The Christmas we celebrate is uniquely Victorian. Prior to Queen Victoria assuming the throne in 1837, Christmas was a regional affair. Pre-industrial transportation and communication made things difficult for the general population to get around. But then Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and the industrial revolution arrived on the scene and Christmas took on a whole new meaning with Christmas trees, Christmas dinner, the Yule log, Wassailing and Father Christmas, who was given a new persona. The wealth and technologies of the industrial revolution changed the face of Christmas into the one we recognize today.
Prior to Queen Victoria’s influence, people knew about a real man named St. Nicholas and a cobbler who gave presents to the local children, but they didn’t know about the modern-day Santa Claus. Christmas cards were not sent. Work kept families from gathering together, with some unable to celebrate holidays. Queen Victoria, who represented the epitome of family to her subjects, changed all of that. Newspapers and influential magazines began illustrating the Royal family interacting and celebrating things like Christmas and naturally, her subjects wanted to follow suit.
The new found wealth generated by the industrial revolution found its way into the middle class. Suddenly, these families found that they could take two days off: Christmas and Boxing day, the day when the working people opened the boxes in which they had collected gifts of money from their employers. The new railways allowed the country folk who had moved into the cities in search of employment to return home to celebrate Christmas with their families.
Mass production allowed the price of toys to drop into the affordable range of this new middle class. Games, dolls, books and automated toys were no longer the sole property of the upper classes. Authors began writing Christmas stories, like Charles Dickens tale A Christmas Carol (1843), which actually encouraged rich Victorians to redistribute their wealth by giving money and gifts to the poor.
In the Victorian period, Santa Claus, as we know him, made his first appearance. He was an amalgamation of two midwinter characters: the British Father Christmas and the Dutch Sinter Klass. Father Christmas was originally part of an old English midwinter festival that heralded the return of Spring. Sinter Klass was the gift giver. And he wasn’t fat… that is, until Washington Irving of Sleepy Hollow fame described him as “portly” in one of his other stories and from them on, illustrators and cartoonists kept adding to the Claus’ girth.
The Christmas Tree idea was brought to England by Prince Albert. The Christmas Tree was popular in the Prince’s native Germany, so he displayed one in Windsor Castle in 1841. The Royal family allowed the London Illustrated Times illustrate the tree. When the common people saw it, they, too, wanted to join in on the festivities… and the rest is history, as they say.
Wassailing, carolers who went from house to house singing and playing popular carols of the day, became popular. Classic Christmas music that we know today was born: O Come All Ye Faithful (1843), Once in Royal David’s City (1848), See Amid the Winter Snow (1851), O Little Town of Bethlehem (1868), and Away in a Manger (1883) just to name a few.
And let’s not forget Christmas dinner. People in the north of England preferred roast beef. People in the south, goose. You might remember it was a goose that Scrooge had Tiny Tim run down to the butcher to fetch or that it was a goose that ate the blue carbuncle that Sherlock Holmes was hired to find. The Royal diner that the Illustrated Times chronicled in Windsor Palace included both roast beef and a roasted royal swan or two. Later, turkeys became the bird of Christmas choice.
Christmas cards made their appearance in the Victorian era, as well. In 1840 Rowland Hill introduced the idea of a “Penny Post”. The idea was revolutionary. For a penny stamp, a letter or card could be sent anywhere in Britain thanks to the newfangled contraptions called Trains. The cards were so ornate and artistic that many Victorians collected them and proudly displayed them.
If you celebrate Christmas, in some way, you might consider yourself a Neo-Victorian. You may not dress in the Victorian style, but as you sit around the Christmas tree on Christmas morning opening presents, you are definitely enjoying the traditions handed down to you from the Victorian Era. And with dark tales intertwined into the holidays, it’s perfect for any lover of Christmas joy and the supernatural, as we all can learn a thing or two from the ghosts of Christmas and Tiny Tim. To those who celebrate, Merry Christmas!
What are some of your Christmas traditions? Leave a comment and share with us.
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