Regency period, we need to have a look at how people celebrated the season at the time. Last year I published The Yuletide Countess, and this year’s Christmas release is a sequel, The Highlander’s Yuletide Love. Both take place in Scotland in the late Regency period.
Early 19th century Christmas customs in England differed quite a bit from ours, and those in Scotland still more. For example, the Christmas tree only became common in the Victorian era, although their presence in the German-influenced royal court was documented in the 1700’s. In Scotland, there was an even bigger difference. In much of Scotland, Protestant believers viewed Christmas as a holiday that was far too Catholic, and it was seldom celebrated.
Before the Reformation occurred in 1560, Scotland celebrated Christmas as a religious holiday, in much the say way as other European countries. However, the Church of Scotland associated it with Catholicism and frowned on it. In 1640, the Scottish Parliament actually made what were referred to as “Yule vacations” illegal. Even though this was repealed in 1686, the Grinch pretty much stole Christmas in Scotland for the better part of the next 400 years! It only became a public holiday in 1958.
However, all was not cold and dark in Scotland during Yule season. Hogmanay, or New Years, had a long history of celebration including gift giving to family and friends and any number of other local superstitions and traditions. One of the best known is First Footing, or the arrival of the first guest on New Year’s Day.
A tall dark man (much like the hero in The Highlander’s Yuletide Love) bearing gifts as the “first foot” was supposed to be a sign of good luck. Gifts were also given to friends and family members on Hogmanay. Various regions of Scotland also had specific traditions. In The Highlander’s Yuletide Love, the hero hails from the Trossachs, a region near Loch Lomond. Traditionally, the men of this area would march in torchlight procession to the top of the Lomond Hills as midnight approached.
The English custom of Boxing Day, in which gifts were given to servants, tradesmen, etc. on the day after Christmas, also had an analog in Scotland. On the day after New Years day, known in the 19th century as Handsel Day one would give gifts or money to those who had waited on or worked for you during the year. The word “handsel” originates from an Old Saxon word that means, “to deliver into the hand”. During the 19th century, both of these holidays were celebrated on the first weekday after Christmas or Hogmanay, rather than always on the day after as is the present custom.
It was the fashionable hour of the promenade, and all around them the cream of London society swirled, the ladies glowing in their finest walking dresses, strolling arm in arm or riding in elegant carriages, while the men tooled their phaetons or rode well-bred horses. They circled one another, now and then stopping to converse, all eager to learn of the latest scandal or fashion.
Isobel tucked her arm through Sophy’s. “I think we shall outshine all the other ladies here this afternoon,” she teased.
Sophy took in Isobel’s elegant appearance in her plumed bonnet and emerald green pelisse worn over a pale yellow muslin gown. “You look fine indeed, but Miss Durand has been acclaimed the beauty of this Season, and I fear we cannot challenge her,” she laughed.
Isobel made a wry face. “That simpering nitwit? I’ve never understood what Society sees in her. Let us enjoy our drive all the same.”
Their carriage moved some ways down the path, the ladies nodding here and there to an acquaintance, and even stopping once or twice to talk briefly. Suddenly Isobel gave a little start.
“There is Colonel Stirling!” she said. “How very surprising. I haven’t seen him for an age. Francis will be delighted to know that he is in Town.”
As it would be bad ton to display her very real pleasure at seeing a friend, she waved rather languidly at a tall gentleman some distance down the path from them. He clearly saw and recognized the occupant of the barouche, and, nodding at the gentleman he was conversing with, made his way towards Isobel’s carriage.
As he drew nearer, Sophy noted the breadth of his shoulders, his narrow waist, and the powerful thighs under his fawn-colored pantaloons. His gait had the ease of an athlete, and she perceived as he reached the barouche that he was very handsome; a strong jaw, straight nose, golden brown eyes, and cropped black hair were set off by the elegant tailoring of his black coat, his perfectly arranged neckcloth, and gold-tasseled Hessians which he appeared to have been born in, so closely did they fit about the ankle.
Despite his attractiveness, Sophy also perceived an aura of arrogance surrounding him, as though he held himself aloof from his fellows, but it was countered by an air of confident masculinity that was extremely appealing. As he sauntered towards them, she was confused by the conflicting impressions that flooded her. She tried to imagine painting such a man; one whose surface was so alluring, yet who also possessed an inner chilliness, and found her mind awash in ways of translating such conflicting impressions into images. As a result, when Colonel Stirling arrived beside the barouche and Isobel introduced him, she found herself in a state of confusion.
