Without the Victorians, Christmas as we know it today would be remarkably different. Imagine no Christmas cards, no Christmas crackers, no Christmas puddings, no Christmas carols and no Christmas trees. Indeed outside religious circles Christmas might not be celebrated with any great fanfare at all…but for the era of Yuletide discovery and reinvention.
The Dickens Factor
Novelist Charles Dickens is credited with resurrecting Christmas traditions of old through his marvellous story “A Christmas Carol”. The novella was published on December 19, 1843 to popular acclaim and, for a work that took him just six weeks to complete, stood as a morality tale not only for that age but for generations to follow. Dickens put family, feasting and fellowship at the heart of the season and delivered the hellish consequences of failing to learn the error of one’s ways. Ebenezer Scrooge, the great redemptive force, was born.
Dickens wrote several works set at Christmas, all with the backdrop of winter white. He was born in 1812 towards the latter end of a period known as Britain’s ‘Little Ice Age’. Winter Frost Fairs were held on the frozen River Thames (the last of them in 1814) and the first eight Christmases of Dickens’s life were snow-covered ones. This influenced his later seasonal books.
Parlour Games were hugely popular in Victorian times, especially charades, snap-dragon, the laughing game, the minister’s cat and the sculptor. The latter saw the designated sculptor move the other guests into various curious poses that were tricky to hold. The first person to move – or for that matter giggle – became the sculptor. Snap-dragon involved a bowl of brandy with raisins in it that was set alight. The idea was for players to try to pluck the raisins out of the bowl without getting burnt and eat them while still aflame. You can discover more on the Parlour Games page.
Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children helped popularise the Christmas tree in Britain when they were captured standing by one in an etching in an 1848 edition of “Illustrated News”. The Christmas tree arrived in Britain with King George I from his native Germany. He reigned here from 1714 to 1727. His great-great-granddaughter Victoria was just 13 when she wrote in her diary of seeing two tabletop Christmas trees in her uncle’s royal drawing room, so King George’s tradition had clearly continued in royal circles. But without that famous etching of 1848 the Christmas tree might not have taken festive root with the greater public.
The growth in the giving of presents correlates to the rise in popularity of the Christmas tree. Gifts were hung on the tree as well as underneath it. There was also a tradition of the present table where gifts were placed, often unwrapped. In the early 1800s presents had more commonly been handed out on January 1 and not December 25. This changed in Victorian Times.
Early in the Victorian era, in 1843, Sir Henry Cole created the world’s first commercial Christmas card. They sold for a shilling each – an average man’s weekly wage at the time. Most of the original 1,000 print-run was in colour, with only a small selection in monochrome. There are believed to be just 12 in existence today, only three monochrome. They can fetch thousands of pounds at auction. One sold at Devizes, Wiltshire in November 2001 for £20,000. It was originally sent by Cole to his grandmother in 1843 and was hand-coloured by London illustrator John Calcott Horsley. The pictured scene was criticised for promoting drunkenness – it included an adult feeding wine to a child. Cole also introduced the penny post in Britain in 1840 and, as the cost of cards gradually reduced, sending such greetings became more affordable for the masses. A trend was established. Tens of millions of Christmas cards are now sent worldwide every year. Christmas mail was not mentioned in the Post Office annual report until 1878.
The sudden popularity of greetings cards meant more postal deliveries. Postmen in Victorian Britain wore red uniforms and were nicknamed robins. It’s been a widely held belief that the robin pictures on Christmas cards are paying homage to the men who deliver the greetings, but that isn’t necessarily the case. For some, robins have a religious link and for others robins are a bird synonymous with winter. Therefore, they might always have been destined to appear on cards, regardless of the postmen’s nickname.
Christmas crackers were the creation of Victorian Britain confectioner Tom Smith and first appeared in 1847. Smith derived inspiration from a trip to Paris where he saw bon-bon sweets wrapped in paper with twists at either end. His first notion was to insert love messages inside the sweet wrappers to boost sales. The story goes that Smith thought of adding the bang when he heard a fire crackle and pop. The size and nature of his ‘sweet’ were changed and it was marketed as the ‘Cosaque’ or Cossack, although it was his son Walter who added party hats and favours in later years to differentiate their crackers from others entering the market. To this day, Christmas crackers are quintessentially British.
