Victorian England, Christmas in

Victorian England, Christmas in

Queen Victoria ruled the British Empire from 1837 to 1901. Although she played little part in it herself, she presided over the revival of English Christmas celebrations. At the turn of the nineteenth century many English Christmas customs had disappeared or were in decline. By the 1840s, however, the English had begun to revive the splendor of the Christmas season. The Victorian Christmas mixed new customs, such as the Christmas tree, with old ones, such as the singing of Christmas carols. In this way the Victorians recreated the English Christmas as a festival of good will, charity, and domestic harmony.

Decline

By the early 1800s Christmas had fallen out of fashion in England. Historians find few mentions of Christmas in newspaper articles or advertisements from the early decades of the nineteenth century. Moreover, folklorists of the era lamented the decline of many old Christmas customs. Indeed, Christmas withered along with the entire calendar of saints' days and feast days inherited from earlier times. Changes in the British economy severely curtailed the observance of these holidays in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. For example, in the year 1761 the Bank of England closed its doors for 47 holidays. By 1825 the number of observed holidays had declined to 40 and in 1830 it dropped to 18. By 1834 the number of holidays honored by the Bank of England had plummeted to four. Some of the holidays eliminated were those that fell in or around the Twelve Days of Christmas, including Holy Innocents' Day and Epiphany. In 1833 the Factory Act ruled that British workers had a legal right to only two holidays besides Sunday: Christmas and Good Friday.

Revival

During the second half of the nineteenth century the English reclaimed and transformed Christmas. What caused the turnaround in attitude? Some historians believe that the Oxford movement, a campaign for religious reform within the Church of England, generated renewed appreciation of Christmas traditions through its promotion of ritual, decoration, and the old holy days. In addition, images of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria celebrating Christmas with a decorated Christmas tree kindled widespread interest in this new Christmas custom. Finally, some writers credit Charles Dickens's influential portraits of Christmas charity in A Christmas Carol (1843) and Christmas cheer in The Pickwick Papers (1837) with inspiring Victorian appreciation of the Christmas season. Others disagree, arguing that Dickens captured the emerging Victorian attitude towards Christmas, rather than inspired it. Whatever his place in the chain of cause and effect, both British and American audiences hailed A Christmas Carol, and the tale became a cherished element of Victorian Christmas lore.

Christmas Dinner

Christmas dinner was one of the few English Christmas customs that had never really gone out of fashion. The Victorians relished their holiday feast, contributing two new dishes to the traditional Christmas dinner. Plum pudding, a dessert, replaced plum porridge as a first course. The Victorians also adopted roast turkey as a possible main course, in addition to the more traditional roast beef or roast goose. The renewed emphasis on the pleasures of the table, so ably promoted by Dickens, elevated the Christmas dinner into a centerpiece of the Victorian festival.

Christmas Charity

Changes in the treatment of the poor at Christmas time reveal the importance of Christmas charity in Victorian times. In 1847 a new law allowed Christmas dinners to be served in all workhouses for the poor. Charitable donations supplied much of the food for these dinners. During the Victorian era, performing acts of charity became an important part of the observance of Christmas for many middle-class people. Some visited workhouses on Christmas Day. Others distributed gifts of food and money, known as "boxes," among the poor of their parish on the day after Christmas. In Victorian times people called the twenty-sixth Boxing Day in reference to this custom. In past eras the English had observed December 26 as St. Stephen's Day. Parliament declared Boxing Day a public holiday in 1871.

Protestants Embrace Christmas

As the themes of charity and domestic harmony became dominant in Victorian Christmas celebrations and the disorderly, public revelry of past eras faded, those Protestant denominations that had once opposed the celebration of Christmas softened their attitudes toward it. This opposition dated from the time of the Reformation and found its strongest advocates in the Puritans. In late nineteenth-century America a similar process of reincorporation was underway as many Protestant churches in the United States also accepted Christmas back into the fold of legitimate observances (see also America, Christmas in Nineteenth-Century).

Christmas Trees and Gifts

At the beginning of the nineteenth century the English gave Christmas gifts, or boxes, to servants, the poor, and those who provided them with services during the year. Those who gave holiday season gifts to family and friends did so on New Year's Day. In the early part of the nineteenth century, however, New Year's gift giving appeared to be dying out. Two English folklorists writing in the 1830s remarked upon the ominous decline of the practice. In the Victorian era the English revived winter season gift giving, transferring the custom from New Year's Day to Christmas. The Christmas tree played an important role in this transfer and revival.

