Victorian Christmas

Judith Flanders describes how many of our own Christmas traditions – from trees and crackers to cards and carols – have their origins in 19th-century industrial and commercial interests.

Around the Christmas Tree quadrille

This cover illustration from the quadrille Around the Christmas Tree (estimated 1876) shows what a Christmas tree might have looked like in the late Victorian period.

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Should one want to find the ultimate Christmas celebration, the oldest traditions, the most cherished customs, surely Dickens is the author to turn to. The problem is that, during Dickens’s lifetime, most of these traditions were barely traditions at all. The ‘traditional’ British Christmas we know today is not found in the mists of history, but is entirely a product of industrialisation.

First edition of A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol (1843) was a phenomenal success in the 19th century and is still closely associated with the author.

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From the 17th century, when Puritan disapproval of this pagan winter festival saw it fall out of favour, Christmas was of only minor interest. The big winter holiday was Twelfth Night, the Feast of Epiphany, on 6 January. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that Christmas began to regain popularity. In a story written in 1837, Dickens ticked off the essentials: the day was about family, about mistletoe and holly, church-going and charity, and about food – turkey, plum pudding and mince-pies. Yet so many things we take for granted were not yet part of the holiday. He did not mention trees, carols, cards, stockings, crackers. There was no Father Christmas, nor were there presents (apart from those given to the servants, and tokens to the children). Dickens was on the cusp of the great changes that were coming, and when he began to write, the ‘traditions’ for this ‘traditional’ festival were still in the process of being created.[1]

The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon

The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon [page: 36-37]

Washington Irving’s account of the decline of Christmas from the 17th century and its revival in the 19th century, 1820.

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'A Christmas Dinner', from Charles Dickens's Sketches by Boz

A Christmas Dinner', from Charles Dickens's Sketches by Boz [page: vol. I pp. 338-39]

‘A Christmas Dinner’ from Sketches by Boz by Charles Dickens, 1836.

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Decorations

Decoration for the festival until this time was most commonly mistletoe and ivy, with branches bunched together as a ‘kissing bough’. In the late 18th century, there was one mention of someone having a tree ‘according to the German fashion’.[2] But otherwise, Christmas trees were unknown in Britain until, in the 1830s, the many German families living in Manchester began to put them up in their houses. Queen Victoria and her German husband, Albert, had one for the first time in 1840, and three years later an illustration of them grouped around the tree made the German custom seem ‘British’.

Carols

We know that seasonal songs were sung as early as the 13th century, but carols had faded away with the Puritan rejection of Christmas. When they revived, they were generally about feasting, not religion. (Two of the few religious carols that postdate the Puritans were ‘While Shepherds Watched their Flocks’ (1698) and ‘Hark the Herald’ (1782).)

Broadside: Carols for Christmas Holidays

Broadside printed with Christmas carols, c. 1830.

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Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern by William Sandys

Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern by William Sandys [page: title page]

William Sandys’ Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern helped to revive the tradition of carol singing, 1833.

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Yet just six years after his first Christmas story, which made no mention of them, Dickens’s most famous story was entitled A Christmas Carol (1843). Even so, it was another decade before carol-singing became common, because two other things were necessary: families needed to be together, and there had to be a way to play the music. For the former, the new railways brought the possibility of travel home for the holidays. But it was not until the 1870s, when paid holidays were established for the first time, that working people could take advantage. And by then, advertising and instalment plans were making pianos accessible to the middle classes for the first time.

A Good Christmas Box, a collection of carols

A Good Christmas Box, a collection of carols [page: [5]]

Collection of carols, A Good Christmas Box, 1847.

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Christmas cards

For those who could not travel home, another new ‘tradition’ was the Christmas card. Until 1840, letters were paid for by the recipients, not the senders, and they were charged by the mile. The Penny Post moved the cost to the sender, and brought in a flat charge of one penny, a tenth or less than earlier prices. Just three years later, Henry Cole, the prime-mover in the new postal-system, had a thousand cards printed showing a family Christmas dinner. But at one shilling each, there was no great demand. Only in the 1880s, when printing technology improved and prices dropped, did Christmas cards became a standard part of the season.

Reproduction of the first Christmas card

Christmas greetings card by John Callcott Horsley

A reproduction of the first Christmas card ever sent, designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole in 1843.

