Whilst celebrations around Christmas have existed for millennia, many of the traditions which we closely associate with Christmas today originated in the mid-19th century.
From crackers filled with trinkets to sending Christmas cards, the Victorian era saw the creation of countless much-loved Christmas traditions. As well as specific practices, the Victorians did much to enforce the morality of Christmas. Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, for example, popularised the idea of Christmas being a time for kindness and generosity.
So, exactly what festive traditions have we inherited from the Victorians, and why did they create them in the first place?
The Industrial Revolution
Throughout the medieval and early modern periods, Christmas was an intensely religious time. Advent was a period of fasting and contemplation, and Christmas heralded the start of 12 days of merriment before the Feast of Epiphany. Yuletide gifts were given, feasts were had and merriment ensued: social conventions were often relaxed and people had the chance to celebrate.
However, by the 18th century, religion was on the wane in Britain. The Industrial Revolution saw people flock to urban areas, and a sense of community and belonging often dissipated as they did. Simultaneously, more people working than ever before saw a rise in disposable income and consumer culture.
In response to these changes, Victorian social reformers began to emphasise the importance of the nuclear family and of cleanliness and Godliness. Christmas became an ideal opportunity for these to be celebrated. It also provided a chance for the newly commercialised world to push its wares: the buying and giving of gifts and consumption of food and drinks all helped fuel the economy as people were encouraged to part with their hard-earned wages and participate in Christmas joy and festivities.
Prince Albert and Christmas traditions
The decoration of fir trees at Christmas time was Germanic in origin: Queen Victoria had participated in it as a child with her mother, who was a German princess. However, it was Victoria’s beloved husband, Prince Albert, who truly popularised decorative Christmas trees in Britain and turned them into a widespread festive activity.
Albert took responsibility for choosing and decorating the royal family’s Christmas tree, covering it in gingerbread, candied plums and wax candles. In 1848, prints were produced showing the royal family decorating their tree, and by the 1860s, Christmas trees were being sold en masse in London’s Covent Garden.
Innovation and invention
The sending of Christmas cards also developed rapidly in the mid-19th century. Reforms to the postal system in the 1840s and the introduction of the Penny Black (the world’s first adhesive postal stamp) meant that for the first time, it was affordable, easy and relatively quick to send letters and cards across the country.
Henry Cole, the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, was the man behind mass-produced Christmas cards. His initial run was a flop, but further developments in printing techniques led to the tradition of sending Christmas wishes becoming increasingly popular. By the 1860s, cards were sent throughout the middle classes, using colour, metallic effects, fabric applique and detailed cut-out shape cards.
Crackers were another mid-19th century invention: inspired by French bonbons (sweets wrapped in paper), crackers as we know them today were invented by a sweetshop owner, Tom Smith, in the 1840s. It took 20 years for him to perfect the ‘bang’ we associate with crackers today. Inside would be a joke, as well as a trinket. The wealthier end of society sometimes included more significant gifts, such as jewellery, within their crackers.
The spirit of Christmas
The so-called spirit of Christmas – goodwill, good cheer, kindness and togetherness – was also promoted heavily by the Victorians, drawing on the idea of morals, charity and family values. Few did as much to popularise the idea as the writer Charles Dickens, whose novella, A Christmas Carol, was first published on 19 December 1843.
A Christmas Carol, with its themes of generosity, family and Christmas spirit, was in part inspired by Dickens’ visits to factories and ‘ragged’ schools in Victorian London. It was a morality tale and a call to arms, trying to inspire kindness, empathy and generosity towards the working classes. The novella proved to be a roaring success, selling out of its first run before Christmas.
Christmas at home
Developments in transportation – particularly the railways – allowed people to go home for Christmas, spending time with their families. Queen Victoria herself was said to be a supporter of spending Christmas with family and made time for extravagant exchanges of gifts. Employers began to consider Christmas as a holiday once more, and it was one of the few times those working in factories or performing manual labour could get time off.
Whilst Christmas had always been associated with feasting – especially for the elites – traditions such as roasting a turkey or goose began to be widely associated with the celebration of Christmas. Christmas pudding and Christmas cake began to also become permanent fixtures for many, replacing the previously popular Twelfth Night Cake. By the late 19th century, Victorian Christmas dinners looked relatively similar to those we enjoy today.