Midwinter festivals had been celebrated in one form or another since ancient times. Then, with the emergence of Christianity, many pagan festivals and rituals were incorporated into the religion. The Christmas traditions that we know and love today can be attributed to the Victorians who not only revived many of them but created new ways to celebrate this holiday. This may not seem so remarkable until you take into account that at the beginning of the 19th century very few people even celebrated Christmas. Most everyday people did not even take the day off from work. But the impact the Victorians had on Christmas was so profound, that it can still be felt today. My mother, as I have mentioned before, has a great love for the Victorian era and I have many childhood memories of watching great Victorian stories like A Christmas Carol and there was always this yearning to have a Christmas like that. Little did I know then that many of the things I took for granted in our yearly festive celebrations were established by those Victorians.
While trees had been seen as a symbol of eternal life since the time of the ancient Egyptians and Pagan traditions also incorporated trees in their worship, they were not really a feature of Christmas in the UK until the Victorians. The Germans had been decorating trees for Christmas for several hundred years before it became a real tradition in Britain, but even there, while the tradition was widespread by the 17th century, it became a real part of their Christmas tradition in the 19th century as well. Initially trees were adorned with food items and candles, but were later decorated more elaborately with the types of items we are more familiar with today.
A decorated Christmas tree was part of Albert’s, Queen Victoria’s husband’s, upbringing in Germany and so he brought this tradition with him to Britain. Royals and some wealthier families were accustomed to having a Christmas tree. However, the custom became more widespread after the Royal family was shown around their decorated Christmas tree in The Illustrated London News.
One of the very first things that most of us do in preparation for the holiday season is to write out Christmas cards and send them to our friends, family, colleagues and clients. The very first commercial Christmas card (the image at the top of this page) was created by Henry Cole in 1843. Not having much time for letter writing, he commissioned an artist to make a card with a festive image and a seasonal greeting.
The sending of cards was only made possible by the ease with which items could be sent by the postal service. While the Penny Post was long established, there were a number of reforms in the late 1830s that made posting items not just quicker and easier, but also more affordable. In fact the first pre-paid adhesive postage stamp used by a public postal service was the Penny Black, and it was introduced in 1840. It’s hardly surprising that Henry Cole came up with the Christmas card idea, as he played a role in the postal reforms that took place in Britain at that time.
Growing up in the UK, crackers have been a part of every Christmas dinner I have ever. For those who don’t know what these are, they’re a tube of cardboard (similar to that found at the core of a toilet paper roll – in fact my sisters and I tried to make our own with leftover loo rolls) and within the tube is a paper hat, a joke and a little trinket. These are wrapped in bright paper, as in the image below. At the dinner table, you turn to your neighbour and both of you pull each end of the cracker, which lets out a crack (hence the name) and whomever gets the larger portion of the cracker, gets to keep the contents.
In the 1840s Tom Smith was a Londoner who sold sweets wrapped in a paper twist as he had seen in Paris, and in order to sell more sweets he included a short note or ‘love message’ in the packet. He later included a banger mechanism to make the cracker sound as the packet was pulled apart. By the end of the century the sweets had been replaced by a novelty hat and a trinket, and the cracker has remained a staple of Christmas in the UK ever since.
The Victorian Industrial Revolution
The custom of spending Christmas with family and even the act of giving gifts were able to become so widespread and thus an enduring tradition because of the leaps in industry and invention. As an expansion of the railways system took place in the mid-1800s, people who had left their families to find work in the more affluent cities were able to more easily travel back to spend the holidays with their loved ones.
Prior to the ability to start mass manufacturing of products, toys were individually hand made and thus very expensive and something only the very wealthy could afford. As production became easier, even the not so rich could afford to buy inexpensive toys and trinkets for their children.
Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol
Much of what we imagine of a real traditional Christmas comes from Dickens’ account of the holiday in A Christmas Carol. The VictorianWeb states “G.K. Chesterton, in his critical study of Dickens’ life, suggests that the author had an enduring interest in romanticizing the past.” It seems he was very successful in doing this, and his tale has become an enduring classic that has been told and retold, both in its original format and changed to reflect a modern setting. Undoubtedly, A Christmas Carol helped to popularise the Christmas we all know and love today.
All images used are in the public domain.