A Victorian Christmas?


We have to thank the victorian Royal Family for much of our modern Christmas ....
It's hard to imagine now, but at the beginning of the 19th century Christmas was hardly celebrated.
Many businesses did not even consider it a holiday.

However, by the end of the century it had become the biggest annual celebration, and took on the form that we recognise today.
The transformation happened comparatively quickly, and came from all sectors of society.


Christmas trees have a longer history than is generally known.
In 16th-century Germany fir trees were decorated, both indoors and out, with apples, as well as roses, gilded candies, and coloured paper.


The apples were from the Middle Ages, when a popular religous play depicted the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
A fir tree hung with apples was used to symbolize the Garden of Eden — the Paradise Tree.
The play ended with the prophecy of a saviour coming, and so was often performed during the Advent season.

There is another tree tradition.
It is held that Protestant reformer Martin Luther first adorned fir trees with light.


While coming home one December evening, the beauty of the stars shining through the branches of a fir inspired him to recreate the effect by placing candles on the branches of a small fir tree inside his home.

However, our domestic Christmas trees are generally thought to have a royal origin.
The Christmas Tree was, it is said, brought to England by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert from his native Germany.

 Victoria and Albert gathered around the Christmas tree with their children.

Many social historians attribute the change in attitudes to Christmas to Queen Victoria, and it was certainly her marriage to the German-born Prince Albert that introduced some of the most prominent 'family' aspects of Christmas to England.
During Christmas 1841, after the recent birth of Edward, Prince of Wales, there was great happiness within the palace.
A joyful Queen Victoria wrote in her journal,
“To think that we have two children now, and one who enjoys the sight already (the Christmas-tree); it is like a dream.”

Moreover, Prince Albert, writing to his father, said:
“This is the dear Christmas eve on which I have so often listened with impatience for your step, which was to convey us into the gift-room.
Today I have two children of my own to make gifts to, who, they know not why, are full of happy wonder at the German Christmas-tree and its radiant candles.”


In 1848 the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the royal family celebrating around a decorated Christmas tree, a tradition that was reminiscent of Prince Albert's childhood in Germany.

Soon every home in Britain had a tree bedecked with candles, sweets, fruit, homemade decorations and small gifts.


St. Nicholas had very ancient origins; it was much later that the victorians changed him into Father Christmas, or Santa Claus.
The true story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born during the third century in the village of Patara.
At the time the area was Greek and is now on the southern coast of Turkey.
His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young.
Obeying Jesus' words to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering.
He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man.
Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.


Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith, was exiled and imprisoned.
The prisons were so full of bishops, priests, and deacons, there was no room for the real criminals—murderers, thieves and robbers.
After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in AD 325.
He died on December 6, AD 343 in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church, where a unique relic, called manna, is said to have formed in his grave.
This liquid substance, reputed to have healing powers, fostered the growth of devotion to Nicholas.
His bones are now in the church at Bari, on the Southeast coast of Italy, which is a place of pilgrimage.


The anniversary of his death became a day of celebration, St. Nicholas' Day, December 6th. (December 19th on the Julian Calendar).
December 6th is still the main day for gift giving and merrymaking in much of Europe.
For example, in the Netherlands St. Nicholas is celebrated on the 5th, the eve of the day, by sharing candies (thrown in the door), chocolate initial letters, small gifts, and riddles.
Dutch children leave carrots and hay in their shoes for the saint's horse, hoping St. Nicholas will exchange them for small gifts.
Simple gift-giving in early Advent helps preserve a Christmas Day focus on the Christ-child.


Stories of St. Nicholas's kindness and generosity gave rise to claims that he could perform miracles, and over the centuries devotion to him steadily increased.
St. Nicholas became the patron saint of Russia, where he was known by his red cape, flowing white beard, and bishop’s mitre.


In 1822 Clement C. Moore composed the poem 'A Visit From Saint Nicholas,' published in a book, "The Night Before Christmas" as a gift for his children.

This is the cover of the 1862 version of the poem, one of the early images of the Santa Claus we know today.

He is described in detail in the book, but is no longer pictured as a bishop.
Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.


When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below.

When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer.
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

"Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St Nicholas too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedlar, just opening his pack.


His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose!

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"

The figure of Santa Claus as a jolly, benevolent, plump man in a red suit described in Moore’s poem remains with us today and is recognized by children and adults alike around the world.


A form of Christmas card began in England first when young boys practiced their writing skills by creating Christmas greetings for their parents.
However, it is Sir Henry Cole, a Victorian, who is credited with creating the first real Christmas card.
He was the first director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum,and found himself too busy in the Christmas season of 1843 to compose individual Christmas greetings for his friends.
He commissioned artist John Calcott Horsley for the illustration of his Christmas Greetings card, which was inscribed with the message “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.”

 The world's first commercially produced Christmas card, made by Henry Cole 1843.

What do we know about him?
He was born in Bath, and educated at Christ's Hospital in London.
He began his career at the age of 15 in the Public Record Office, where he became Assistant Keeper and was instrumental in reforming the organisation and preservation of the British national archives.
From 1837 to 1840, he worked as an assistant to Rowland Hill and played a key role in the introduction of the Penny Post.
He is even sometimes credited with the design of the world's first postage stamp, the Penny Black.


