Celebrate Christmas Past - The Victorians

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Helen Lowrie Marshall
The merry family gatherings –

The old, the very young;
The strangely lovely way they
Harmonize in carols sung.
For Christmas is tradition time
Traditions that recall
The precious memories down the years,
The sameness of them all.

How did the Victorians celebrate Christmas? The answer is very interesting for us today, because it defines the kind of festive season we now enjoy in modern times.

A typical Christmas - for the rich folks - would start on Christmas Eve. In the morning all the visitors invited for Christmas would, hopefully, have arrived. This would be mostly family, but often close friends would be asked as well. In the late afternoon, the parlour doors would be opened to reveal the newly decorated Christmas Tree. On the tree would be small gifts along with other decorations. The larger presents being placed underneath.

Some families held a tradition of opening their Christmas gifts on Christmas Eve night. Other families waited, as we tend to do, until Christmas Day. The family would usually attend church services after breakfast. The head of the household would then light the candles on the Chrismas tree and then the presents would be given out - this sometimes also included giving gifts to the serving staff. The head of a wealthy household would often by a 'family' or 'house' gift. This could be something along the lines of a new piece of furniture, or a new invention such as a 'magic lantern' or in the later Victorian period a gramaphone.

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VICTORIAN CHRISTMAS CARD FROM AROUND 1870
VICTORIAN CHRISTMAS CARD FROM AROUND 1870 | Source

Christmas Preparations

Most of the cherished traditions, as we know them today, would have been very familiar to the Victorians. In fact it was in this era that many of our traditions were invented.

Christmas Cards - the first Christmas card was introduced in 1843 by Henry Cole. These cards were, at one shilling each, too expensive for most Victorians. However, most people liked the idea and began to make their own hand made cards to give to family and friends. With the newly formed 'penny post' coming into being in 1840, the sending of Christmas cards was cheap and easy. It wasn't long before mass produced Christmas cards were being printed. By the 1880's this tradition soon became popular country wide and has remained so to this day.

Christmas Decorations: The use of evergreens for Christmas decorations was not of course invented by the Victorians. The use of vegetation, at the Winter Solstice in particular, goes back thousands of years. But the Victorians saw themselves as improving the way that decorations were used and - in typical Victorian fashion - set down the rules for the proper use and display of Christmas decorations.

  • Mistletoe Ball: - usually made from wire or weave. This decoration was suspended from the roof. It involved binding the two circles, made out of the wire/weave, to make a round ball shape. This would act as the frame. Natural evergreens such as Holly, Ivy and Yew were then woven around the frame. Often holly berries and dried roses were then also suspended from the ball. Lastly, Mistletoe would be suspended from the centre of the frame by using ribbon and the whole decoration hung from the ceiling.
  • Christmas Wreath: - these decorations do pre-date the Victorians by centuries. However, they were popular and the Victorians made them into the form of wreath that we're more familiar with today. Wire or hazel was used to make the frame and this would then be dressed with the same kind of evergreens used in the mistletoe ball. In addition pine cones and fruit would be added to finish the decoration off. Most wreaths were then hung on the main door to the home.
  • Ivy Ribbon: - These beautiful evergreens were used to decorate walls and doors. It involved using any kind of fabric - paper or calico were the most popular. The paper/calico would then be dyed green. The ivy leaves or other ornamenations were then hand sewn onto the material. In addition to decorating the walls, ivy ribbons were often used as a Christmas tree decoration - similar to how strands of tinsel are used today.


The ChristmasTree

It is of course common knowledge that Britain only caught on to the idea of a Christmas tree because of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband. The Prince had been very familiar with decorated trees at Christmas in his native Germany. Indeed decorating trees is an ancient, winter solstice, practice. However, in those far off times, it was the natural growing trees in the forests that would be decorated. They wouldn't have been cut down and brought inside as later traditions do.

Tree Decorations

Paper chain decorations: these would be made by hand, by forming strips of coloured paper into loops and intertwining them to make a chain. The chains could be made to all different sizes to decorate smaller and larger areas of the tree. Paper chains were also used to decorate walls and doorways. Paper chains continued to be popular up until quite recently. In the UK you can still see paper chains being made and hung in classrooms and nursery schools by young children.

