I start this post with a sad year for the Brontë family. On the 19th December 1848, Emily Brontë passed away at home. Mary Crain dramatizes her death, picturing her looking out of her living
room window for the last time, beholding her ‘beloved moors covered with a light blanket of snow’. On Christmas Eve of the same year, Charlotte lamented how she was:
Looking forth with streaming eye
On life’s lone wilderness.
Weary, weary, dark and drear,
How shall I the journey bear,
The burden and distress?
[315, Broadview Anthology of Poetry]
But let us not linger on sad times; Christmas was, in the siblings’ short lives together, celebrated quietly and contently amidst the traditional hum of Yorkshire festivities. Maria Hubert lists the long-established Christmas practises in Brontë County. A custom still practised in living memory was the domestic rounds of the Vessel Maid armed with her Wassail Bob. During advent, two Vessel Maids (young girls) would carry a decorated box – a Wassail Bob – with three figures inside that each represented a member of the Holy family. Each year the girls would call from house to house, singing carols and asking for a penny in exchange for a peek inside the box. It was considered very unlucky if the Vessel Maids did not call, therefore most houses welcomed this treat; a local carol was named after the tradition called ‘Here we come a Wassailing’. To enliven the Yorkshire spirit further, the Waits – British town musicians and watchmen – sung familiar Christmas carols and songs in the surrounding towns of Haworth. In Haworth itself, there are very little records that exist for the Revd Patrick Brontë’s sermons, but many speculate that he would have also included carols in his programme.
Lastly, records of the Brontës’ reading show that they indulged in reading festive material. In 1831, Charlotte copied a sketch of an Italian scene from the Forget Me Not annual, one of the three annuals the Brontë siblings owned. These period-based publications were a popular lady’s Christmas gift, aimed at the Victorian middle-class market. Each festive issue included twelve engravings to commemorate each individual month of the year, and poetry written by authors such as Sir Walter Scott and Mary Wollstonecraft.
With their schooling and working posts, Christmas was a time where the siblings could reunite and spend quality time with each other and their beloved surroundings. Their literature reflects this; Anne’s Agnes Grey (1847), a semi-autobiographical work about her time at Thorp Green Hall as a governess, describes her trip back home for Christmas:
I spare my readers the account of my delight on coming home, happiness while there – enjoying a brief space of rest and liberty in that dear, familiar place, among the loving and the loved – and my sorrow on being obliged to bid them, once more, a long adieu. (33)
It appears that, to Anne, her home at Christmas time was a place of safety and warmth, surrounded by the comfort of her loving family.
Charlotte and Emily also mention Christmas in their works, giving some insight into their opinions regarding the season. In Emily’s Wuthering Heights (1847), Nelly Dean describes a Christmas at Wuthering Heights after Cathy returns from her five-week residence at Thrushcross Grange. She narrates her joy at making ‘the house and kitchen cheerful with great fires’ (56) – A happy moment in an extremely dark novel. After sitting down to rest, she begins to cry, remembering even happier
times when the former owner, old Earnshaw, was alive:
I smelt the rich scent of the heating spices; and admired the shining kitchen utensils, the polished clock, decked in holly, the silver mugs ranged on a tray ready to be filled with mulled ale for supper; and above all, the speckless purity of my particular care—the scoured and well-swept floor. I gave due inward applause to every object, and then I remembered how old Earnshaw used to come in when all was tidied, and call me a cant lass, and slip a shilling into my hand as a Christmas-box; and from that I went on to think of his fondness for Heathcliff, and his dread lest he should suffer neglect after death had removed him. (56)
Emily, then, sees a nostalgic side to Christmas, a time to reflect on past merriment. Charlotte also writes of Christmas nostalgia in her first published novel, Jane Eyre (1847). Although Christmas is mentioned a number of times in relation to the changing seasons, Mrs. Fairfax lingers over one particular Christmas when Thornfield – home of Jane’s employer, Mr. Rochester – was host to a lavish, festive party. She relates to Jane the arrival of the beautiful Blanche Ingram – Rochester’s supposed love interest – and emphasizes the majesty of the occasion:
“You should have seen the dining-room that day—how richly it was decorated, how brilliantly lit up! I should think there were fifty ladies and gentlemen present—all of the
first county families; and Miss Ingram was considered the belle of the evening.”
“You saw her, you say, Mrs. Fairfax: what was she like?”
“Yes, I saw her. The dining-room doors were thrown open; and, as it was Christmas-time, the servants were allowed to assemble in the hall, to hear some of the ladies sing and play. Mr. Rochester would have me to come in, and I sat down in a quiet corner and watched them. I never saw a more splendid scene: the ladies were magnificently dressed; most of them—at least most of the younger ones—looked handsome; but Miss Ingram was certainly the queen.” (159)
Unlike the Brontës’ own lives, Charlotte loses herself in the glitz and glamour of upper-class leisure, envisaging Christmas as a time of wealth and frivolity – a life very different to the modest, peaceful celebrations held at Haworth Parsonage.
Christmas, it seemed, was a time of magic, nostalgia and home comforts for the three sisters. Although they may not have held magnificent balls, such as Charlotte presents at the fictitious Thornfield Hall, their time together was precious. Personally, I consider Anne’s description in Agnes Grey as an accurate description of the festive season for the Brontës. Before their eternal partings, the Christmas period was a time where they could reunite, feel at home and share a mutual love of one another’s company and creativity.
[All quotations taken from Oxford World Classics editions]