“Lady Sophia Learmouth, may I present Colonel Stirling? He is a dear friend of Exencour’s,” she heard Isobel say.
The Colonel bowed elegantly. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Lady Sophia. I believe I have encountered your father upon occasion.”
Sophy did her best to bring her thoughts back to the moment. “Oh thank you, Colonel Stirling. I’m delighted to be sure.”
She flushed slightly at her nonsensical response, and saw with a twinge of annoyance that Colonel Stirling, whose face had shown a touch of curiosity, now assumed a look of bland politeness. He had clearly dismissed her as a foolish girl beneath his notice, and the thought stung.
Isobel stepped in, drawing the colonel’s attention. “Have you been long in London? I hadn’t heard from Exencour that you were here, and I feel certain he would have mentioned it if he had encountered you. He speaks often of you, you know.”
A smile glimmered on the colonel’s lips. “No, Lady Exencour, I have missed much of the Season, and I seldom venture to London of late. After the death of my older brother this past year, I decided it would be best to spend some time in Scotland with my father, learning more about the estate. I shall have to sell out, I suppose, if I am to be the next laird.”
“My condolences, Colonel Stirling. You must feel the loss of your brother deeply,” Sophy said gently.
Ranulf switched his gaze from Isobel to her companion, and looked at Sophy closely for the first time. Her charming bonnet made of chip, trimmed with a garland of pink silk roses and matching silk gauze ribbons framed an expressive face, with large blue eyes fringed by dark lashes and a mouth that was full, yet surprisingly firm. Dark curls peeked out from under her hat, emphasizing the slim column of her neck. He raised his eyebrows.
“Why would you think I must necessarily miss my brother, Lady Sophia?” he asked, his voice faintly mocking. “My chief memories are of him teasing me mercilessly when we were boys, and as I embarked on a military career over a dozen years ago, I’ve seen little of him since.”
A spark of annoyance lit Sophy’s eyes. “I was being polite, and attempting to sympathize, Colonel Stirling, as you doubtless know. But I can tell you that I have a brother as well, and, as much as I wish to throttle him from time to time, if he were to suddenly disappear from my life, I would be heartbroken,” she replied, a touch of acid in her voice.
The smile grew broader, and Sophy blinked as the colonel’s handsome face grew even more attractive. “Well said, Lady Sophia. I do indeed miss my brother a great deal, if only because his death makes me take on the responsibilities of the family lands.”
Isobel glanced from Sophy to the colonel, her eyes alight with curiosity. “Colonel Stirling’s father is the Laird of Spaethness,” she said.
Sophy received the information with apparent disinterest. “Are you from the Highlands, then?”
“Yes, Spaethness is in Argyll, hidden away in the Grampians,” he replied. “We are wild Highlanders through and through.”
“No wild man out of the glens has his coats made by Weston, as yours clearly is, or wears boots with a shine such as yours,” said Sophy dryly.
A touch of amusement crept into his sleepy eyes. “I see I shall have to take my tales of kelpies and banshees elsewhere then.”
Sophy gave a gurgle of laughter despite her annoyance. “I may be a lowlander, but you must definitely find a more gullible female to impose upon than me.” She turned toward him and their eyes met and, though she relished the opportunity to give this confident gentleman a bit of a set down, she realized she had not managed to chase away the pull of his personal magnetism.
After a moment he looked away and gave her a careless reply. The conversation turned to the doings of the Season, and particularly of the Exencours’ and Colonel Stirling’s mutual acquaintance, while Sophy listened in silence. After a few minutes Isobel held her hand out to the colonel with a cheerful smile.
“We must not keep you any longer,” she said. “But do call upon us at Strancaster House. Francis will be very pleased to see you again.”
“I am always happy to see Lord Exencour, and his charming wife as well,” said the colonel. He turned to Sophy, and nodded. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Lady Sophia.”
Sophy inclined her head coldly, not failing to note that this caused the colonel’s lips to twitch slightly. She watched, annoyed, as he bowed politely while the barouche pulled away.
About the Author
Alicia Quigley is a lifelong lover of romance novels, who fell in love with Jane Austen in grade school, and Georgette Heyer in junior high. She made up games with playing cards using the face cards for Heyer characters, and sewed regency gowns (walking dresses, riding habits and bonnets that even Lydia Bennett wouldn’t have touched) for her Barbie. In spite of her terrible science and engineering addiction, she remains a devotee of the romance, and enjoys turning her hand to their production as well as their consumption.
Really interesting thanks for sharing.
It’s always neat finding out how the holidays were celebrated in the past, and what traditions have changed over time.