Tinsel

Who actually invented tinsel is not clear. What we can be sure of, is that it was being used in various decorations in the 17th century. Tinsel first made its appearance in Nuremberg, Germany in 1610. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the word tinsel comes from the Old French - estincele - which means to sparkle. Tinsel was very expensive for most of the Victorian era so only the richest of families would have used it either to decorate the tree or other areas of the home.

Cornucopias

Were hand made using different kinds of material but usually paper was favoured. The paper would be twisted into a large cone shape and stuck together. Each separate cone would be coloured and designed uniquely so that each one stood out when placed on the tree. Most of the time they would then be filled with sweets and/or other small gifts.

Other Decorations

Other decorations were made using more natural items such as fruit, cinnamon sticks, dried fruit, nuts, pine cones and sweets - including the popular candy stick. Also small gifts and toys were placed on the tree. Many were wrapped in the centre by ribbon and then suspended from the branches. Others would be strung onto string or twine and placed over the branches of the tree. At the top of the tree would be either a hand-made angel or if you could afford it a decoration called a Nuremberg Angel. This expensive tree topper had a dress made of crinkled gold. The face was either wax or bisque and the wings were made from spun glass.

Candles

Lighted candles were frequently placed on very large trees. However, as beautiful as they were, and as you would expect, a number of fires were caused by their use.

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ROAST GOOSE ONE OF THE FAVOURITES OF VICTORIAN TIMES - BUT TURKEY EVENTUALLY TOOK OVER.
ROAST GOOSE ONE OF THE FAVOURITES OF VICTORIAN TIMES - BUT TURKEY EVENTUALLY TOOK OVER. | Source
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A Victorian Christmas Menu

Here is an example of a Christmas dinner from the late 1800's. Depending on what region you lived in, there would be differences in what was served. For example, roast beef was preferred in the north, but in the south of England, goose or turkey would be served. Obviously the following menu would only be available to people who were wealthy. Although in many large homes, the servants would be allowed both the leftovers and their own, less lavish Christmas dinner.

Starter : - Raw Oysters. Very popular in Victorian times and one that probably caused some nasty illnesses over the Christmas period.

Savoury Soup - Clear Turtle Soup. Another Victorian favourite.

Main Courses - Goose/Turkey. The main meat dishes would be served with numerous side plates of chicken, ham, pork or another meat. Capon and partridge could also be served. In addition, there would be a selection of vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, turnip. A bread sauce was often made to go with the main meal. The dishes would sometimes be served in different ways so increasing the number of courses served.

Sweet - the Victorians were very sweet toothed and there would probably be a wide selection of sweets either after the main meal or in between courses. Popular sweets would include - Christmas Pudding; Mince Pies; Cranberry Pie; jellies and sweet pickles. As well as the main sweets, fruit was also served. New additions called, 'exotic fruit' were fruits that were just coming into fashion and included - peaches, pineapple and grapes. Sugar plums were also available for Christmas dinner and also, often hung on the Christmas tree as a decoration. As if this wasn't enough, there was usually a wide selection of cake and biscuits/cookies.

Beveridges - there was usually quite a selection of beveridges served.

  • Water was always made available.
  • Mulled wine - made with spices.
  • Various cordials
  • Wassail punch was also popular. The Wassail Punch was often used to give carol singers a refreshment when they were invited into the home on a cold winter's night. The punch was always served hot.

Although this Victorian meal looks fairly straight forward, many of the foods above would be made into numerous different courses. It wasn't unusal for an important Victorian feast to have anything between 10 and 25 courses.

The table would be laid out using the best linen and lace tablecloths, along with glassware, fine china and the best cutlery. In 1846 Christmas crackers were invented by a sweet maker in London called Tom Smith. He originally just put sweets into twisted paper. But when he had the novel idea of adding small mottos, toys, paper hats - and producing a 'bang' when pulled - the popularity of his invention exploded. So by the late Victorian period it would not have been unusual to see Christmas crackers laid out on the table next to the silverware, crystal glasses and fine bone china.

A VERY WEALTHY HOUSEHOLD WITH A LARGE CHRISTMAS TREE AND MANY EXPENSIVE TOYS AS GIFTS
A VERY WEALTHY HOUSEHOLD WITH A LARGE CHRISTMAS TREE AND MANY EXPENSIVE TOYS AS GIFTS | Source
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Christmas Gifts

As with everything else at Christmas it was only the well off who could afford to give gifts. The poor were, understandably, too concerned with trying to survive another long, cold winter. The iconic scene of a poor child in rags staring at awe into the window of a Victorian toy shop is a reflection of real life.


