Before the reign of Queen Victoria in 1837, Christmas was barely celebrated, and Christmas holidays did not exist.
But with advancements in technology, industry and infrastructure, the end of the 19th century saw Christmas turn into the biggest annual celebration, taking on the shape we recognise today.
The Idea Of Christmas
The Victorians completely transformed the idea of Christmas with family and charity at its heart. The celebration and preparation of the festival was a family occasion, and this was epitomised by Queen Victoria, her husband Albert, and their nine children.
The act of being charitable was important to middle-class Victorians. Charities provided Christmas dinners for the venerable in society, and newspapers printed Christmas appeals for donations.
In November 1843 Charles Dickens wrote the first of his Christmas books ‘A Christmas Carol’ highlighting social issues of poverty and neglect afflicting much of Victorian society — particularly the plight of children. This is shown in the scene where the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the two children Ignorance and Want:
“From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment”
Servants in return for working on Christmas Day were traditionally given Boxing Day off (26 December) to visit their families. Their employers would give each servant a ‘Christmas box’, of money or presents on the first weekday after Christmas as thanks for good service throughout the year, and sometimes leftover food to take home.
For many, the new railway networks made it possible for those who had originally left the countryside to seek work in the cities to return home for Christmas and spend their precious days off with loved ones.
But it would not be until the 1870s when paid holidays were established for the first time.
At the beginning of the Victorian era the exchanging of gifts had traditionally been held on New Year, but as the significance of Christmas grew this changed to Christmas Day.
The Christmas Tree
First to introduce the Christmas tree to Britain was ‘good Queen Charlotte’ (Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz,) the German wife of George III. She set up the first known English Christmas tree at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor, in December 1800 at a party she gave for children. At first the custom of the Christmas tree didn’t spread much outside the royal family, but the future Queen Victoria recalls as a child the sight of Christmas trees in Windsor Palace:
“After dinner… we then went into the drawing-room near the dining-room… There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the trees…”
The tradition of an indoor Christmas tree first originated in Germany and following Queen Victoria’s marriage to Albert in 1841, wealthy middle-class families adopted the fashion, popularising the German tradition and making it seem British.
In 1848 the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the royal family celebrating around their decorated Christmas tree at Windsor Castle. The report was quickly picked up by other papers describing the trees in Windsor Castle in detail and showing the main tree surrounded by the royal family on its cover. In less than ten years the custom of the Christmas tree was displayed in every prosperous home in the country.
In 1843 inventor Sir Henry Cole, the first director of the V&A Museum in London commissioned his friend artist John Callcott Horsley to design a seasonal greeting card as a solution to his pile of unanswered correspondence.
The illustration showed three generations of the Cole family raising a toast to the card’s recipient: on either side were scenes of charity, with food and clothing being given to the poor.
Cole then appointed a printer to transfer the design onto cards, printing a thousand copies that could be personalised with a hand-written greeting. He kept some for himself and sold the rest charging one shilling each, initially this was expensive, but with printing technology quickly became more advanced, the price of card production dropped significantly, and together with the introduction of the halfpenny postage rate the Christmas card industry took off.
By the 1880s the sending of cards had become hugely popular, creating a lucrative industry that produced 11.5 million cards in 1880 alone.
It was after seeing bonbons and sugared almonds wrapped in twists of paper in Paris, that British confectioner Tom Smith created the Christmas Cracker.
Smith invented a banger mechanism, that ‘cracked’ when pulled releasing a mixture of sweets. He first named them ‘Cosaques‘ after the noise made when the Cossack soldiers cracked their whips, but as rival brands diluted the market the term ‘cracker’ evolved into the name used today.
By the late Victorian period, the sweets had been replaced with a small gift and paper hats, and have remained this way as a traditional part of our modern Christmas.
Tom Smith’s company still produces the highest quality Christmas crackers and holds royal warrants from both Queen Elizabeth II and the Prince of Wales.
Turkey, plum pudding and mince-pies were all firm Victorian favourites and for those who could afford it roasted meat such as beef and goose had been the centrepiece of the British Christmas dinner.
Turkeys had first been brought to Europe by the Spanish in the 16th century, but before the introduction of steam power they were not considered a holiday staple due to the birds having to be herded for miles to market alive – making them a luxury commodity. But with the arrival of trains, the price of turkeys dropped, and their perfect size for a middle class family gathering meant that by the beginning of the 20th century the turkey soon became the traditional dish served at Christmas.
The Christmas Plum pudding came to encapsulate Christmas, evolving from the medieval ‘pottage’. The importance of the pudding grew throughout the 19th century with every Victorian expecting a pudding as the grand ‘finale’ to their festive meal. (Read more here)
Seasonal songs had been sung as early as the 13th century, but in Britain carols had faded away with the Puritan rejection of Christmas. While carols were not new to the Victorians, it was a tradition that they actively revived and popularised. Contrary to the Puritans, the carols when revived were more about feasting and celebration and less about religion.
The Victorians regarded carol singing as a delightful form of musical entertainment— a pleasure well worth cultivating. With a surge in published collections, old words were put to new tunes such as the book ‘A Good Christmas Box’ published in 1847, containing many carols that are still well-known today including: ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ and ‘Hark! The herald angels sing’.
Within a decade carol-singing had become widespread, and by the 1870s pianos were an affordable commodity making it an even more popular family pastime.
In the 18th century Christmas customs had waned, and Father Christmas’s profile declined. But the Victorian period saw Christmas customs enjoying a significant revival.
Christmas or Old Christmas, started to be represented as a jolly-faced bearded man often surrounded by plentiful food and drink —as the emblem of ‘good cheer.’
He started to appear regularly in illustrated magazines of the 1840s dressed in a variety of costumes and usually with a crown of holly on his head.
The now-familiar rotund belly, red robes and black boots had arrived and ‘Old Father Christmas‘ was now associated with the giving of presents. The 1820s saw his sleigh and reindeer appear, and by 1870 he was wearing the customarily bishop’s red robes.
By the late 1880s Father Christmas, had become part of the home-based, domestic holiday, and a symbol of giving.
The day of celebration had also changed, from 5 December (St Nicholas’s day); to Christmas Eve.
Although it may seem on the surface that the Victorians were concentrated only with the ‘merriment’ of Christmas, there is a strong moral thread that holds all these traditions together; that Christmas is a time to be charitable and loving—to simply be kind to one other. But…
Wouldn’t life be worth the living
Wouldn’t dreams be coming true
If we kept the Christmas spirit
All the whole year through?