The Influence of Victorian Christmas Practices on Today’s Traditions


Judith Flanders describes how many of our own Christmas traditions – from trees and crackers to cards and carols – have their origins in 19th-century industrial and commercial interests.


By Judith Flanders / 02.19.2014

Around the Christmas Tree Quadrille

This cover illustration from the quadrille Around the Christmas Tree (estimated 1876) shows what a Christmas tree might have looked like in the late Victorian period.

This quadrille is a set of ‘seasonal’ dance-rhythm pieces for piano in a popular, uncomplicated style, playable by most domestic performers. The cover illustration shows how a Christmas tree of the period might have looked, complete with candles and trinkets nestling in the branches.

Victorian Britain reinvented Christmas in the mid-1800s, introducing or re-introducing many of the traditions familiar to us today: trees, carols, family gatherings, food and drink.

The Victorians even pioneered the idea of what a century later would be called the ‘Christmas single’: seasonal novelty pieces for the thriving market of amateur pianists entertaining at home. The piano was a symbol of gentility and accomplishment, and tens of thousands were sold every year – though the cheapest Broadwood still cost £45, a year’s salary for many manual workers.

Little is known about the composer, Hyppolite (the correct spelling) van Landeghem, a freelance teacher, composer, and polemicist on disabilities, active in South London in the 1860s.

Should one want to find the ultimate Christmas celebration, the oldest traditions, the most cherished customs, surely Dickens is the author to turn to. The problem is that, during Dickens’s lifetime, most of these traditions were barely traditions at all. The ‘traditional’ British Christmas we know today is not found in the mists of history, but is entirely a product of industrialisation.

First Edition of A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) was a phenomenal success in the 19th century and is still closely associated with the author.

A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, to give the work its full title, was the first, and the most popular, of Dickens’s series of Christmas books. The volume, published by Chapman and Hall on 19 December 1843, was an immediate success and the initial print run of 6,000 copies sold out within a matter of days. Dickens had hoped the book would clear his debts with Chapman and Hall but the lavish production, including four woodcuts and four colour plates by John Leech, meant Dickens only made £230 from the first printing. Worse was to follow when a plagiarized version of the book appeared in January 1844. Dickens took the publishers of the pirated edition to court but, even though he won the case, he found himself liable for costs of around £700 when the guilty party declared bankruptcy. His bitterness at the whole affair resurfaced years later when he came to describe the labyrinthine and corrupt workings of the Court of Chancery in Bleak House (1853).

Dickens, ghosts and Christmas

A Christmas Carol concerns a cold-hearted miser, Ebeneezer Scrooge, who is visited on Christmas Eve by the ghost of his dead partner, Jacob Marley. During the night three further spirits – the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future – also appear to Scrooge, each holding a mirror to his behaviour and highlighting the unhappiness resulting from his misanthropy. The Ghost of Christmas Future, the most sinister of the three spectres, also reveals the gloomy consequences for Scrooge, and those like Bob Cratchit and his son Tiny Tim whose livelihoods depend upon him, should he fail to mend his ways.

In addition to Scrooge’s own plight the story also addresses wider social issues, particularly in the scene where the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the two children Ignorance and Want: ‘From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment’ (Stave III). Both children are the direct result of the poverty afflicting much of Victorian society. Dickens was a fierce defender of children, and took every opportunity to highlight the disastrous implications of neglect, financial hardship and a lack of education on their wellbeing.

Dickens had written about misanthropes, Christmas and the supernatural before in the Gabriel Grub episode of The Pickwick Papers (1837), but it was A Christmas Carol which truly caught the public imagination. The associations between Christmas, the supernatural and Dickens have lasted ever since. Names and dialogue from the story have also entered the language. Those who dislike Christmas are given the name ‘Scrooge’, but they do of course have the option of replying with Scrooge’s vehement ‘Bah, humbug!’ to any call for seasonal good cheer.

From the 17th century, when Puritan disapproval of this pagan winter festival saw it fall out of favour, Christmas was of only minor interest. The big winter holiday was Twelfth Night, the Feast of Epiphany, on 6 January. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that Christmas began to regain popularity. In a story written in 1837, Dickens ticked off the essentials: the day was about family, about mistletoe and holly, church-going and charity, and about food – turkey, plum pudding and mince-pies. Yet so many things we take for granted were not yet part of the holiday. He did not mention trees, carols, cards, stockings, crackers. There was no Father Christmas, nor were there presents (apart from those given to the servants, and tokens to the children). Dickens was on the cusp of the great changes that were coming, and when he began to write, the ‘traditions’ for this ‘traditional’ festival were still in the process of being created.[1]

The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon

Washington Irving’s account of the decline of Christmas from the 17th century and its revival in the 19th century, 1820.