Gifts

For centuries it was traditional to give gifts at the New Year. But as Christmas gained in popularity with the Victorians, the giving of gifts was switched to this time.

One of the greatest pleasures that the Victorians had was to make many of their own gifts for family and friends. These special projects would be planned and started months before the festive season. One book that women often used to find suitable gifts to make was 'Cassell's Household Guide'. This gave novel ideas and patterns to use for a variety of gifts for both ladies and gentlemen. Other sources of inspiration would come from the abundant availability of periodicals.

Children's toys early in the Victorian era tended to be hand made. As such they were very expensive and only very rich families would be able to buy such gifts for their children. However with factories coming into existence, mass production of toys became common and toys as Christmas gifts became available to more people. Again, not for the poor children. Their Christmas stockings usually only contained and apple and an orange - if they were lucky.

Some examples of gifts given:

  1. Female gifts - sewing implements and cases. A fan. Cologne. Scarf. Brush and comb. Hand mirror. Hand made or bought gloves. In addition she would receive many hand made items such as a scrapbook, Knitting bag, doilies, pomander ball, photograph frame. Hand emroidered fine hankerchiefs.
  2. Male gifts - embroidered bed slippers. Embroidered suspenders. Cigar case. Homemade cakes/cookies. Hand made or bought gloves. Scarf. Umbrella. Again men would probably receive other handmade items from his family and friends. Some homemade gifts might include - eyeglass cleaner in a homemade crewel stitch cover. Homemade cookies and a homemade keepsake box to keep them in. A homemade tobacco pouch. Hand emroidered fine hankerchiefs.
  3. A sister/daughter - Doll. Doll's House. Painting Set. Hair Ribbons. Fan. Pencils. Music Book. Sewing Kit. Mittens. Doll clothes. Doll cradle. Teddy Bear. Bed quilt. Muff. Homemade items would include those given to the older females.
  4. A brother/son - Building blocks. Skates. Teddy Bear. Stamp Album. Wind-up soldier. Train set. wooden/hand made boat/ship. Carved Toys. Marbles. Homemade items would be similar to those given to older boys and men.

The Victorians would frequently wrap their gifts in paper that was designed and coloured by themselves.

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A VICTORIAN PARLOUR WHERE THE GAMES KNOWN AS 'PARLOUR GAMES' WOULD BE PLAYED
A VICTORIAN PARLOUR WHERE THE GAMES KNOWN AS 'PARLOUR GAMES' WOULD BE PLAYED | Source
THE MOST FAMOUS CHRISTMAS BOOK -  'A CHRISTMAS CAROL'.
THE MOST FAMOUS CHRISTMAS BOOK - 'A CHRISTMAS CAROL'. | Source
Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens | Source

Christmas Fun & Games

When the Christmas dinner was over and while the hard working servants cleared up, the family would continue the day - after probably having a nap - with music, parlour games and book readings.

Parlour Games - these were very popular all year round but particularly so at Christmas. Many of the parlour games involved tests and thinking games. The Sculpture is a game where one person puts other people into silly poses.They have to hold these as long as possible. The sculptor can distract the players in anyway they can in order to make them move or laugh - as long as the players are not physically touched. The first player to move or laugh is out and becomes the sculptor. This is very similar to an outside game we played as children in Scotland, called 'statues'.

Another game that was very popular with the Victorians was called "How? What? Where? When?". Basically one player thinks of an object. The others ask questions such as 'how do you use it?' 'Where is it kept?' and so on. The player must answer truthfully to each question. The first player to guess wins the game.

Snapdragon was a game that had been popular for many centuries and the Victorians seemed to have had a great deal of enthusiasm for it. The game was simple. A bowel was filled with brandy and added to this would be a large amount of raisins. All the lighting in the room would be put out and the brandy in the bowl set alight. The game was to basically catch the raisins while they were still on fire! If you were quick enough to do this without being burned (or your house burnt down), then you were declared a winner!

After the parlour games were finished it would be quite common for the family to have a book reading session. At Christmas time, after the author Charles Dickens had become famous, the book 'A Christmas Carol' was often read by the fireside by one member of the family to the others.

A music session could also take place as well as a book reading. The music would tend to be popular carols, accompanied by a member of the family playing a musical instrument. Some members of the family may also have gone out into the neighbourhood to sing carols to their neighbours. The Victorians didn't invent carols, but they were responsible for bringing them back into popularity.

