By Helen Breen
At the beginning of the 19th century, Christmas was hardly observed in Britain, or on this side of the Atlantic. But by the turn of the 20th century, the holiday was commonly celebrated in the Western world. Certainly, Queen Victoria’s marriage to her beloved Prince Albert influenced her to adopt his German tradition of the Christmas tree “bedecked with candles, sweets, fruit, homemade decorations and small gifts.” Many other customs around the Yuletide soon followed.
In 1843 Sir Henry Cole was too busy to send traditional handwritten greetings to his friends so he commissioned an artist to design the first “Christmas card,” depicting a family around the holiday table. At a shilling apiece, these were too costly for the ordinary Victorians. The Queen even encouraged her children to make their own versions. In the age of industrialization, however, the development of new color technology caused the price of the cards to drop. With the introduction of the halfpenny postage rate, the business took off. According to one source, some 11.5 million cards were sent in 1880. Thus, “the commercialisation of Christmas was well on its way.”
On a trip to Paris in 1848, British confectioner Tom Smith noticed “bon bons – sugared almonds wrapped in twists of paper” in a shop window. So he was inspired to invent the Christmas cracker, “a simple package filled with sweets that snapped when pulled apart.” These treats, sometimes called “poppers,” became popular in Britain and America.
The tradition of gift giving had been widespread in Britain for centuries, particularly around New Year’s. But during the Victorian era, the practice was moved to Christmas Day. Children of the wealthy were often given expensive handcrafted toys. Those of lesser means had to be satisfied with fruit and nuts in their Christmas stockings. On Boxing Day, December 26, families remembered their domestic staffs with monetary gifts presented in small boxes.
Mass production eventually caused the price of toys to become more accessible to a larger population. “Little gifts” hung on the Christmas tree were soon replaced with larger presents “under the tree.” This practice was embraced in America with enthusiasm.
Victorians loved music and so revived many old medieval English carols. They also composed new ones, both secular and religious. Upper-class folks would often gather around the piano in the parlor for singing. The ritual of door-to-door caroling was also revived. These songs soon found their way into church services with “the substitution of new words to old carols.” Among Victorian favorites were “We Three Kings,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”
“Father Christmas” arose from an old English winter custom. He was originally dressed in green as a symbol of approaching spring. Eventually he was upstaged by the arrival of St. Nicolas (“Sinterklaas”) from Holland. By 1870, St. Nick was known as Santa Claus in Britain and America, becoming the official bearer of Christmas gifts.
Feast and family
While the Christmas feast had its roots in the Middle Ages, it was during the Victorian period that it assumed its present form. Roast turkey, as mentioned in Dickens’s “Christmas Carol,” became the preferred centerpiece of the holiday dinner. A variety of side offerings included mince pies, fresh fruits, oysters and plum pudding.
Yuletide festivities increasingly revolved around the family, not surprising since Victoria and Albert had nine children. These included “the preparation and eating of the feast, decorations and gift giving, entertainments and parlour games” shared by the whole household.
A distinct “holiday season” evolved when wealth and infrastructure allowed middle-class folks to take Christmas and Boxing Days off from work. Family members could travel more easily “home for the holidays.” Meanwhile, we in America were experiencing similar material progress. So we joyfully embraced many traditions of the Victorian Christmas from our British cousins and made them our own.
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