Christmas In Victorian England

by Michelle J. Hoppe

Although Christ's Nativity has been celebrated since the 4th century, most of the English customs we are familiar with today are as recent as the mid-19th century. Many of the early ceremonies were rooted in pagan beliefs, and some customs, like wassailing, still survive.

The Protestant Reformation condemned most of these pagan customs as superstitious and banned public celebrations of Christmas. The Puritans abolished all celebrations after the Civil War, also. Fervor for the holiday declined even into the Georgian Era. It wasn't until Prince Albert married Queen Victoria and brought many German customs with him that Christmas began to gain popularity again.

One of the first signs of Christmas was the arrival of the Christmas card in the post. John Calcott Horsley designed the first Christmas card in 1846 for Sir Henry Cole, Chairman of the Society of the Arts. Only 1000 cards were printed that first year and were expensive, but the pattern for the future was formed. Then in 1870, postage was reduced to one half penny per ounce and a cheaper color lithography was used for printing. Thus began the real spread of the Christmas card. By the early 1870s, the custom had reached the United States. At first, designs were simple, but as technology advanced, new subjects evolved. By the 1860s, popular designs were Christmas feasts, church bells, snowbound mail-coaches and turkey and plum puddings.

Christmas decorations sometimes appeared well before the holiday, also, but many still held to the old superstition of bad luck to erect evergreens before Christmas Eve. The most favored plants were all 'magical' because of the mid-winter berries they produced--mistletoe, holly and ivy. The red berry of the holly was believed to protect one against witchcraft. The sprig had to be carried into the house by a male, as the berry is on the 'male' holly plant. One use for holly sprigs was to decorate the Christmas pudding. The 'female' ivy symbolized immortality. Mistletoe, because of its pagan origins, was not allowed in any church. Kissing under the mistletoe was a purely English custom, and only as many berries as were on the mistletoe, could there be kisses. For after every kiss, a berry had to be removed from the sprig.

The Christmas tree can truly be called a Victorian innovation. The custom of a lighted tree began in Germany and German settlers brought the idea to America. But it wasn't until Prince Albert, of German descent, brought the Christmas tree to England in 1840 that it gained popularity there. By 1847, the trees at Windsor Castle were laden with presents as well as wax candles. The tradition spread as English citizens followed the Royal example. The trees and other decorations were removed on Twelfth Night (January 6). To do so before or after was considered bad luck.

Families began their Christmas Day by celebrating mass. (Christmas Eve services did not become popular until after the Second World War.) The peal of bells called everyone to church. At services, scriptural lessons were interspersed with carols. Most of the carols we sing today were written in the nineteenth century, although old favorites such as 'Silent Night' and 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing' are much older.

Carols were also sung at home and families even walked door-to-door to entertain others. Also going from house-to-house were the wassailers. These were usually the poor of the parish, who sought donations of drink, food or money as they invited others to drink from their wooden bowl.

Christmas dinner was a grand affair. Goose, chicken or a joint of roast beef took center stage on the table. Turkey, while popular in America, wasn't customary fare until late in the 19th century in England. Christmas pudding, made with beef, raisins and prunes, was mixed on Stir-up Sunday, the Sunday before Advent, in order for the mixture to mature. All present in the house took turns stirring the pudding with a wooden spoon (in honor of the Christ child's wooden crib). The stirring had to be done in a clockwise direction for luck. Mince pies were another traditional dish. They were sweeter, made with mincemeat, fruit and spices, and had to be eaten for the twelve days of Christmas to ensure twelve months of luck in the coming year. Each one eaten had to be baked by a different person, however, so there was much sharing with friends.

After dinner, children pulled their crackers and everyone exchanged gifts. The evening usually ended with parlor games and carol singing.

For more information on Christmas customs in the 19th century, I suggest the following references:

Discovering Christmas Customs and Folklore by Margaret Baker, 1994, Shire Publications Ltd. ISBN#0747801754

The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain by Charles Kightly, Thames and Hudson Ltd. ISBN#0500275378

Also see the Researching the Romance page of Literary Liaisons for more suggestions.

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Copyright 1998, M. Hoppe