Historians credit German-born Prince Albert for importing this German custom to Great Britain (see also Germany, Christmas in). A well-known 1840s illustration depicting Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their children gathered around the Christmas tree motivated middle-class families to adopt this custom. (Fashionable Victorians often sought to imitate royal tastes.) Like the Germans, English families covered their Christmas trees with good things to eat and small gifts. Hence, the tree focused everyone's attention on giving and receiving. In addition, because it stood at the center of the household, the tree drew the exchange of Christmas gifts into the family circle. By the end of the century, Victorians customarily gave Christmas gifts to friends and family. New Year's gifts had become the exception rather than the rule. Queen Victoria remained loyal to the old custom, though, still sending New Year's, rather than Christmas, gifts as late as 1900.

While the Christmas tree grew in popularity among middle-class Victorians, many working-class families adopted the more affordable and convenient Christmas stocking. This custom, too, encouraged the exchange of small gifts within the family.

By the 1880s Santa Claus had arrived in England. Unlike the English Father Christmas, Santa Claus brought gifts to children at Christmas time. By the end of the century the popularity of this American gift bringer prompted retailers to begin using his image to boost Christmas sales.

Christmas Carols

In the early years of the nineteenth century several English folklorists predicted the approaching demise of the Christmas carol. Observers of English folk customs mourned that only a scattered handful of old people knew and sang the traditional songs. This timely handwringing may have inspired several important collections of Christmas carols, which were published in the early part of the century. With their renewed interest in Christmas and its traditions, middle-class Victorians welcomed these traditional songs back into their Christmas festivities. By the 1870s churches began to incorporate these almost-forgotten Christmas songs into their holiday services. In 1880 an Anglican bishop, Edward W. Benson, later archbishop of Canterbury, first devised the Ceremony of Lessons and Carols, a special Christmas service blending Bible readings with carol singing.

Christmas Greetings and Entertainments

By the 1860s Victorians had come to cherish seasonal greeting cards (see also Christmas Card; Robin). Many of these cards wished the recipient "Happy New Year" rather than "Merry Christmas," but by the 1870s the increasing importance of Christmas led card makers to include Christmas greetings as well. Victorian Christmas card designers created colorful and elaborate cards, often enhanced with silk, cords, and tassels. The ingenious cards so enchanted the public that newspapers reviewed new designs and people carefully collected and displayed the cards they received.

At about mid-century Christmas crackers emerged as another Victorian Christmas novelty. These cardboard tubes, wrapped in decorative papers, contained a variety of tiny trinkets. When pulled on both ends, the party favors burst with a loud popping sound.

Other Christmas entertainments included parlor games. In the game called "Snapdragon," the hostess filled a bowl with currants (a raisin-like dried fruit), poured spirits on top of them, and set a lighted match to the mixture. Players dared one another to grab a currant out of the flaming bowl. When the family tired of Snapdragon they might move on to other parlor games, such as Blind Man's Bluff or charades, or they might entertain one another with recitations, magic tricks, or Christmas carols.

The kissing bough offered a different kind of entertainment to the lovelorn or to the adventurous who lingered nearby. According to custom, one could steal a kiss from anyone who passed beneath its branches of mistletoe. Victorian tastes in Christmas decorations called for plenty of greenery, in addition to the kissing bough, usually displayed in the form of ropes, wreaths, and sprays. Victorians continued their Christmas fun on Boxing Day. On this day many families crowded into theaters to view a pantomime, a circuslike presentation of a folk or fairy tale.

Customs in Decline

Although many of the more boisterous English Christmas customs, such as mumming, had already deteriorated by Victorian times, a few more withered away under the spell of the new Victorian Christmas. Twelfth Night, which had been celebrated in the past with sumptuous cakes, costumed balls, and charades, faded throughout the Victorian period as Christmas Day grew in importance. In addition, the waits, bands of nighttime musicians who serenaded householders at Christmas time in exchange for food, drink, or tips, also fell out of favor during this era. Nevertheless, by the end of the nineteenth century, the Victorians celebrated Christmas more vigorously than their ancestors had at the beginning of the century.

Further Reading

Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. Miall, Antony, and Peter Miall. The Victorian Christmas Book. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978. Pimlott, J. A. R. The Englishman's Christmas. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1978.

Web Site

A site sponsored by Victoriana.com contains pages that offer images and text descriptions of Victorian Christmas celebrations: christmas/default.htm
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