Have you ever wondered how the Victorians celebrated Christmas? What did they do differently than us or similarly? To find out how the Victorians celebrated Christmas and which modern traditions they practiced please continue reading!
From our intern, Megan:
The marriage of Queen Victoria to German-born Prince Albert introduced some of the most prominent Christmas traditions to Victorian Britain, and later, to the United States. The custom of decorating a Christmas tree, for example, gained popularity after the Illustrated London News, 1848, published a drawing of the royal family surrounding an evergreen tree, or Tannenbaum, – continued from the medieval tradition in which the tree represented eternal life – adorned with candles, sweets, and handmade decorations. Evergreen plants – trees, mistletoe, holly, and ivy – served as holiday decoration, protection from evil spirits, and hope for spring. The decorations quickly became extravagant and Victorians encouraged uniform elegance (“History of Christmas,” BBC; Johnson, “A Victorian Christmas).”
The advent of the commercialization of Christmas celebrations, like everything else in the Victorian era, did not occur independently of industrialization. The invention of the Christmas card took place in 1843, but the average Victorian could not afford the one-shilling price tag. Not long after children were encouraged to create their own cards as an inexpensive alternative, color printing technology allowed for the mass production of affordable cards. By the 1880s, mailing Christmas cards was wildly popular.
(Victorian Christmas Card from the 1890’s from Archives New Zealand’s former Post and Telegraph/Telecom Museum Holdings collection)
Excess wealth accumulated with industry allowed Victorians to take time off of work. Christmas Day and Boxing Day, December 26, became recognized holidays in the Victorian period. Boxing Day earned its name for the opening of boxes of money gifted by the wealthy and do-gooders to servants and working people (“History of Christmas,” BBC; Johnson, “A Victorian Christmas).”
Industrialization in the Victorian period similarly led to the marketing of sweets designed especially for Christmas, such as Christmas crackers. The giving and receiving of Christmas presents also started with the Victorians, evolving from the tradition of gift-giving during New Year celebrations. Industrialization allowed for the widespread availability of factory-made children’s toys as an alternative to the handmade toys that were only affordable to the wealthy. The Christmas stocking became popular in the early 1870s, as poor children generally received only stockings filled with fruit or nuts. The United States recognized the commercial potential of Christmas earlier than Britain, and in 1880s New York department stores filled their windows with European toys and manufacturers began the production of ornaments – often decorated with “diamond dust,” or powdered glass (“History of Christmas,” BBC; Johnson, “A Victorian Christmas).”
Two of the most beloved Christmas traditions, carol singers and Santa Claus, were popularized in the Victorian period. Caroling, celebrated in Britain as musical entertainment, gained popularity as a Christmas celebration by Victorians. In the United States, the sight of carolers marked the beginning of the holiday season. Carolers sold sheet music, often frequenting market areas, and traveled door-to-door performing. Christmas carols have remained one of the most celebrated Christmas traditions. Also in the Victorian period, the figure of Father Christmas originated in the legends and stories of many different countries and many different languages. Clement Moore’s 1822 poem, “T’was the Night Before Christmas,” inspired Bavarian artist Thomas Nast’s illustrations of Father Christmas on which the modern-day depiction of Santa Claus was based (“History of Christmas,” BBC; Edwards, “A Victorian Christmas).”
Modern Christmas traditions were modeled after Victorian Christmas celebrations – including decorating Christmas trees, singing carols, and mailing greeting cards. Often credited as the inventor of Christmas, Charles Dickens, in The Christmas Carol, depicted the most meaningful characteristics of the Victorian Christmas. The morals of Dickens’s story – the importance of family, peace, and goodwill – have been adopted as the cornerstones of the present-day Christmas spirit (“History of Christmas,” BBC; Phillip V. Allingham, “Dickens: The Man Who Invented Christmas)”.
Question for the reader: Does your family have any Christmas traditions? If so what are they?
“History of Christmas.” BBC. Accessed November 20, 2016. http://www.bbc.co.uk/victorianchristmas/history.shtml.
“A Victorian Christmas.” The Complete Victorian. Accessed November 20, 2016. http://www.thecompletevictorian.com/christmas.html
Allingham, Phillip V. “Dickens: The Man Who Invented Christmas.” The Victorian Web: Literature, History, and Culture in the Age of Victoria. Last modified December 14, 2009. Accessed November 20, 2016. http://www.victorianweb.org/victorian/authors/dickens/xmas/pva63.html
Edwards, Sylvia. “Victorian Christmas Traditions.” Ancestry: Blogs. Accessed November 20, 2016. http://blogs.ancestry.com/uk/2011/12/01/victorian-christmas-traditions/
Johnson, Ben. “A Victorian Christmas.” History Magazine: History of England. Accessed November 20, 2016. http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/A-Victorian-Christmas/