Celebrate Christmas Past - The Victorians
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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).