I spent most of the day yesterday running through my Christmas novel one last time to add in all the tiny research details I had not bothered to do before then (what carols the heroine sings, where exactly the hero’s brother’s wife is from, which road(s) the hero would have been travelling on from London to get home). I also had a couple places where I’d thought of additional setting texturizers I wanted to add, and I wanted to do one final read-through of the story as a whole to make sure the mood and the flow of it suit my reading aesthetic. I also found a handful of adverbs to remove, a few dull verbs to replace, and two more typos that I had missed.
But I am not here to talk about writer stuff. I want to talk about Christmas as it’s presented in historical romance, specifically Regency romances, how anachronistic it is, and, more importantly, why so many writers dole out those anachronisms.
Basically, Christmas as we know it started in the Victorian era in England, with a Christmas revival starting about 1830. Looking at primary source documents from the end of the 18th century and the Regency, generally speaking the upper-class had decided the traditional pagan-based celebrations like wassailing, Yule logs, and caroling were déclassé and best left to the lower classes, in contrast to the long 18th century in which the rowdy Georgian aristocracy still reveled in such traditions. Local areas might have held onto the old traditions, but they were no longer ubiquitous. Moreover, Christmas was not yet confined to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day but was still extended over the traditional twelve days from Christmas Day to Epiphany Eve (AKA, Twelfth Night). Gift-giving was not a major focus, and Christmas trees would only have existed in an area with a heavy German immigrant population. About the only recognizable features to us would have been children home from school, greenery to decorate the house, extra charity work, and lots of dinner parties with family and friends (spread, again, over the 12 days of Christmas and not the weeks leading up to it).
Yet if you read a Christmas-set Regency romance, more often than not the story focuses on the Christmas season as some special period to be venerated (at least for one of the characters, usually the heroine), comes to a climax on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, and one of the modern epithets like “season of hope,” “season of forgiveness,” or “season of giving” will be the dominant theme.
Why? Why do so many writers blatantly ignore what Christmas was–and was not–about during the time period in which they choose to write?
I see two ways to read it, and I don’t know which is more insulting. Depends, I suppose, on whether you consider being called ignorant and/or lazy more of an insult than being called out for bad faith and crass commercial exploitation. For some writers, I’m sure, including modern Christmas mores in a Regency-set story is nothing more than having read other such stories and assuming that our current traditions go back “hundreds” of years without bothering to verify this. I expect that others know better but choose to tell such stories anyway because “the audience” wants proper Christmas stories, not, you know, historically accurate ones.
I don’t know that writers who know better but do it anyway are necessarily writing out of cynicism; most probably think, “Well, who’s to say these individuals might not have celebrated in these ways?” The problem is in aggregate, when every writer who sets a story during Christmas takes such liberties. Then the body of work of the “Regency Christmas” genre becomes distorted: the period becomes nothing more than window dressing and costumes rather than a necessary and proper part of the story. (A necessary and proper part of an historical romance is, to me, having a story set in that time because it would not have happened the same way in another time.)
My take on the matter is, if you want a modern Christmas story with themes of redemption and hope and renewal, with costumes, write a Victorian story, and if you want a rollicking 12-day party then write a medieval, Restoration, or Georgian story, and if you want a small, unthematic and somewhat rowdy story, then write a Napoleonic or Regency story. But for God’s sake, don’t end it on Christmas Day–that was only the beginning of the season!