Christmas In The Victorian Age
Victorian era buildings, decorations and even Christmastime festivities, activities and all things to do with Queen Victoria and her long reign, are still popular in the 21st century. Many Victorian houses are still around, especially in San Francisco, and most have been lovingly restored. Both pagan and Christian festivals occur in December and they have become mixed over the years. In pagan days gone by, evergreen branches, ivy, holly and mistletoe were often used, as they are today.
Christmas season plants had magical properties and heralded the arrival of Spring. Queen Victoria started her reign in 1837 and it lasted for many years. No one in Great Britain had heard of Christmas crackers or Santa before that time. Most workers kept on working at Christmas and there were no Christmas cards. Because of the industrial revolution and the wealth it brought, Christmas was changed forever. When Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, it encouraged rich Victorians to occasionally redistribute their wealth.
Because of the influx of this new money, middle class families during the Victorian period were able to celebrate two days of Christmas, which included Boxing Day. Working class people and servants of the rich opened boxes from their rich lords and ladies, and these might include unwanted (by the upper class) gifts or money. People who had left their villages and towns for work in London or other large cities, could return home by train to visit family at the holidays.
Scottish people like to postpone the celebrations so they can celebrate New Year and Christmas at about the same time. This is called Hogmanay style. Long after Victoria’s reign ended, Christmas Day finally became an official holiday in Scotland. During the last few decades, this also includes Boxing Day. When Victoria first ruled, children’s gifts were handmade and often costly, so were mostly reserved for the rich. Factories started to produce clockwork toys, books, dolls and games at prices which even the low income populace could afford, so they rose in popularity as Christmas presents.
In the poorest child’s stocking there would often be a few nuts, or possibly an apple and an orange. Stockings hung by the chimney became popular about 1870. Perhaps someone was hanging their socks up to dry and parents popped a few presents in them. Father Christmas and Santa Claus are two separate people (or myths depending on your POV). Father Christmas was originally dressed in green and part of the midwinter festival. Dutch settlers brought their version of Santa Claus to America first, in the seventeenth century, and then it migrated back over to the U.K.
Santa started to be popular in Britain during Victoria’s reign, which included the 1870s. He brought his sleigh and reindeer along with him and gave out gifts to children. Turkeys were introduced to Britain from America, way before Victoria reigned. Most were quite expensive and unaffordable except for a few wealthier people. Roast beef, goose and rabbit were eaten by a lot of people in Victoria’s time. Victoria and her family ate roast swan and roast beef. Most folks at the end of the nineteenth century, ate turkey.
Turkeys were often walked to London (an 80 mile stretch) wearing leather boots, from Norfolk farms. There, they enjoyed their own sort of Christmas feast, until they became someone else’s. Roland Hill introduced the Penny Post to Britain in 1840. One penny affixed to a letter or postcard would send the missive anywhere in Britain. This made it easy for the tradition of sending Christmas cards much simpler, and it gained a rapid foothold. Henry Cole printed up a lot of cards, which sold for a shilling, in his London shop, in 1843. Thus, for a penny and a shilling you could send your Christmas greeting to far flung friends and family. Postage costs actually went down to a half penny when railways helped with transport.
Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, was from Germany. He took a Christmas tree from his native land to Windsor Castle in the 1840s. Crackers used on British Christmas dinner tables started as candy in twisted colored paper. A London sweet maker used this for wrapping in 1846. He then added little love notes, small toys, and paper hats, along with a cracker which banged with a pop when you pulled on both ends. The tradition is to hold one end then have your neighbor pull on the other, then so on as you go around the table.
Singers of carols liked to walk around towns and visit houses while they sang and played music for the new carols. Some of the most popular carols which were written in that era, are: O Come All Ye Faithful (1843), See Amid The Winters Snow (1851), Once In Royal David’s City (1848), and Away In A Manger (1883). There have been many reproductions of Victorian themes and decorations and cards, as the era is still incredibly popular today. Antiques which are real Victorian are highly prized collectibles, and Christmas decorations and other items are valued and often displayed during that time of year.