How did the Georgians Celebrate their Birthdays?
For centuries throughout Europe people had traditionally celebrated their name day as well as their birthday. By the Regency era, it had become more typical to celebrate a birthday, and this was due to changing religious practices that were symbolised by the royal family.
In August 1818 the Prince Regent turned fifty-six years old, even though his official birthday had been celebrated on his name day earlier that year. A so-called ‘private’ celebration was held as a grand outdoor fête at Richmond Hill. There were large marquees in the open pastures, with a panoramic view to the River Thames for guests to enjoy as elegant fare was served. The artist J. M. W. Turner had attended and a large oil canvas of the event went on display in 1819.
Richmond Hill, on the Prince Regent’s Birthday (J.M.W Turner, Tate)
For most families in Georgian times, birthday celebrations were unsurprisingly rather less lavish, especially in comparison to modern times. Yet a young boy from a wealthy family in Regency Britain would often have his fifth birthday marked with a ‘breeching ceremony’; this was a grand occasion with relatives visiting to bestow gifts. For girls, their sixteenth birthday was considered the day they reached marriageable age and they were often given gifts such as fine jewellery, a trinket box, an enamel fan or fabric for a new gown in recognition of their social debut.
A Regency blonde tortoiseshell trinket box (1809)
Austen’s correspondence with her sister offers some insight into how birthdays were noted and celebrated by families from the gentry. In a letter from Steventon, dated January 8 1799, she writes, ” I wish you joy of your birthday twenty times over.” Much later, regarding her own birthday, she wrote: “My dearest Cassandra, I will keep this celebrated birthday by writing to you.” This letter then details a drive with her brother Edward, assemblies and other amusements, but not an official birthday celebration.
A letter from Austen to Cassandra, 11 June 1799
This year many official birthday parties have had to be changed or postponed. It is good to think that, like the Georgians, we can enjoy planning trips together, and send a heartfelt birthday or seasonal message to a relative who we are unable to see in person. Ultimately, whether a person’s family celebrated their birthday, or their name day, the emphasis was to celebrate another year of life, and, hopefully, their continuing health, happiness and good fortune. On Austen’s birthday, and as the year draws to a close, we wish the same to you and your family.
We had some fun imagining what people might have gifted to Jane on her birthday – you can see some of the suggestions here