The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. is a collection of essays, sketches and tales by Washington Irving (1783-1859), generally considered one of the first American writers to achieve international recognition. Charles Dickens knew the book well: as he confided to Irving in 1841, it had been ‘second nature’ to him ever since he had pored over it with such delight as a child.

Readers on both sides of the Atlantic especially liked the Christmas sketches in which the solitary Crayon is invited to join the traditional old English celebrations at Bracebridge Hall. Beginning with a crowded stagecoach journey through the frozen countryside, Irving lovingly describes the family gathering in the gleaming candlelit parlour, the feasting and drinking, and the traditional songs, dances and games which the whole household enjoys together before settling down to tell ghost stories round the fire. This deliberately nostalgic picture helped spark a renewed interest in the festival of Christmas, and over fifteen years later was an obvious source of inspiration for the Christmas scenes in Dickens’s Pickwick Papers.

‘A Christmas Dinner’, from Charles Dickens’s Sketches by Boz

‘A Christmas Dinner’ from Sketches by Boz by Charles Dickens, 1836.

Charles Dickens’s first piece of writing about Christmas appeared under the title ‘Christmas festivities’ in Bell’s Life in London, a weekly newspaper, on 27 December 1835. It was republished as ‘A Christmas Dinner’ in Sketches by Boz just a few weeks later in February 1836.

The essay describes a merry family Christmas party where grandparents, father and mother, uncles, aunts and children gather together to celebrate the season. Gradually the year’s quarrels and resentments are forgotten, ‘social feelings are awakened’ and ‘all is kindness and benevolence’. Grandfather tells his usual story, uncle makes the same jokes, the children are as excited as always at the sight of the gigantic pudding: they are all drawn together by simple, familiar customs, and life-affirming good will. Only a misanthrope, writes the 24-year-old Dickens, could not forget his sorrows and regrets for a day to celebrate Christmas.

Decorations

Decoration for the festival until this time was most commonly mistletoe and ivy, with branches bunched together as a ‘kissing bough’. In the late 18th century, there was one mention of someone having a tree ‘according to the German fashion’.[2] But otherwise, Christmas trees were unknown in Britain until, in the 1830s, the many German families living in Manchester began to put them up in their houses. Queen Victoria and her German husband, Albert, had one for the first time in 1840, and three years later an illustration of them grouped around the tree made the German custom seem ‘British’.

Traditional evergreen plants being taken to market as Christmas decorations, from Thomas Kibble Hervery’s Book of Christmas, 1837.

Carols

We know that seasonal songs were sung as early as the 13th century, but carols had faded away with the Puritan rejection of Christmas. When they revived, they were generally about feasting, not religion. (Two of the few religious carols that postdate the Puritans were ‘While Shepherds Watched their Flocks’ (1698) and ‘Hark the Herald’ (1782)).

Broadside on ‘Carols for Christmas Holidays’

Broadside printed with Christmas carols, c. 1830.

Through the 1830s and 1840s, the previously modest festival of Christmas was reinvented in Britain, for the first time incorporating many aspects that we know today (such as trees, greetings cards, and family-based festivity). Old traditions of carol singing were reclaimed too, notably in books by William Sandys (1792–1874).

In this 1830s broadsheet – a large illustrated one-sheet publication sold cheaply on the streets – is a very early appearance of the carol ‘God rest ye merry gentlemen’.

It is often said that ‘authentic’ versions of the verse require a comma after the word ‘merry’. There is none here, though the mis-spelling of ‘CRHISTMAS’ in the line above suggests that speed was more important than accuracy for a publisher keen to address the seasonal market.

The headline item, ‘While shepherds watch’d’, is another early appearance of a now-familiar carol. Again, proofreading appears hurried – they are visited by the ‘angle’ of the Lord – but the illustrations are relatively lavish for the time.

Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern by William Sandys

William Sandys’ Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern helped to revive the tradition of carol singing, 1833.

Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern by William Sandys (1792–1874) was published in 1833, and sought to re-establish the seasonal song.

