So many of the traditions we enjoy and embrace during the Christmas season come to us from the Victorians: kissing beneath the mistletoe, Santa, exchanging gifts, caroling, and giving to charity. The Nativity has been celebrated since the 4th century. In the beginning, the Colonies were slow to embrace the idea of Christmas, as the celebration of a Father Christmas in his long fur trimmed robes was seen as a heathenish notion but by the Victorian Era, Father Christmas was widely embraced by the Americans.
The Victorian Christmas is a joyous occasion. First and foremost, it is a religious holiday, but giving and family were important themes. Most were handmade, so were started many month before. Mufflers, embroidered handkerchiefs, bookmarks, pen wipers, and other useful gifts were lovingly stitched, glued, and colored for family members and friends through the fall and winter months. Wrappings of colored paper, tissue, and cloth were chosen with ribbons to compliment. The exchange of presents, of ancient origin, symbolized the good luck, prosperity, and happiness wished for friends. The Victorians began planning their presents many months ahead. Most cherished were handmade, needlework, or something useful. People exchanged remembrances with family and friends. Children made their gifts as well.
The air is filled with the smells and sounds of the approaching holiday. The scent of roasted chestnuts from street vendors wafts through the crisp air, the sharp scent of evergreens draped around some doors, wreaths give a festive look to doors and windows. Not all, some cling to the superstition that says you must not put up greens until Christmas eve. On street corners, street musicians are singing traditional melodies. Carolers stroll along, stopping to sing for people and selling a sheet of music.
Busy shoppers hurry along on foot or in carriages getting last minute gifts, a trip to the shop to match a bit of thread, the bakery to order some little cream horns . . . so much to do!
The Christmas tree has been a German tradition since as early as the 17th century, but many ancient civilizations held evergreens to be a symbol of life during the long winter months and decorated trees as a symbol of eternal life. In 1841 Prince Albert, German husband of Queen Victoria, introduced the charming custom to the royal family. In 1850 a tinted etching of a decorated tree at Windsor Castle was published and the Tannenbaum became a necessity for every fashionable Victorian home. It was a tradition quickly embraced by Victorian England. Live trees were set up for the Christmas season decorated with lighted candles, draped with tinsel, ribbon, paper chains, cookies and candies. (I’m just shuddering with the thought of lit candles on a live tree. I wonder how many fires started in just that manner.)
On Christmas Eve the last of the relatives arrive for the holidays. Not only the immediate family, but aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, it was a holiday devoted to one of the most important aspects of Victorian times, the family. In the afternoon, a long awaited event, the doors of the parlor open and the children finally get to see the glorious Christmas tree with its candles, tinsel, beautiful ornaments made of colorful scrap art, ribbons, baskets of candies hung from branches. Ropes of popcorn and cranberries ring the tree. Hung from branches are small wrapped gifts, and under the tree the larger ones. Christmas Eve is the time for gift exchanges and everyone has a gift. After the grand unwrapping, the children play with their toys, thoughtful handmade gifts are admired and the best gift of all is used, Papa’s gift to the family was sometimes a phonograph, a game, a sterioscope, or maybe one of the new magic lanterns with amazing pictures that enthralled the whole family. Next came the program. Everyone has a part. Shy children mumble recitations and poems while older children and adults perform short plays and scenes from history. Musical performances and group singing fills the house. After, sleepy children are sent to bed as well as tired adults.
Christmas day starts with a Christmas Mass or church service. After a quick trip by some to the bakers to pick up the Christmas goose or other meat, a flurry of cooking takes place. The Christmas dinner is resplendent with all manner of foods. The meat being served depends on the area you live in. Many rural houses have beef. Chicken and goose is popular. Turkey is popular in America, but not usually used for Christmas in England until in the late 19th century. The Christmas pudding was mixed on Stir-up Sunday, the Sunday before Advent. A Christmas pudding is made of beef, raisins, prunes and sugar all packed into a pudding cloth and dropped in the pot to cook, often with other food. It is served, with great ceremony, with a coating of brandy set alite and a sprig of holly in the top.
After Christmas dinner, cleanup, and afternoon naps, the festivities continue with visits to friends. Most shops are open. It is unusual for any of the trades to take a day off. Charity is an important part of the Christmas season: sharing with your fellow man. The streets are filled people wassailing (going from house to house at Christmas time, singing carols and greeting people), the less fortunate going from door to door hoping for donations of food, drink, or money as they invite others to share a drink from their wooden bowls. Families also walk door to door caroling to entertain their neighbors.
The custom of caroling is a purely English tradition which was quickly taken up by America. In cities, the approaching holiday season was marked by strolling carolers, usually in groups of three, one caroler to play violin, one to sing, and one to sell sheet music. Holiday shoppers would pause to purchase music, joining in the trio for a few stanzas, before hurrying homeward. Carolers would stop at houses to sing, hoping to
be invited in for a warm drink.
Christmas decorations began appearing well before the holiday for many. The favorite plants were the berried evergreens, mistletoe, holly and ivy. During the Roman Solstice Ceremony known as “Saturnalia” holly was exchanged as it was believed the red berries would ward off lightning and evil spirits. It had to be carried in the house by a male, as the berries are only on the male plant. Ivy was twined in the holly as a symbol of the two halves of divinity. Mistletoe was not allowed in churches because of its pagan origins. In ancient times, Druid priests harvested it from sacred oaks on the fifth day after the new moon following the winter solstice. Norse warriors who met under the mistletoe declared a truce for that day. The Victorians used mistletoe suspended from the ceiling. Those who met under it could claim a kiss. The number of kisses allowed under each plant depended on the number of berries. Each time a kiss was given, a berry was taken off. No more berries, no more kisses!
Although the Victorian idea of Christmas was not commercial, having more to do with food, and the exchange of handmade gifts, New York soon saw the commercial advantages of a holiday full of the exchange of gifts. By the 1880s Macy’s department store’s windows were filled with wonderful dolls and toys from Germany, France, Austria, and Switzerland. Another window boasted scenes with steam driven moveable parts. Homemade cornucopias of paper filled with fruit, nuts, candy, and popcorn were hung from branches of trees in America and England. Beautiful shaped cookies were hung for treats on Christmas day. Often the gifts were also wrapped and hung from branches.
With the growing popularity of Christmas trees manufacturers began producing ornaments around 1870. Also popular were molded wax figures of angels and children. Many ornaments were made of cotton-wool wrapped around an armature of metal or wood and trimmed with embossed paper faces, buttons, gold paper wings and “diamond dust”, actually powdered glass.
The first Christmas card, designed by J.C. Horsley, was sent by Henry Cole, who decided to send his many acquaintances something different from his usual Christmas letter. They sold for one shilling each, and only one thousand copies were lithographed. It depicted the charities of clothing and feeding the poor, with the middle section depicting a well-to-do family toasting to Christmas and the year ahead. It proved to be a very popular idea.
Santa is a mixture of many different figures from many different cultures. The Dutch St. Nick, England’s Father Christmas, and the German Kris Kringle. In ancient times Norse and German people told stories of The Yule Elf who brought gifts during Solstice to those who left out offerings of porridge. When Clemment Moore’s poem “The Night Before Christmas” became enormously popular, the “Jolly old elf” was adopted as the ideal Santa. Years later Thomas Nast illustrated him as a round-bellied whiskered figure in tight red leggings and coat. Coca-Cola’s popular advertising changed the concept of Santa to a cheerful full bearded man with the now popular red suit, black boots and wide belt.
Our Christmas celebrations owe much to the Victorians. What’s your favorite Christmas tradition?