How did the Victorians celebrate Christmas? Julia Wood – City Connect’s Features Writer on Art & Culture – looks at the Victorian Christmas and finds out the truth behind the nostalgia and tradition…
Christmas is a time when not merely individuals, but culture itself, turns reflective and introspective. It is a sentimental free-for-all, in which nostalgia reigns supreme and the hankering after Christmases past, in the times before cars and computers, is too great to resist. At the centre of such hankering is the iconic Victorian Christmas, in which there were several feet of snow and people drifting around in fur-trimmed red velvet capes to the sound of Christmas carols.
In reality, the Victorians’ weather was similar to ours: mild and rather disappointingly unseasonal. The concept of snow at Christmas was in fact, borrowed from the eighteenth century when there was a mini ice age and the Thames froze over.
Yet our fascination with this Victorian ideal of Christmas, with its frosted landscapes and crackling fires continues and is responsible for the plethora of period dramas gracing our screens at this time of year. I think, in particular, of adaptations of Charles Dickens, whether repeats or new dramas, such as the BBC’s Great Expectations, starring Gillian Anderson as the cobwebbed and querulous Miss Havisham.
Indeed, one cannot imagine Christmas at all without Charles Dickens. The novels of Dickens, a key Victorian figure, epitomise what we consider to be the quintessential Christmas. This is particularly true of A Christmas Carol, which helped popularise the tradition of Christmas and its associated festivities.
The Victorians invented much of the iconography we now associate with Christmas. It was Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who brought the Christmas tree to England, and the Illustrated London News in 1848, produced a picture of the Royals, gathered around a lavishly decorated Christmas tree. Subsequently, the public followed in their wake and every Christmas tree in the land was adorned with candles, sweets, fruit and gifts.
Back in 1843 Henry Cole commissioned the first Christmas card, which depicted some people around a table, and contained a Christmas message. Although the prohibitive cost of these cards meant that they did not catch on straight away, children were encouraged to make their own Christmas cards. However, the rapidly advancing industrial age made it possible to utilise colour technology to produce Christmas cards at a faster rate, which had the effect of reducing the price and by the 1880s the sending of Christmas cards was a highly popular tradition. In 1880, 11.5 million cards were produced and we see the first intimations of the commercial machine Christmas has now become.
Another Victorian invention is the Christmas cracker. In 1848, British confectioner Tom Smith discovered a new way of marketing sweets. He took the idea from a visit to Paris, where had seen bonbons wrapped up in paper that was twisted at either end. Smith produced packages that were filled with sweets and which snapped when pulled apart. By the late Victorian period, these had evolved into parcels containing small gifts and paper hats.
As with all things Victorian, the Victorian house at Christmas was lavishly decorated and much time and effort spent on decking out the house using elaborately woven evergreens around fireplaces and doors. As Christmas became more popular, these decorations assumed a more significant position in the house.
Read Part 2 of Julia Wood’s “A Victorian Christmas” on 30 December 2012 exclusively on City Connect.
Images reproduced from telegraph.co.uk and vam.ac.uk
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