Like reading Thackeray edited by Elmore Leonard

The Victorian Christmas

We like to think of Christmas as a time of year steeped in tradition, and so it is, but traditions have to start somewhere, and many of the features of our modern Christmas celebrations started with the Victorians, even the commercialisation. Before Victoria’s reign, which began in 1837, nobody in Britain had heard of Christmas crackers, Santa Claus or Christmas cards, or even Father Christmas, let alone Rudolf and his red nose. Most people did not have Christmas day off as a holiday – they worked. The Scots have always preferred to postpone their festivities a few days, to Hogmanay, the celebration of the arrival of the New Year, and as a consequence Christmas remained for them an entirely religious occasion.

The wealth generated by the industrialisation offered the emergent middle class time and money to take two days of holiday, Christmas day and Boxing Day, in the middle of winter. The holly, ivy and mistletoe were all part of pagan festivals taken over by Christians and given new significance, but their traditional meaning was to help usher in the spring. Father Christmas was originally part of an old English midwinter festival, normally dressed in green, a sign of the returning spring. The stories of st Nicholas (Sinter Klaas in Holland) came via Dutch settlers to America in the 17th century and by the 1870’s he had become Santa Claus, dressed up warmly in red, and driving a sleigh pulled by reindeer and his enormous sack full of presents – but only for those children who had behaved themselves!

The Christmas cracker was invented by Tom Smith, a London sweet maker in 1846. His original idea involved simply wrapping sweets in coloured paper, but this sold much better when he added paper hats, small toys, appallingly lame but respectable jokes, and of course something to make it go BANG! The Christmas stocking did not catch on until about 1870 and the usual presents were an apple, perhaps an orange and some nuts. Before the nineteenth century, toys were handmade and therefore expensive – or you made them yourself – but with mass production, toys became cheaper and affordable.

1840 saw the first countrywide postal system, with the ‘penny post’ – a letter with a penny black stamp would be delivered anywhere through Britain. This paved the way for the first Christmas cards in 1843, by Henry Cole, who printed 1,000 in his art shop in London, price, one shilling each, which we would have to consider quite expensive. The idea caught on a by 1870, through efficiencies in the postal system brought on by the railways, a ha’penny (= half a penny) post for cards was introduced. It was Prince Albert who introduced the Christmas tree to Windsor Castle from his native Germany, where it was popular. The 1840’s saw the introduction of carol singers and musicians who would go from house to house singing and collecting for charity.

Inventive as the Victorians were, they produced new carols for the occasion:

  • 1843 O Come all ye Faithful
  • 1848 Once in Royal David’s City
  • 1851 See Amid the Winter’s Snow
  • 1868 O Little Town of Bethlehem
  • 1883 Away in a Manger

It is a popular misconception that turkeys were not around during the Victorian era; in fact they had been introduced into Britain from America in 1526 by an enterprising Yorkshire farmer, William Strickland, but they remained expensive birds and fare only for the privileged rich until near the end of the century. Both Eliza Acton (1845) and Mrs Beeton (1861) give numerous recipes for cooking and serving turkey. For the less well off, goose was the centre piece of the traditional Christmas meal.

  • “Christmas is coming! – the goose is getting fat,
  • Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.
  • If you haven’t got a penny, a farthing will do.
  • If you don’t have a farthing, God Bless You.”

In the north of England, the traditional meat for Christmas was roast beef but many poor people made do with rabbit.

Gradually the Norfolk farms became the breeding areas for the Christmas turkey and in October the unsuspecting birds would be marched the 80 mile journey to London. Arriving tired and scrawny, they would have thought that their luck had changed as they were fattened up in the last few weeks before Christmas!

Victorians were good at providing their own entertainment. They would sing, play musical instruments, act out short plays or read, not just for their own individual pleasure, but out loud for all to hear. Spring had been the traditional peak season for launching new books, but this shifted to October as publishers realised that at Christmas, people had a few more pennies in their pockets and books made good presents. A new genre of ‘fireside books’ appeared, such as Elizabeth Shepherd’s Round the Fireside Stories (1856), Mrs Ellis’ Fireside Tales for the Young (1849) and William Martin’s Fireside Philosophy, or Home Science(1845). Cheap reprint editions of such favourite classics as The Pilgrim’s Progress, Robinson Crusoe and the popular novels of Walter Scott would have been read alongside newer texts written especially for Christmas, such as Lady Barker’s A Christmas Cake: in Four Quarters or Julia Ewing’s Snap-dragons, a Tale of Christmas Eve (1888).

The publication of the first English translation of Grimm’s FairyTales in 1823 initiated an explosion of fairies and goblins into the artistic and literary life of the Victorians. Most famously we have Charles Kingsley and his Water-Babies (1863); Peter Pan by J M Barrie was first published in 1904 and therefore is just post-Victorian. Dickens wrote the most famous Victorian ghost story, The Christmas Carol in 1843 followed by The Cricket on the Hearth: A Fairy-Tale of Home in 1846. This was the beginning of a trend which has continued, of publishing books with a Christmas theme. The religious societies were not slow to cash in on the commercialisation of Christmas and they published special Christmas tracts and texts such as Little Peter: A Christmas Morality for Children of Any Age (1887) and A New Christmas Tract, or The Right Way of Rejoicing at Christmas (1830).