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Copyright: © Victoria and Albert Museum

Father Christmas

Father Christmas had arrived too by then. The Reformation had seen saints’ days gradually disappear, St Nicholas included. Instead, Old Christmas, usually drawn as a thin old man, was invented as a spirit of the season. The Dutch Sint Nicolaas, or Sinterklaas, travelled to the USA and became Santa Claus. His business day was moved, too, to Christmas Eve instead of 5 December (St Nicholas’s day); by the 1820s he had his sleigh and reindeer, by 1870 he customarily wore a bishop’s red robes; and by the late 1880s he melded with Old Christmas in Britain, to become Father Christmas, part of the home-based, domestic holiday, and a symbol of giving.

Hervey's The Book of Christmas

Hervey's The Book of Christmas [page: facing p. 23]

Father Christmas developed out of ‘Old Christmas’, here depicted in Thomas Kibble Hervey’s Book of Christmas, 1837.

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Father Christmas illustration from The Graphic newspaper

Illustration from 1874 showing the evolution of the ‘Father Christmas’ figure: no longer thin, he wears red robes and boots.

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Copyright: © British Library Board

Christmas dinners

For charity too was a major component of the middle-class Christmas. Newspapers printed Christmas appeals for donations for the poor, the sick, the elderly, and charitable organisations provided Christmas dinners for the poor, a copy of the new ‘traditional’ Christmas dinner, with their new ‘traditional’ foods.

Plum porridge, a beef broth thickened with bread and flavoured with dried fruit, wine and spices, had long been a seasonal food, while Twelfth Night cakes were also traditional, with their hidden dried bean and pea baked into them: whoever found these became King and Queen of Twelfth Night. Both these foods were easily transformed into Christmas fare: plum pudding and Christmas cake. Meanwhile the railways had altered the main course of the meal, which was traditionally goose. Before steam, animals were herded to market alive, and turkeys were such poor walkers that they needed little leather boots to protect their feet, and a second fattening-up period at the end of the march, which made them rare and expensive. With the arrival of trains, the price of turkeys dropped, and their large size made them perfect for equally large Victorian families.

Christmas crackers

In 1847 a confectioner, to set his sweets apart from others’, covered them in paper treated with chemicals so that they made a small explosion when unwrapped. He called them ‘fire-cracker sweets’, and they were a success. Soon the sweets were replaced with paper hats and trinkets and the cracker was born. Other businesses saw similar opportunities. To draw shoppers, Liverpool’s biggest department store created a ‘snow’-filled ‘Christmas Fairyland’ in the 1870s; 10 years later, a Stratford shop hosted the first appearance of a department-store Santa.
And so the ‘traditional’, ‘domestic’ British Christmas was both commercial and international: Germany supplied the trees, the USA Santa Claus and mass advertising, the Dutch Santa Claus’s name, and shoes for the presents (even though, in the translation, the shoes became stockings). Christmas was produced by manufacturers, delivered by railways, advertised by newspapers and magazines. Christmas presents, Christmas travel, Christmas pantomimes, Christmas concerts, Christmas dinners: all had been reshaped, reordered, repackaged and delivered, to create an image not of the modern age, but the age of domesticity.

Commercial Christmas

For whatever writers like Dickens said about the traditional Christmas at home, in reality, Christmas was always a commercial proposition. Christmas games and pastimes were promoted and marketed by magazines; Christmas music was the product of commercial enterprises selling sheet-music; food was processed and transported by new industrial processes; presents at Christmas were a novelty promoted by retailers.

Sketches illustrating the months by George Cruikshank

Sketches illustrating the months by George Cruikshank [page: ['January - Last Year's Bills']]

George Cruikshank’s cartoon for ‘January’ captures the mounting expenses of a Victorian Christmas, date unknown.

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Footnotes

[1] Charles Dickens, ‘Christmas festivities’ in Bell’s Life in London, 1835; republished as ‘A Christmas dinner’ in Sketches by Boz, 1836. 

[2] Charlotte Papendiek in Court and Private Life in the Time of Queen Charlotte, being the Journals of Mrs Papendiek (1789).

© Judith Flanders
  • Judith Flanders
  • Judith Flanders is a historian and author who focussed on the Victorian period. Her most recent book The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London was published in 2012.

See also

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