The 136-page introduction – in which Sandys relates the history of the festival, and laments that celebrating Christmas is ‘on the wane’ – is followed by 80 carols he had collected, some 15th to 17th century, others ‘still used in the west of England’, plus 12 pages of music with 18 tunes. The book saw the first appearance of many now-familiar carols, including ‘God rest you merry, Gentlemen’; ‘Hark, the herald angels sing’; ‘I saw three ships’; and ‘The first Noel’.

In 1852 Sandys published a similar carol collection, Christmas-tide, for a more popular market.

Yet just six years after his first Christmas story, which made no mention of them, Dickens’s most famous story was entitled A Christmas Carol (1843). Even so, it was another decade before carol-singing became common, because two other things were necessary: families needed to be together, and there had to be a way to play the music. For the former, the new railways brought the possibility of travel home for the holidays. But it was not until the 1870s, when paid holidays were established for the first time, that working people could take advantage. And by then, advertising and instalment plans were making pianos accessible to the middle classes for the first time.

A Good Christmas Box, a Collection of Carols

Collection of carols, A Good Christmas Box, 1847.

This small book, A Good Christmas Box, contains a selection of Christmas carols. It was published in 1847 by G Walters of Dudley, a West Midlands town. During the 19th century the Midlands was well-known for its caroling traditions.

Among more obscure carols, it contains many that are still well-known today including ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ and ‘Hark! The herald angels sing’ (here called ‘Herald Angels’).

The caroling tradition

This collection was popularly known and widely used in the contemporary period and later. In 1911, Shropshire, Cecil Sharp recorded that, ‘The singers had with them a chap-book… called A Good Christmas Box (Dudley, 1847), consisting of 125 pages and containing the words of 48 carols, several of which are still sung in that neighbourhood’ (p. 67, English Folk-Carols). It was also consulted as a source book for later carol collections, including The Oxford Book of Carols.

In the earlier part of the 19th century, however, the caroling tradition had nearly died out. Over the course of the 19th century the tradition was revived by an increasing number of choral singers and a surge in published collections, such as A Good Christmas Box.

On the title page ‘Christmas Box’ is typeset in Gothic script. Also known as blackletter, this script was possibly chosen to evoke earlier, particularly medieval, periods, which were famous for their lavish Christmas celebrations.

What is a ‘Christmas box’?

Boxes containing money or other presents were traditionally exchanged as part of Christmas festivities on St Stephen’s Day, 26 December, now known as Boxing Day. Boxing Day derives its name from this custom. Later, ‘box’ became a generic term for the gift itself.

Typically, Christmas boxes were given between acquaintances who exchanged services. Trades-people commonly gifted boxes to their best customers – bakers providing a plum-pudding, for instance – or wealthy houses presented boxes to their servants.

Christmas Cards

For those who could not travel home, another new ‘tradition’ was the Christmas card. Until 1840, letters were paid for by the recipients, not the senders, and they were charged by the mile. The Penny Post moved the cost to the sender, and brought in a flat charge of one penny, a tenth or less than earlier prices. Just three years later, Henry Cole, the prime-mover in the new postal-system, had a thousand cards printed showing a family Christmas dinner. But at one shilling each, there was no great demand. Only in the 1880s, when printing technology improved and prices dropped, did Christmas cards became a standard part of the season.

Reproduction of the First Christmas Card

A reproduction of the first Christmas card ever sent, designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole in 1843.

Reproduction of the Christmas card designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole in 1843. This is recognised as the first Christmas card ever sent.

Father Christmas

Father Christmas had arrived too by then. The Reformation had seen saints’ days gradually disappear, St Nicholas included. Instead, Old Christmas, usually drawn as a thin old man, was invented as a spirit of the season. The Dutch Sint Nicolaas, or Sinterklaas, travelled to the USA and became Santa Claus. His business day was moved, too, to Christmas Eve instead of 5 December (St Nicholas’s day); by the 1820s he had his sleigh and reindeer, by 1870 he customarily wore a bishop’s red robes; and by the late 1880s he melded with Old Christmas in Britain, to become Father Christmas, part of the home-based, domestic holiday, and a symbol of giving.

Hervey’s Book of Christmas

Father Christmas developed out of ‘Old Christmas’, here depicted in Thomas Kibble Hervey’s Book of Christmas, 1837.

