In the second part of her look at the Victorian Christmas, Julia Wood examines the customs and traditions the Victorians started which we continue today. Click here to read part one of this article…
Until the Victorians, the giving of presents had been a New Year tradition but this tradition was moved to Christmas to reflect the significance of the Christmas festival. Because they were small, modest and relatively light, these gifts were usually hung on the Christmas tree. However, the giving of gifts quickly became more central to Christmas, the gifts became bigger and people bought rather than made them. The increased size and weight of the gifts made it impractical to hang them on the tree, so they were placed underneath it.
Although the notion of the Christmas feast has its origins in the mediaeval period, it was during the Victorian era that the meal we have come to associate with Christmas first began to emerge. Mince pies were originally made from savoury meat and not from fruit but in the Victorian era recipes without meat began to accrue popularity, giving us the mince pies we know today.
Meats such as roasted beef and goose had been in vogue until the Victorians, who added turkey to this repertoire, at least in the wealthier echelons of society but by the early twentieth century turkey had become the main Christmas dish.
Although the first collection of carols was published in 1833, four years before Victoria came to power, the Victorians also revived and popularised carols, setting old words to new tunes.
What is more, the Victorians have bequeathed to us, the notion of Christmas as a family time, with all the festivities such as eating and parlour games centred upon the family.
However, Victorian society was at the nadir of consumer culture and people did not have the presents they have today. Even the children from wealthy families would have been unlikely to receive more than one present and many gifts were hand-made rather than shop-bought. Popular amongst wealthy children were Dutch dolls, a doll’s house or the newly emerging teddy bear.
Without television or computer games people played socially interactive games – parlour games like Charades and Blind Man’s Buff and of course most houses would have had a piano around which the family would gather to sing popular songs.
In our socially isolated times, many people live alone and the insular nature of television and computers makes social interaction less likely, even for those with families. There is, it seems a warmth and conviviality about the Victorian Christmas, or at least our perception of it – which we find irresistible. The past, and especially Christmases past, exude a luxurious and sumptuous comfort. Perhaps we feel people were happier then, in spite of consumption and the workhouses and the crippling poverty in the slums where people often slept six to a bed.
An internet search for anything about Victorian Christmas will turn up a wealth of sites advertising Victorian ‘Fayres’ and Victorian themed Christmas events. Perhaps this is simply because we have inherited our notions of Christmas from the Victorians, who did, after all, invent it. Or perhaps Christmas simply brings out the sentimental traditionalist in everyone.
Image reproduced from michellehenry.fr
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