The Ghost of Christmas Past – A Victorian Christmas

No era has influenced the way we celebrate Christmas as much as the Victorian era. Before the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1837, Christmas was largely unheard of. One of the most significant cultural shifts within the Victorian period was the introduction of the holiday season, which occurred as a result of the Industrial Revolution. The increase in wealth and the infrastructure allowed factory workers to take Christmas Day and Boxing Day off , and celebrate the holiday with their families. The term Boxing Day originated when the less fortunate opened their boxes of gifts from the wealthier classes. It is still commonly used today in Britain and Canada to celebrate the day after Christmas.

The custom of giving and receiving gifts was originally done on New Year’s Day, but as the significance of Christmas began growing, it was moved to Christmas Day. It also became a time to reward children with gifts, although the gifts differed greatly according to the family’s financial status. At the beginning of the Victorian period, the children of the rich received handmade toys, which were quite labor intensive to make and expensive. The children of the poor received stockings filled with fruit and nuts, a tradition we still have today. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution and mass production, factories were able to produce toys more rapidly and much less expensively, so they became more accessible to all. The size of the gifts also increased. Initially, small gifts were hung from the tree, but as the gifts began to increase in size and complexity, the placement of gifts became “under the tree.” The popularity of the indoor tree grew quickly giving rise to the new market for ornaments in bright colors and reflective materials that would shimmer and glitter by candlelight. The first advertisements for tree ornaments appeared in 1850. One of the most popular ornaments was the glass Christmas pickle. It was hidden way inside the branches of the tree for good luck. On Christmas day, the finder of the pickle was either given a special extra gift or allowed to open his/her gifts first. The tradition of the pickle dates back to a medieval story of two Spanish boys traveling home to celebrate Christmas. They became weary and stopped at an inn, where the innkeeper, an evil man, stole their possessions and hid them in a pickle barrel. Luckily for them, St. Nicholas came along, saved them and sent them on their way. Victorians also placed candles on their trees, which have now been replaced by electric lights.

The Christmas tree, itself, was a tradition brought to England in 1840 by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, from his native Germany. This tradition is one of the most significant aspects of our modern Christmas celebrations.

Mistletoe and holly became popular decorations, and for weeks before Christmas, these greens were sold by vendors on the streets. Holly was the most popular as it was a fairly common hedge on wealthier estates. However, selling holly became a somewhat precarious business if a vendor was caught helping himself to the branches of one such house! Such a poor soul would be lucky if all he lost was his cache of holly and didn’t end up in jail.

What would Christmas be without cards? Believe it or not, they did not begin with Hallmark. The first Christmas card was made in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole, who asked an artist, John Callicort Horsely, to create a card Cole could sell in his art shop. The card featured a group of people around a festive dinner table and a Christmas message. Sir Henry had 1000 printed and sold them for one shilling each, which was considered rather pricey for ordinary Victorians. The idea was successful though, and the wealthier families began sending out cards every Christmas. Queen Victoria was a huge fan, and had her children create and send their own cards. In 1870, a halfpenny postage rate was introduced, and printing technology became more advanced, which made this a more accessible custom for the less affluent. By 1880, over 11.5 million cards were printed, and a national tradition was born. Some of the early commercial cards were rather creepy though, as they featured ogres chasing bad children, scary clowns and other unpleasant themes. But – commercialization of Christmas was well on its way!

Another commercial Christmas industry was born when a confectioner, Tom Smith, came up with a new and unique way to sell sweets. His invention was a simple tube-like package, which was filled with candy and small gifts, and when pulled, would snap apart. Voila! the Christmas cracker!

By 1881, simplicity in holiday decorating had given way to elaborate and elegant customs. In Cassell’s Family Magazine, the lady of the house was instructed that it was worth the while to bestow some trouble on the decorations of the rooms and especially on the menu for the Christmas feast. Early Victorian recipes indicate that the traditional mince pies were originally made with meat, a Tudor tradition, but in the 19th century the composition of this dish changed. Recipes without meat, but heavy on dried fruit, became the norm. The turkey also has its roots in Victorian times, as it was the perfect size for a middle-class family, and quickly replaced the traditional goose. Poor people often subscribed to a “Goose Club,” where they put aside small sums on a regular basis to save for the Christmas feast. Thus, this would ensure that even the poorest would have a feast to celebrate. Oysters, often called the “protein of the poor,” were also popular.

After the feast, the entertainment would begin. Victorians loved entertainment and parlor games were a favorite. These games helped pass the time and cheered everyone up. At times, however, they could prove a bit dangerous. Along with such staples as charades and musical chairs, there was snapdragon. Snapdragon was not a game for the faint of heart, as a bowl was filled with raisins, covered with rum and set ablaze. The task was to snatch the raisins out of the bowl and eat them while they were still afire. For the less daring, there was rabbit kissing, in which a lady and a gentleman put a piece of cotton between their lips and rubbed noses until their lips met.

Another form of entertainment was caroling, which began in Elizabethan times, but was popularized by the Victorians, and served as a means to gather around the wassail bowl. Going from house to house and singing might prove tiring, and carolers were usually invited in to share a cup of hot punch called wassail. The basis for the punch was either apple cider or beer, which was then enhanced by adding cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, lemon slices, and sometimes roasted crab apples. The punch often became thick and foamy, and the foam floating on the top was called “lamb’s wool.”

As in modern times, football also became a tradition and form of entertainment on Christmas Day. The games consisted of league matches, which became so popular that they often caused the fans to postpone their Christmas feast in order to attend the game. The first league match on Christmas Day occurred in 1889, and drew a crowd of 9,000.

A Victorian Christmas and our modern Christmas are alike in many ways. The celebration helps to bring family and friends together with feelings of goodwill and sharing. As Charles Dickens says in his Victorian classic, A Christmas Carol, “God bless us everyone.”

The staff of the the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation wishes everyone a happy holiday season!

Sandee Wilhoit is the historian for the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation. She can be reached at [email protected].