A Christmas Carol

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Victorian Christmas card
Have you ever wondered where our Christmas traditions come from? Why do we have mince pies with no meat? Why do we send cards? Discover the history of the Victorian Christmas

Once upon a time a celebrated writer set his pen to paper and decided to write a tale of Christmas – it would have snow, turkey, ghosts and festivities. That tale was of course A Christmas Carol published by Charles Dickens in 1843, and it has remained in print ever since. It’s one of the most iconic elements of Christmas (up there with twinkling fairy lights and the dreaded brussels sprouts), and it cemented many of the traditions that we now associate with the festive period. Welcome to the Victorian Christmas...

At the beginning of the 19th century Christmas was hardly a spectacular celebration. Though people brought in their evergreens, exchanged gifts and enjoyed a Medieval feast, this often took place at New Year. However, by 1901, people decorated, sang and went the whole festive hog… sorry, turkey. Grouches like old Ebenezer Scrooge were even required to give their employees the day off. So what changed?

THE GERMAN EFFECT

Well, the Germans are what happened. On 20 June 1837, the 18-year-old Queen Victoria took to the throne. A couple of years later she married the German Prince Albert and quickly began producing their nine-strong brood of children. They say Christmas is for the children and it was certainly the case for this pair, as they drew on both country’s traditions.

Christmas was already a big celebration in Germany. It was common for celebrations to last all month, with families marking the lead-up to Christmas by creating wreaths, burning candles and singing carols. Indeed the first known Advent calendar was created in Germany in 1851, and would be filled with chocolate and other treats by the 1880s.

O CHRISTMAS TREE

Trees were also a significant part of the German Christmas celebration. Traditionally an evergreen tree would be brought into the home on Christmas Eve to be secretly decorated by the mother of the household after nightfall. It’s no wonder then that O Christmas Tree, one of our most beloved festive songs, is actually a German song based on folklore.

Having adopted such practices, the royal couple were copied; much like Kate and Wills, Victoria and Albert were the celebrities of their day. After a popular newspaper, the Illustrated London News, printed a sketch of the couple and their children huddled around a decorated Christmas tree in 1848, the Christmas tree, as we know it today, became a regular feature in British households.

SEND A CARD

Then there was commercialism. Thanks to the growth of industry, a rise in trade and the emergence of a more affluent middle class, commerce became increasingly important in the 19th century. Let’s face it, if people have money to spend then someone will soon find something for them to buy. 

The first commercial Christmas card was produced in 1843. In an attempt to avoid spending too much time writing to his friends over the busy festive period, Sir Henry Cole (who became the first director of the Victoria and Albert museum) asked his friend John Calcott Horsley, an artist at the Royal Academy, to create a card for him. Its message read, ‘A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You’, but each was elaborately hand-decorated. Realising he was onto good thing, he took cards to be sold at a local shop.

Henry Cole’s commercial Christmas cards were priced at one shilling (12 pence) which was too pricey for most Victorians. But with mass production and the introduction of new printing technology, cards steadily became cheaper and more popular. By 1880 over 11 million cards were being produced each year – not bad when you think that the population of Britain at the time was only 35 million people.

WHAT A CRACKER

But it didn’t stop there. Gifts became bigger, more expensive, and were shop-bought rather than homemade. Even wrapping paper became more elaborate. While looking for a new and exciting way to package his sweets, British confectioner Tom Smith came up with a novel idea. In 1847, he invented a bright, unusually shaped box that snapped when it was pulled apart – the Christmas cracker was born. It was only a matter of time before these would be filled with small gifts and paper hats.

FESTIVE FEASTS

The catering industry changed too. Prior to the 19th century the nature of Christmas dinner depended on which part of the country you lived in – roast beef was traditional in the North, while Londoners ate goose, and the royal family lunched on a swan or two. By the end of the century turkeys were at the centre of most Christmas tables. Why you ask? Maybe we were influenced by the American Thanksgiving tradition, or because turkey was a prized and expensive meat, or perhaps it was just Scrooge’s goodwill gesture.

We owe many of our favourite festive treats to the culinary genius of Mrs Isabella Beeton. After writing for a number of women’s magazines, in 1861 she published Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, a guide to running a Victorian household with comments on child care, husbandry and cooking. It was a commercial triumph – two million copies of the book were sold by 1868 and, like Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, it has remained in print ever since.

MINCE PIES AND MULLED WINE

Mrs Beeton’s book contained a recipe for a peculiar style of mince pie. During the Stuart and Georgian times extravagantly decorated mince pies were a status symbol at Christmas, but Isabella introduced a new vegetarian pie which replaced meat with spiced fruit. Others quickly followed suit and so we ended up with the delicious, but rather confusing, meat-free mince pie.

The book also contained a recipe for mulled wine – wine, sugar, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and mace. The drink that we know and love today. It reportedly came about as people drank punch to avoid contaminated water, which is a rather grisly idea, but who’s complaining? Cheers!

So this Christmas, as you settle down with a glass of mulled wine and a warm mince pie to watch Patrick Stewart, Michael Caine or even Jim Carrey take up the reins as Scrooge, raise a glass and give thanks to those enterprising Victorians and their wonderful festive traditions. In the words of Tiny Tim, ‘God bless us, everyone’.

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TIMELINE:    

1837            Queen Victoria ascends to the throne.

1840            Victoria and Albert are married at St James’s Palace, and nine months later their first child,
                    Victoria, is born.

1843            The first Christmas card is created for Sir Henry Cole, and Charles Dickens publishes
                    his first festive novel, A Christmas Carol.

1847            British confectioner Tom Smith creates the Christmas Cracker as a way of packaging
                    his festive sweets.

1848            A sketch of the royal family huddled around a decorated Christmas tree is featured
                    in the Illustrated London News.

1851            The first Advent calendar is produced by German Lutherans to anticipate the
                    coming of Christ and The Nativity.

1861            The first edition of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management is published.

2016            We send Christmas e-cards, watch Dickens on TV and drink too many 
                    glasses of Mrs Beeton’s mulled wine

 

First published in: December 2015

Published in: November 2017

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