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I hope you have enjoyed this brief journey into past times. The Victorians are often scoffed at for their, alleged, double standards and on occasion lack of style. However, as far as inventing the modern Christmas goes, they have done a pretty good job. It's often the people and traditions from the past, that make the present so magical.


Christmas Is Coming!

Christmas is coming,
The geese are getting fat
Please put a penny
In the old man's hat
If you haven't got a penny
A ha'penny will do;
If you haven't got a ha'penny
Then God bless you! (Anon).

More by this Author


Comments 28 comments

Gordon Hamilton profile image

Gordon Hamilton 5 years ago from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom

Fabulous guide to Victorian Christmases and the origins of many modern day traditions. Really enjoyed the read! :)


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Gordon Hamilton, lovely to hear from you and glad that you enjoyed the hub! I think the Victorians did a pretty good job with their Christmas inventions and glad that we can still enjoy most of them today.


kittythedreamer profile image

kittythedreamer 5 years ago from the Ether

Can I just say I worship you for this hub? I love learning of the Victorian ways of celebrating holidays...and have learned much about Victorian Halloweens, but never learned so much about Victorian Christmases! Thanks so much for writing this beautiful piece of work. The pictures were just enchanting, too. Voted up, awesome, and interesting.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Kitty - as usual it's lovely to hear from you and many thanks for leaving such a wonderful comment.

I'm glad that you enjoyed the hub. I agree with you about the Victorians - they do come in for a lot of criticism but they did lay the foundations for our modern world, and I think this era is very interesting.

Many thanks for the vote up - it's really appreciated.


debbie roberts profile image

debbie roberts 5 years ago from Greece

Your hub makes me want to step back in time to try out a Victorian Christmas. It sounds how Christmas should be. Informative hub that I enjoyed.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Debbie,

Many thanks for your visit and glad that you enjoyed the hub. I agree with you about the Victorian Christmas - there is something warm, cozy, romantic, spooky and totally festive about Christmas from the past! Maybe it's the lack of commercialism, and the fact they didn't have to put up with TV ads., screaming out what you should be buying!! And of course they didn't have to put up with bad-tempered, rude crowds of people or with the mind-numbing, irritating Christmas songs that start to play continuously from November!!!

Many thanks again Debbie for the visit and the nice cooment - much appreciated.


Alastar Packer profile image

Alastar Packer 5 years ago from North Carolina

Well done Victorian Christmas Hub Seeker! This was most interesting, especially the Christmas Menu,- always wondered what's in your mince pies over there?- gifts and fun and games. Lets play some Snapdragon Seeker!


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Alastar, lovely to hear from you! Glad that you enjoyed the hub. I thought the Christmas menu was really interesting as well - I'm just glad I don't have all that cooking to do, 10 to 25 courses!!! Eh, I have to say that I love the mince pies, especially when they are very hot with a lash of cream on the top! The downside is after Christmas when the waistline starts to fill out rapidly!!!

Do you know, when I first heard about Snapdragon I honestly thought what a very silly game that is. But it kept niggling at me and now I would love to have a go at that if it wasn't for the cost of the brandy!!!


CloudExplorer profile image

CloudExplorer 5 years ago from New York City

wow, I couldn't have done it any better than you have here. This hub is filled with memoirs and fine tuned details of interesting resourceful Victorian content and info. Thanks for sharing and at such a pleasant time of the year.

Voted up for beautiful & interesting oh and I can't forget Awesome. lol That turkey images made me hungry, I gotta get me some grub now. Darn see what the holidays does to us.


Rosemay50 profile image

Rosemay50 5 years ago from Hawkes Bay - NewZealand

What a neat hub. I so much enjoyed reading this. Especially the decorations and the menu. We used to always have goose when I was young. I had forgotten about the paper chains I used to love making those.

The difference between the rich and poor is very evident.

You put a lot of work and research into this great hub as you always do, and that is very much appreciated. Voting up


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

LOL! Hi Cloudexplorer!! Well, many thanks for the wonderful comment - you made me blush and smile all at the one time, not an easy thing to do!!

Really glad that you enjoyed the hub and many thanks for the vote up - it really is appreciated! Thank you!


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Rosemay, it's always great to receive a wonderful comment from a writer such as yourself! Thank you!

I used to adore making paper chains at school and hanging them all around the classroom and on the Christmas tree in the main hall at school - such sweet and happy memories of childhood! As to goose, do you know, I've never eaten goose at all! I'm sure even when little, our family would always stick with turkey and chicken.