At one shilling each, the first Greetings cards were pricey for ordinary Victorians and so were not immediately popular.
However the sentiment caught on and many children - Queen Victoria's included – were encouraged to make their own Christmas cards.


In this age of industrialisation colour printing technology quickly became more advanced, causing the price of card production to drop significantly.
Together with the introduction of the halfpenny postage rate, the Christmas card industry took off.
Here are some early cards.

By the 1880s the sending of cards had become hugely popular, creating a lucrative industry that produced 11.5 million cards in 1880 alone.
The commercialisation of Christmas was well on its way.



Not just because we associate robins with winter snow.
This is another Victorian aspect of Christmas.
In those days, the postmen in England wore a fine red uniform.
They were popularly called "robins."


The British Post Office grew out of the carrying of royal dispatches.
Red was considered a royal colour, and probably this is why postboxes and vans were painted red.
The robins on early cards were a (small) joke.....

'The Country Letter Carrier' - Oil Painting by J P Hall, 1859


Another commercial Christmas industry was born in the Victorian period, when a British confectioner, Thomas Smith, invented a bold new way to sell sweets.
Inspired by a trip in 1848 to Paris where he saw" bon bons "– sugared almonds wrapped in twists of paper – he came up with the idea of the Christmas cracker: a simple package filled with sweets that snapped when pulled apart.


The sweets were replaced by small gifts and paper hats in the late Victorian period, and remain in this form as an essential part of a modern Christmas.
In the early 1850s Thomas came up with the idea of including a motto with the sweet.
As many of his bon-bons were bought by men to give to women, at that time the mottos were simple love poems.
In about 1860, Thomas added the banger, two strips of chemically impregnated paper that made a loud noise on being pulled apart.
At first these novelties were called 'cosaques', but they soon became known as 'crackers'.

Unfortunately for Thomas, his 'cracker' idea was copied by other manufactures and so he decided to replace the sweet with a surprise gift.
When Thomas died his two sons took over the business.
The paper hat was added to the cracker in the early 1900s and by the end of the 1930s the love poems had been replaced by jokes or limericks.


The Victorian Christmas was a family celebration.
Decorating the home at Christmas became a more elaborate affair.

The medieval tradition of using evergreens continued,but the style and arrangement of these decorations became more important.
The old custom of simply decking walls and windows with sprigs and twigs was not enough.
Order and elegance were encouraged.
There were instructions on how to make complicated synthetic decorations for those residing in towns.
In 1881 Cassell's Family Magazine gave strict directions to the lady of the house:

"To bring about a general feeling of enjoyment, much depends on the surroundings…
It is worth while to bestow some little trouble on the decoration of the rooms".


Finishing glass baubles. These are sugar-canes, in twisted red and white glass.

A bauble is a spherical decoration that is used to decorate Christmas trees.
Christmas baubles were originally made of glass and invented in the small German town of Lauscha, a town which specialised in glass blowing.


The bauble is one of the most popular Christmas ornament designs, and they have been in mass production since 1847.
The custom became extremely popular during the Victorian era, when homemade baubles and trinkets were also made to decorate the tree.


At first the tree had been hung with small toys, cakes, bags of sweets tied with ribbon containing bonbons or candies, like sugared almonds.
We are more sophisticated, sadly, today....

Gift giving had traditionally been at New Year but moved as Christmas became more important to the Victorians.
Initially gifts were rather modest – fruit, nuts, sweets and small handmade trinkets.
These were usually hung on the Christmas tree.
However, as gift giving became more central to the festival, and the gifts became bigger and shop-bought, they moved under the tree.


The Christmas feast has its roots from before the Middle Ages, but it was during the Victorian period that the dinner we now associate with Christmas began to take shape.
Many christmas delicacies originated centuries ago.


Examination of early Victorian recipes shows that mince pies were initially made from minced meat and spices, a tradition dating back to Tudor times.
They were shaped like a cradle, and had a little pastry baby resting on the filling.
During the Puritan period Christmas frolickings were suppressed, and for a while mince pies disappeared.
When they returned during the 19th century there was a revolution in the composition of this festive dish.
Sweet mixtures of fruits and spices without meat began to gain popularity, and the mince pies we know today gained favour.


The roast turkey also has its beginnings in Victorian Britain.
Previously other forms of roasted meat, such as beef and especially goose, were the centrepiece of the Christmas dinner.
Farmers would WALK their flocks of geese into London from the country.

The turkey was added by the more wealthy sections of the community late in the 19th century, and its perfect size for a middle class family gathering meant it became the dominant dish by the beginning of the 20th century.
Because the Victorians had transformed the idea of Christmas so that it became centred around the family and the home, the preparation and eating of the feast, decorations and gift giving, entertainments and parlour games - all were essential to the celebration of the festival and were to be shared by the whole family.


While Charles Dickens did not invent the Victorian Christmas, his book A Christmas Carol is credited with helping to popularise and spread the traditions of the festival.
Its themes of family, charity, goodwill, peace and happiness encapsulate the spirit of the Victorian Christmas, and are very much a part of the Christmas we celebrate today.

I always think that the home-made decorations are the best!


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