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.View images from this item (7)
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.View images from this item (11)
The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon
Washington Irving’s account of the decline of Christmas from the 17th century and its revival in the 19th century, 1820.View images from this item (7)
'A Christmas Dinner', from Charles Dickens's Sketches by Boz
‘A Christmas Dinner’ from Sketches by Boz by Charles Dickens, 1836.View images from this item (6)
DecorationsDecoration 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’. 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’.
CarolsWe 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 on 'Carols for Christmas Holidays'
Broadside printed with Christmas carols, c. 1830.View images from this item (1)
Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern by William Sandys
William Sandys’ Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern helped to revive the tradition of carol singing, 1833.View images from this item (15)
A Good Christmas Box, a collection of carols
Collection of carols, A Good Christmas Box, 1847.View images from this item (2)
Christmas cardsFor 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
A reproduction of the first Christmas card ever sent, designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole in 1843.View images from this item (1)
Copyright: © Victoria and Albert Museum
Father ChristmasFather 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
Father Christmas developed out of ‘Old Christmas’, here depicted in Thomas Kibble Hervey’s Book of Christmas, 1837.View images from this item (11)
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.View images from this item (1)
Copyright: © British Library Board
Christmas dinnersFor 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 crackersIn 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.
Commercial ChristmasFor 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
George Cruikshank’s cartoon for ‘January’ captures the mounting expenses of a Victorian Christmas, date unknown.View images from this item (9)
 Charles Dickens, ‘Christmas festivities’ in Bell’s Life in London, 1835; republished as ‘A Christmas dinner’ in Sketches by Boz, 1836.
 Charlotte Papendiek in Court and Private Life in the Time of Queen Charlotte, being the Journals of Mrs Papendiek (1789).