In her 2015 Christmas message, Queen Elizabeth II mentioned how the Christmas tree had been popularised by her great-great-grandparents, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Decorating a fir, pine or spruce tree may well be one of our most cherished festive traditions, but we have the Victorians to thank for many other practices that we associate with Christmas. This article describes how many of our modern festive traditions were shaped by the Victorian Christmas.
A number of Christmas customs were thought to be in danger of extinction at the beginning of the nineteenth century and this included the singing of Christmas carols. As a result, a number of people sought to record and encourage the singing of these age-old folk songs, which also included the writing of new carols. Choral music was encouraged by both Methodists and the Oxford movement and their growing influence was partly responsible for these secular expressions of Christian theology becoming part of formal religion. A major breakthrough was a complication in 1869 by Reverend H. R. Bramley and Dr John Stainer (both of Magdalen College) entitled, Christmas Carols New and Old, which was subsequently expanded. By the end of the century, what Mark Connelly described as a ‘carol revival’ had been achieved. They were not only ‘ubiquitous’, but they had become ‘an important cultural expression of Englishness’.
Although the first Christmas tree has been credited to the ‘good Queen Charlotte’, the German wife of George III (1800), it was Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who popularised the practice to the masses. Prince Albert brought the German tradition to the country and, in the mid-1840s, it was pictures in a number of publications of the royal family around the tree at Christmas that inspired many Victorians to copy them.
From at least the mid-1830s, the Religious Tract Society was using ‘Christmas cards’, which were collecting cards used for fundraising. The first Christmas card, as we would recognise it, is attributed to Sir Henry Cole, who commissioned a special card to be sent out in 1843. This was the first commercially produced Christmas card (of which 1,000 were initially printed) and it wished the recipient ‘A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to You’. Although it was expensive (one shilling), the introduction of the uniform penny post in 1840, which Cole had helped to introduce, meant that they could be sent around the country at a cheap price. New fast printing techniques soon reduced the cost of cards and by 1880 over 11 million cards were sold annually in the country.
Crackers are an unusual tradition that were introduced by a British confectioner Tom Smith around 1847, who had drawn inspiration from french bon bons (sweets wrapped in paper). There are, however, earlier references to ‘cracker bon bons’, which may have been where they got their names from – although Smith’s crackers were originally called ‘cosaques’. He was inspired by a crackling fire to produce something that made a bang when you opened it. He achieved the sound by using sand and fulminate of silver, and the experience was enhanced further by including a gift within the paper too. His cosaques soon became a high society item and although they were copied by many others he stressed that his designs were done by professional artists and the mottos were written by well known authors. By 1889, he had over 2,000 employees (including many female staff members) and his firm produced 112,000 boxes of crackers per year. In 1891, the Pall Mall Gazette noted that his Christmas goods contained ‘all the old favourites’ including ‘clowns, rhymes, caps and trinkets of many kinds’. The ‘Cracker King’ also regularly sent thousands of crackers out to needy children at Christmas, including in 1891, when 22,000 were sent to those in hospitals and workhouses.
There were a number of developments in the Victorian period that led to some of the festive foods we would recognise today. One is the muslin cloth, which enabled the spherical pudding to be made. Christmas puddings could be either sweet or savoury and both often included the vital ingredient of suet in order to fill the bellies of the poor. Another change was the increasing popularity of the turkey. The goose had been the favoured fowl at the beginning of Victoria’s reign, but the larger turkey became more popular as the nineteenth century progressed.
A very important development that is easy to miss is the impact of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843). The book helped to develop some of the mystique surrounding the festive season. It helped to propagate the idea of the period being a time of holidaying, when people enjoyed themselves with their family and would partake in festive food and drink. It also focused people’s attention on humanitarian issues, whilst also encouraging a Christmas spirit of charity, goodwill and peace.
Although many people would have attended church on Christmas day, the overall experience of the festive period was very different amongst the poor. The many people in domestic service would not have been able to spend much time with their family over Christmas. In Flora Thompson’s semi-autobiographical Lark Rise to Candleford, she mentions some of the rural practices in the late nineteenth century, such as being given an orange and a handful of nuts. She also recalled that the farmer would typically kill an ox, in order to give pieces to his workers.
Dying traditions: twelfth night, snap dragon, mummers and wren hunting
Although there is much that we recognise from the Victorian Christmas, there were also many different practices that have largely died out. J. A. R. Pimlott noted that twelfth night celebrations all but disappeared in this period, even though the climax was once on par with Christmas day.
The Victorians were fond of parlour games and one of those that is no longer prevalent was snap dragon. This involved a pile of brandy-soaked raisins being lit and (with the lights turned off) the players having to pick out the raisins (one by one) from the flames! The winner was the person who retrieved the most, presumably without getting burned in the process!
Another form of entertainment that has largely died out – although some groups continue the tradition – is mummer plays. These were groups of amateur actors (known as mummers) who performed street plays (mumming) in return for alms.
We are still familiar with the boxing day hunt, but one activity that has died out is wren hunting, which usually occurred on the feast of Stephen (boxing day). It is unclear how the tradition started, but one theory is that they were used in some practices by druids, whilst another is that the hiding place of St Stephen, who was martyred, was given away by such a bird.
The Sacred and the Secular
As this all suggests, the Victorian Christmas was a mixture of both religious and secular ideas, which is one of the reasons why it became so popular.