Thomas Hervey’s Book of Christmas is remembered today for the wonderful illustrations by Robert Seymour (1798-1836), one of the most successful caricaturists of his time. Hervey’s text gives an exhaustive historical account of old English Christmas customs: some – like the feasting on roast beef and turkey, plum pudding and mince pies – still flourishing; others – like waits (carol singing at night) and mumming – almost forgotten. Seymour’s illustrations, completed just a few months before his suicide as he was working on Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, capture the spirit and joy of the season. From the coach load of Norfolk turkeys, to the sleepy waits singers in the light of the street lantern, to the merry old gentleman enjoying Christmas by his fire, he provides a delightful selection of holiday scenes.

The Book of Christmas, first published in 1836 and reprinted the following year, was an early attempt to record and preserve the old customs. As the Victorian revival of the holiday gathered pace during the 1840s many more histories of Christmas festivities and practices were published. They were often bound and illustrated as attractive gift books, and so helped to establish a new tradition of the Christmas publishing season.

Father Christmas Illustration from the Graphic Newspaper

Illustration from 1874 showing the evolution of the ‘Father Christmas’ figure: no longer thin, he wears red robes and boots.

Christmas Dinners

For charity too was a major component of the middle-class Christmas. Newspapers printed Christmas appeals for donations for the poor, the sick, the elderly, and charitable organisations provided Christmas dinners for the poor, a copy of the new ‘traditional’ Christmas dinner, with their new ‘traditional’ foods.

Plum porridge, a beef broth thickened with bread and flavoured with dried fruit, wine and spices, had long been a seasonal food, while Twelfth Night cakes were also traditional, with their hidden dried bean and pea baked into them: whoever found these became King and Queen of Twelfth Night. Both these foods were easily transformed into Christmas fare: plum pudding and Christmas cake. Meanwhile the railways had altered the main course of the meal, which was traditionally goose. Before steam, animals were herded to market alive, and turkeys were such poor walkers that they needed little leather boots to protect their feet, and a second fattening-up period at the end of the march, which made them rare and expensive. With the arrival of trains, the price of turkeys dropped, and their large size made them perfect for equally large Victorian families.

The rich charitably giving food and drink to the poor at Christmas, from Thomas Kibble Hervey’s Book of Christmas, 1837.

Christmas Crackers

In 1847 a confectioner, to set his sweets apart from others’, covered them in paper treated with chemicals so that they made a small explosion when unwrapped. He called them ‘fire-cracker sweets’, and they were a success. Soon the sweets were replaced with paper hats and trinkets and the cracker was born. Other businesses saw similar opportunities. To draw shoppers, Liverpool’s biggest department store created a ‘snow’-filled ‘Christmas Fairyland’ in the 1870s; 10 years later, a Stratford shop hosted the first appearance of a department-store Santa.

And so the ‘traditional’, ‘domestic’ British Christmas was both commercial and international: Germany supplied the trees, the USA Santa Claus and mass advertising, the Dutch Santa Claus’s name, and shoes for the presents (even though, in the translation, the shoes became stockings). Christmas was produced by manufacturers, delivered by railways, advertised by newspapers and magazines. Christmas presents, Christmas travel, Christmas pantomimes, Christmas concerts, Christmas dinners: all had been reshaped, reordered, repackaged and delivered, to create an image not of the modern age, but the age of domesticity.

Commercial Christmas

For whatever writers like Dickens said about the traditional Christmas at home, in reality, Christmas was always a commercial proposition. Christmas games and pastimes were promoted and marketed by magazines; Christmas music was the product of commercial enterprises selling sheet-music; food was processed and transported by new industrial processes; presents at Christmas were a novelty promoted by retailers.

Sketches Illustrating the Months by George Cruikshank

George Cruikshank’s cartoon for ‘January’ captures the mounting expenses of a Victorian Christmas, date unknown.

These month-themed illustrations show off the skills of the caricaturist George Cruikshank at their best: the scenes are lively and comic, brimming with detail, and closely observe 19th century society in its many forms.

Footnotes

[1] Charles Dickens, ‘Christmas festivities’ in Bell’s Life in London, 1835; republished as ‘A Christmas dinner’ in Sketches by Boz, 1836.

[2] Charlotte Papendiek in Court and Private Life in the Time of Queen Charlotte, being the Journals of Mrs Papendiek (1789).

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