The Victorian age helped secure the image of the great gift-giver Father Christmas. He is more readily depicted in a red costume in this era, including Thomas Nast cartoons of the 1860s and 1870s, when before his garb was more predominantly brown or green. It is a myth Coca Cola’s advertisements of the 1930s created the red clothing for Santa. Read more on Father Christmas on our Folklore & Customs page.
Cornucopias – horn-shaped paper decorations filled with nuts, sweets or dried fruit – were hung on Christmas trees along with simple baked goods and clove-studded oranges. Heavy glass baubles known as kugels (’round ball’ in German) were bright in colour and soon took off, as did ornaments called Dresdens after the German city in which they originated in the late 19th century. These embossed cardboard decorations were gilded or silvered and came in a myriad of shapes: animals, toys, musical instruments, transport and so many more. They were made from around 1880 to 1910. Some were hand-painted by artists and some came in pieces that required assembling. Although thousands were manufactured relatively few originals remain, making them most collectible.
Christmas puddings have a strong link to Victorian times – as this rhyme of the age suggests:
“Oh hurrah for the holiday season!
All hail to its puddings and plums
Great blessings upon the dear children
For whom this sweet Christmastide comes”
First came the medieval plum porridge or plum pottage, made from meat and dried fruits and somewhat more liquid in consistency than the solid puddings we know today. British monarch George I (1660-1727) is known to have served plum pudding on his Christmas Day menu, but Prince Albert is credited with solidifying the rich, heavy, fruit-laden puddings as a festive staple in Victorian times. His pudding of choice was meat-free apart from beef suet. The Victorians also introduced the notion of steaming or boiling puddings in basins.
For the grander households – with access to an icehouse – jelly, blancmange and ice cream in elaborate moulds formed part of the Christmas feast. The simpler white iced Christmas cake developed from the rich, decadent, colourful Twelfth Night cake. Centrepieces in wealthier homes included a boar’s head and exotic fruits like pineapples. The main meat dishes for Christmas dinner were mutton, beef, turkey and hare. Goose was only considered suitable for the lower orders.
Christmas Carols either enjoyed a Victorian renaissance or were written anew in this era to celebrate the season. Carols found their comfortable place in churches from the early 19th century – a golden era for carol creation, rescue and rearrangement. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is a traditional English carol likely dating from the mid-18th century. However, it found fresh life when it was published in 1833 by British lawyer William Sandys. The book “Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern” by Sandys (pronounced Sands) is credited with helping the revival of Christmas festivities in the mid-Victorian era. It included such works as “The First Noel”, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “I Saw Three Ships”.
“O Holy Night” is regularly near the top of the annual Christmas carol polls. Minister John Sullivan Dwight wrote the lyrics we know today in 1855, while English Anglican priest John Mason Neale created Victorian classics “Good King Wenceslas”, and “Good Christian Men Rejoice”.
Yule candles are an ancient tradition carrying similar superstitions to those attached to the burning of Yule logs. For the more affluent Victorians, the lighting of a Yule candle was not uncommon. Grocers or chandlers might offer them as a gift to their most important and loyal customers. Yule candles were lit either on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning and were re-lit each day of the twelve days of Christmas. It was considered bad luck if the candle accidentally blew out rather than be purposely snuffed out (that was usually done by pressing the wick with a pair of tongs). The job of lightning and extinguishing the candle traditionally fell to the head of the household.
Great poets of the age created works that are cherished to this day. Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) wrote the poem “In the Bleak Midwinter” – later set to music and which remains one of the country’s most-loved carols. It starts:
“In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan
Earth stood hard as iron
Water like a stone
Snow had fallen
Snow on snow, snow on snow
In the bleak midwinter
Long, long ago”