Celebrating Christmas in the Victorian Era

Celebrating Christmas in the Victorian Era

A very merry Victorian Christmas

“I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world! Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!”

This euphoric statement could not have come from a more unlikely character. At the end of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, written in 1843, the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge experiences an epiphany after his derision of Christmas, the gift of giving and charity. Scrooge wakes up utterly transformed, thanks to a dream he has in which he is visited by ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, the last of which is ominous in its predictions should Scrooge remain mean, tightfisted and unsympathetic to those around him.

Queen Victoria made popular the Christmas we’ve come to know.

A Christmas Carol remains a brilliant advocate for the commercialisation of Christmas and its many trappings. It ends on a positive note, with Scrooge visiting his nephew Fred and his family, arms loaded with presents and food which he dispenses with the same glee he did when he was stingily counting his money. Tiny Tim, Fred’s crippled youngest child, ends the tale with a resounding, “God Bless Us, Every One!” thus cementing forever the correlation between fellowship, food, presents and merriment – Christmas for those who can afford it, or rather, a truly Victorian celebration.

Prior to this concept of Christmas and before Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, much of the season was observed with the same kind of dourness and solemnity that Scrooge possessed (without the character’s more extreme peccadilloes). This was, after all, the birth of Christ, a day made sacrosanct like the other touchstones in this biblical epoch, including Good Friday and Ash Wednesday. Before the Victorian age, the day was not even marked with a holiday. Presents were unheard of. Nobody set down together for a meal. There was certainly no tree.

Victorian-era engraving depicting party around Christmas tree.

The kind of Christmas we’ve come to know now is very much a German import, made popular by Queen Victoria and her beloved consort, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. It was the prince himself who was ostensibly promoting the idea of the Christmas Tree. In 1848, The Illustrated London News published a drawing of the Royal Family celebrating around a tree decorated with ornaments, candles and sweets. It didn’t take long for the burgeoning middle class and the fawning upper class to follow suit – in fact, the first advertisements for tree ornaments would appear in 1853. Soon, almost every household had the novelty of a decorated tree inside the household.

By the end of the century, Christmas became Great Britain’s biggest annual celebration, a testament to the newfound prosperity that the Industrial Revolution would bring. Advancements in technology, infrastructure and manufacturing meant that mass production was now possible with better transportation, such as steam trains enabling faster delivery, cost efficiency and things being made more affordable.

The new train networks meant that coming home for Christmas soon became the norm, with those working in cities being able to return to their more bucolic hometowns to be with family and friends. Typically, the holidays stretched over two days, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. The latter was another Victorian creation, stemming from when workers and servants opened boxes of gifts and bonuses from their employers.

An 1899 illustration of a woman and her children attending Christmas service.

Toys were also significant of the new way Christmas was celebrated. A wide range of games, books, dolls, tin and mechanical toys, were made available to wealthier children, where, before, they contended with handmade wooden constructions. By year’s end, a Christmas bonus meant that parents could afford to present a gift of a toy to their child.

Other mainstays and traditions such as the Christmas card and crackers were also Victorian inventions. Sir Henry Cole printed a thousand cards at his art shop in London in 1843 for a shilling each and sparked a card-sending frenzy. This was largely made possible and expedient by the ‘Penny Post’, introduced in 1830 by Rowland Hill, where a penny was all it took to send a card anywhere in Britain. The popularity of the Christmas Card was fuelled when the halfpenny postage rate made the craze even more accessible to the masses.

Three years after the advent of the Christmas card, a London confectionary maker, Tom Smith, was inspired to make the first cracker from the wrappers, twisted at the ends, for his sweets. He soon added mottos, small toys and even a device that made the crackers go off with a bang when pulled. It is to his credit that the cracker has stayed true to its original incarnation more than two centuries after its invention.

A more festive Christmas can also be noted through the new and popular carols of the time. The classic God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen on a grave minor key would make way for lighter songs (Scrooge sends a group of carolers on their way in one hilarious passage: “… at the first sound of ‘God bless you, merry gentlemen! May nothing you dismay!’, Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.”) A quick glance at some of the chartbusters of the time saw the likes of O Come All Ye Faithful (1843), O Little Town of Bethlehem (1868) and Away In A Manger (1883) sung on a decidedly more cheerful note.

A Christmas tree with presents is very much a German-influenced Victorian Construct.

Perhaps the one departure that modern Christmases made from Victorian ones was the selection of Christmas fare on the table. When the more American taste for roast turkey was introduced to the Victorians, it was not a dish that caught on (or could be afforded) by most Britons until decades later. The common man made do with roast beef or goose (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a heartfelt Sherlock Holmes story in The Strand, The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, with the plot revolving around a Christmas goose). The wealthy had decidedly more exotic tastes that saw the Royal Family savouring snipe or capercaillie, and swan even, at dinner.

And what of the poor? In as much as the Industrial Revolution brought about progress, many were, literally and figuratively, left out in the cold – the many workhouse horrors inflicted on inmates were well depicted in Dickens’ novels. Despite an 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act cruelly stating that no extra food was to be allowed on Christmas Day (“Please Sir, I want some more”), unions did provide a Christmas dinner for workhouse inmates that included plum pudding, and even veal and bacon. Some unions chose to ignore the act that also stressed that, “no pauper shall be allowed to have or use any wine, beer or spirituous or fermented liquors unless by the direction in writing of a medical officer”, with strong beer reportedly served at the table in a new workhouse in Cerne Abbas on Christmas Day. Meanwhile, a child from a slightly more fortunate family would consider himself lucky to receive the luxury of an orange stuffed into his stocking on Boxing Day. Or else, a small wooden toy crafted by his grandfather. Or else, nothing.

The Victorian Christmas is, doubtless, explicit in the stark differences between the haves and have-nots. It is perhaps telling that six years after Queen Victoria’s death, in more egalitarian New York, O Henry publishes the tale of a poor man and his wife parting with their most treasured possessions in order to gift each other their hearts’ desires. With The Gift of The Magi, the idea of Christmas picks up where A Christmas Carol leaves off. It is a sign of the times, noting the widening middle class and the breaking down of the class structure, while documenting more personal ideals of selflessness and love that were starting to preoccupy the general public. The old Scrooge would have screamed, “Bah, humbug!” at the very notion.

This month’s movie The Man Who Invented Christmas pays homage to Charles Dickens and his most famous character.

The more enlightened Scrooge would see Christmas Victoriana still capturing the modern imagination with its rich depictions of family and treasured moments, the very reasons why we still keep with us the customs and traditions of the time. As the narrator in A Christmas Carol puts it, “And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!’’

God Bless Us, Every One!


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