Victorian Christmas Traditions
I put up my Christmas tree last weekend (I love how it makes the house look so sparkly and bright!) and it got me thinking about the way we celebrate this special holiday and about the origins of its traditions.
Did you know that we owe many of our most popular Christmas traditions to the Victorians?
INFLUENCE OF DICKENS’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL
When Charles Dickens’ classic story A Christmas Carol was published in December 1843, Christmas was celebrated with much less fanfare than today—mainly just going to church, a family gathering, and a meal. Many businesses didn’t give their employees time off or even consider it a holiday.
When Dickens’ curmudgeon Mr. Scrooge complains about giving his clerk a day off, it isn’t an unusual reaction for the times. It is his miserly attitude and exclamations of “Bah! Humbug!” that reveal the real problem: Scrooge has lost all sense of joy and compassion in his life and doesn’t have an ounce of the festive spirit in him.
The book was an overnight success, and its themes of charitable giving, goodwill, and spending time with family resonated with its readers. From that point on, for a variety of reasons, including the book’s impact and the influence of the royal family, people began celebrating Christmas in new ways.
THE VICTORIAN CHRISTMAS TREE
Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, is credited with popularizing Christmas trees in Britain, a tradition he had enjoyed during his childhood in Germany. In 1848, when the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the royal family celebrating around a decorated Christmas tree, households across Britain copied the festive scene.
The Christmas tree, bedecked with candles, homemade decorations, and small gifts, and topped with a star or angel, became a key part of the image of the ideal Victorian Christmas. Often, children didn’t see the tree until Christmas Eve, when their parents opened the parlor door and presented it in all its candle-lit glory.
THE FIRST CHRISTMAS CARD
In 1843, an English postal service reformer named Henry Cole commissioned an artist to design a Christmas card to send to friends and family. He also sold the cards to the general public for one shilling a piece, a price which exceeded the budget of most Victorians. However, the idea inspired many children across England to make their own Christmas cards.
The tradition really caught on when advances in color printing techniques made it possible to produce cards on a large scale. (This was the industrial age, after all!) By the 1860s, the price per card dropped dramatically. When the postage rate to send cards across England was reduced in 1870 to the more affordable halfpenny, Christmas cards became a became a key part of the Victorian Christmas, creating a lucrative industry that produced 11.5 million cards in 1880 alone.
THE VICTORIAN CHRISTMAS FEAST
Roast beef and goose used to be the centerpiece of the Christmas dinner. In A Christmas Carol, Mr. Scrooge sends Bob Cratchit a turkey for Christmas, a detail which may have influenced the rise in popularity of the turkey—an offering that could feed a large gathering. By the beginning of the 20th century, turkey was the dominant Christmas dish.
Christmas pudding, a steamed or boiled dessert that was doused with brandy and served flaming, was an essential part of the Victorian Christmas dinner. It was originally called plum pudding, even though it contains no plums (raisins and dried grapes were originally called plums). The name Christmas pudding was first recorded in an 1858 novel by Anthony Trollope.
Since Tudor times, the mince pie, another Christmas staple, had been filled mainly with mutton and beef. The Victorians revised the recipe, creating a sweet dish comprised of dried fruits, sugar, honey, spices, and brandy. Mince pies were traditionally eaten on all 12 days of Christmas, owing to a belief that the next 12 months would bring good luck.
VICTORIAN CHRISTMAS CAROLS
Some of today’s popular Christmas carols originated in the Victorian era, including “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “Good King Wenceslas,” “Jingle Bells,” “We Three Kings,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Up On the Housetop,” “What Child is This?,” “Deck the Halls,” and “Away in a Manger.” Words from older Christmas songs were also put to new tunes and enjoyed in merry sing-alongs.
VICTORIAN CHRISTMAS GIFT-GIVING
Gift exchanges in England were originally a New Year’s tradition. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who were perceived as icons of wholesome family life, inspired the Victorian Christmas tradition to gather with family and loved ones and give gifts.
At first, gifts were modest, such as fruit, nuts, candy, and handmade items. But mass production made store-bought children’s toys more affordable for the middle classes. Before the 1870s gifts were not wrapped in paper, they were simply placed under the tree for everyone to see.
Thanks to the Victorians, the Christmas we celebrate today embodies many of these traditions and other patterns of observance. At its best, Christmas is a joyful season marked by generosity, time spent with family and friends, and the celebration of love’s redemptive power, all qualities which reflect the heart and spirit of the Victorian Christmas.
What are some of your favorite holiday traditions? Please share in a comment below!
If you enjoyed this post and like Victoriana, the Regency era, and all things English as much as I do, I hope you’ll check out my historical fiction and historical romance novels on my website, syriejames.com! Have the happiest of holidays!
Ladies of the Lake by Cathy Gohlke — a Book Review
From the desk of Syrie James I just read an advance copy of the most wonderful novel, “Ladies of the Lake” by Cathy Gohlke, and I wanted to share.…
EMILY film review — an impassioned biopic of Wuthering Heights author Emily Brontë
In the film EMILY, Emma Mackey brings Emily Brontë to vivid life in writer/director Frances O’Connor’s thrilling blend of fact and fiction. Emily Brontë is something of a…
Jane Austen & Regency Christmas Traditions
It is fascinating to look back at Christmas during Jane Austen’s lifetime. Some of the customs we associate with the holiday, such as Christmas trees, Christmas cards, and Santa…
My Adventures at the JASNA AGM (Jane Austen Society Annual General Meeting) in Victoria
I had a fabulous time at the JASNA AGM (Jane Austen Society of North America Annual General Meeting) in Victoria, Canada two weeks ago. The weather was perfect, the…
What a lovely post, Syrie! It reminds me that it’s time for a re-read of A Christmas Carol,
Baking Christmas cookies and fruit cake are two of my favorite Christmas traditions. I put my tree up last weekend and it makes my house sparkly and bright too.
Happy Holidays to you too.
Thank you for your lovely Christmas post Syrie. The Victorian graphics are so beautiful!!!
I wish you and your readers a very Merry Christmas!!!