Glad that you enjoyed the hub and many thanks for your visit, I always enjoy reading your comments!


Gypsy48 profile image

Gypsy48 4 years ago

Beautiful hub, what a great read. Really enjoyed this one :)


Eiddwen profile image

Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

This hub is awesome,beautiful and has to be voted up up and away.

I am also bookmarking into 'My favourite Hubs'.

Take care and enjoy your day.

Eddy.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Gypsy48,

Many thanks for stopping by and for leaving such a nice comment - it really is appreciated. I'm glad that you enjoyed the hub, I guess it helps to get us all in the holiday mood!! Take care and have a nice day.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Eddy - as always it's pleasure to have you visit and many thanks for the lovely comment.

I'm glad that you enjoyed the hub and I have to say that I had a lot of fun writing this one - for some reason Christmas in the past always seems, well, more like Christmas!!

Many thanks again for the visit and the vote up - much appreciated.


prasetio30 profile image

prasetio30 4 years ago from malang-indonesia

This was beautiful hub about Christmas. I learn many things related with Christmas. Thanks for writing and share with us. I love all the pictures above. Well done and Rated up!

Prasetio


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi prasetio! Always, lovely to hear from you.

I'm really glad that you enjoyed the hub and many thanks for the vote up! It really is appreciated.

I think one of the most enjoyable things about creating a hub is not only the writing but also choosing the photographs, that hopefully match.

Once again, thank you!


Movie Master profile image

Movie Master 4 years ago from United Kingdom

That takes me back, making paper chains!

A shilling for a Chritmas card, that was a lot of money in that day!

Thank you for a great read, very interesting and well researched and I enjoyed all the pictures.

Voted up and Merry Christmas!


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi MM - lovely to hear from you, as always. Yes, whenever we started making paper chains at school, I knew that Christmas wasn't far away - I used to love doing them, even although your mouth would taste and feel like sand-paper from licking the sticky paper!LOL!

I agree about a shilling for a Christmas Card - I would think only the richest of the rich would have bought them! No wonder most of them chose to make their own. It's interesting to see that this has now come back into fashion big time. There are so many cheap kits and templates, and some of the home made cards are very lovely.

Glad that you enjoyed the hub and many thanks for the vote up - appreciated!


oceansnsunsets profile image

oceansnsunsets 4 years ago from The Midwest, USA

Wow, this is an excellent hub on how the Victorians celebrated Christmas and how it affects us still today. I absolutely loved all the images you shared here as well. Just lovely! Very thankful we have that rich heritage to draw from, whether people really realize it or not. Very interesting, voted up, awesome and interesting and beautiful.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi oceansusnsets, lovely to hear from you and many thanks for leaving such a lovely comment!

I to love the heritage that the Victorians have left us for Christmas. I think combined with them and bringing in a bit of what our ancestors did long, long before the Victorians, does keep that little bit of Christmas magic going into adulthood!

Once again, many thanks for your lovely comment - much appreciated!


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 4 years ago from Essex, UK

Hi Seeker. The opening sentence after the poem says it all doesn't it - the Victorians defined the kind of Christmases enjoyed today, and most of what's come since has been merely embellishments and fancy glitter.

This is a very detailed and comprehensive hub, very attractively and interestingly illustrated, and covering all aspects of traditional Christmas history. So I will vote for it accordingly and bookmark.

Well done. Alun.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Alun, many thanks for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the hub.

I'm not a huge fan of the Victorians at times, but I have to say that the way they created and celebrated Christmas is kind of special! I had a lot of fun writing this and finding out more about Christmases before, as you rightly say, the 'embellsihments and fancy glitter' took hold completely.


samtebbutt profile image

samtebbutt 4 years ago from Ireland

I love this hub! The descriptive writing and old photography are beautiful together


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

hi samtebbutt, lovely to hear from you again and glad that you enjoyed the Victorians Christmas - they didn't get everything right, but they definitely knew how to celebrate Christmas!!


Frank Atanacio profile image

Frank Atanacio 2 years ago from Shelton

Just wishing you and your family a happy holiday


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 2 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Thanks Frank and the same to you and your family! Sorry I haven't been around on Hub Pages over the past couple of months - I took a break to do other things - hopefully I will be back into the swing of things by early New Year and look forward to reading your wonderful stories again.

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