Issue 4: Christmas Eve at Chawton House

PEEK THROUGH THE WINDOW INTO THE TRADITIONAL CELEBRATIONS OF THE AUSTEN KNIGHT FAMILY OF CHAWTON HOUSE

Christmas Eve was my favourite night of the year at Chawton House and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Chawton had been inherited by my fourth great-grandfather, Edward Austen Knight, from distant cousins, the Knights. In 1812, as a condition of his inheritance, Edward changed his - and my - name from Austen to Knight. Edward's sister, Jane Austen, my fifth great-aunt, had spent the last eight years of her life living in a cottage in the middle of the village and frequently visited Chawton Great House, as she called it.

Preparations for our celebrations began days before. Granny ran a tea room in the Great Hall in the summer months and the numerous tables and chairs were rearranged to allow plenty of room for the family to mingle, talk and play games, rather than be formally seated. A pile of seasoned logs sat ready next to the large stone fireplace. Home-made decorations and streamers hung from the antlers above the dark oak panelling. Sprigs of holly with bright red berries, gathered from the woods on the edge of the south-west lawns, were strategically placed around the room - on the fireplace mantle, the lip above the panelling, above the doors and on the window ledges. A thick bunch of mistletoe hung in the doorways so guests would be greeted with a kiss. A large Christmas tree, freshly cut from a neighbour’s woodland, took pride of place and was decorated with baubles of all different shapes, sizes and colours. Presents were piled up under the tree ready to be opened on Christmas Day.  

 Peeking through the window into the Great Hall - courtesy of Julia Grantham

Peeking through the window into the Great Hall - courtesy of Julia Grantham

An enormous pewter charger had been retrieved from its home above the panelling in the inner hallway to be warmed in front of the fire for Snap-Dragon - the main event of the evening. Granny said the chargers were very old, but I didn’t know how old. “Tho’ I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls Pewter too,” Jane once quipped, but I didn’t know if this was Edward’s pewter.

Late in the afternoon, I started to get myself ready for the evening’s festivities. We all dressed smartly for celebrations in the Great Hall, and I’m sure Jane did too. A best dress, perhaps, with hair freshly pinned and smart shoes to change into when she arrived: it wasn’t far to walk from Chawton Cottage. From my bedroom, I walked down a dark panelled hall, past the oil portraits of the 6th, 7th and 8th squires of Chawton House, and into our sitting room. Dad was seated in an armchair by the fireplace and I sat on a window seat with a clear view of the front entrance to the house, and peeked through the curtains to watch our extended family and close friends arrive.

At six o’clock we opened the heavy door from the North Wing and walked into the Great Hall. A fire flickered in the large open hearth, the curtains were drawn and the room was warm. Cocktail sausages, a cheese platter, and Granny’s legendary mince pies took pride of place on a high refectory table pushed to the wall on the right of the fireplace, with plates and cutlery at one end for self service, and glasses and drinks at the other. The small black bats that occasionally flew around the top of the room were nowhere to be seen. The smell of Christmas was unmistakable: chestnuts on the roaring fire, spices in the mulled wine, and brandy warming in a jug by the fireplace. The room soon hummed with lively conversation, laughter and anticipation.  

 Mum and me in front of the fireplace in the Great Hall.  C  opyright: Caroline Jane Knight

Mum and me in front of the fireplace in the Great Hall. Copyright: Caroline Jane Knight

Cousins shared stories, personal news, and talked about the festivities planned for the next few days. An hour or so into the evening, Granny appeared with the warmed jug of brandy, giving the signal that it was time: Snap-Dragon was about to begin. The pewter charger had been piled high with currants and took pride of place on a round table in the centre of the room. We gathered around the table and the lights were turned out. Granny poured the brandy over the currants, and used a match to ignite the flames. A roar of blue flames lit up the room with a flickering glow, and made the happy and excited faces seem ghoulish and sinister. The room filled with laughter and excitement as we put our hands in to quickly grab the fruit. As a young child I had been frightened of the flames and didn’t want to put my hands in, fearful I would be burnt. But my desire to do as my older brother and cousins did outweighed my fears, and I eventually put my hands in to discover that as long as I was quick and immediately put the currants in my mouth, it didn’t hurt at all. It was as if we were eating fire! I marvelled as my brother Paul put his hand in over and over, without any sign of fear or hesitation, and encouraged me to be braver. It was over in a matter of minutes but the adrenaline lasted much longer.

My ancestors had played the same game. “Different amusements every evening! We had Bullet Pudding, then Snap-Dragon,” Fanny Knight wrote in her diary. Did Jane put her hands into the flames, or stand back and watch? Fanny was one of Jane’s favourite nieces and I like to think that Jane would have taken part - in keeping with the lively, fun image of her that has prevailed through the centuries. “Don’t be afraid, Fanny, proceed in a determined and speedy fashion, you will not be harmed,” I imagine Jane saying quietly in kind encouragement before she led the chant:

Here he comes with flaming bowl,

Don't he mean to take his toll,

Snip! Snap! Dragon!

Take care you don’t take too much,

Be not greedy in your clutch,

Snip! Snap! Dragon!

With his blue and lapping tongue

Many of you will be stung,

Snip! Snap! Dragon!

For he snaps at all that comes

Snatching at his feast of plums,

Snip! Snap! Dragon!

But Old Christmas makes his come,

Though he looks so fee! fa! fum!

Snip! Snap! Dragon!

Don’t ‘ee fear him but be bold

Out he goes his flames are cold,

Snip! Snap! Dragon!

Snap-Dragon had been popular in England from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Had Snap-Dragon been played in the Great Hall since Shakespeare’s time when John Knight built Chawton House? Or was it introduced by great Aunt Jane herself? I will never know.

© Caroline Jane Knight, the last descendant of the Austen family to be raised in Chawton, Founder and Chair of the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation

Caroline's upcoming book 'Jane and Me' is due for publication in 2017

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JANE AUSTEN AUDIO BOOKS

Author, comedienne, Jane Austen Literacy Foundation Ambassador, and award winning narrator of over 120 audiobooks, Alison Larkin brings her signature wit to her critically acclaimed narration of Jane Austen's novels. "She approaches Austen as a satirist...sustained comic creations. The voice reveals all." The New Yorker. Five dollars from every Alison Larkin Presents audio book purchased this Christmas will be donated to the Foundation.

 

PERSONALISED BOOKPLATES

Bookplates are a traditional way of marking the ownership of books. A bookplates is a label which is pasted into the front cover of a book - they were very popular in Jane Austen's time. Jane Austen Literacy Foundation bookplates are decorative, personalised with a name in Jane Austen's handwriting, and have a unique number. Simply make a donation to the Foundation and nominate the name you would like on the bookplate. The bookplate will be emailed to you in plenty of time for Christmas.

Image credits: Julia Grantham and Photofunia.com