The Victorian Christmas
Christmas soon became a special occasion for the Royal Family. Their celebration of it emphasized the importance of family closeness and an appreciation of children, and revived the idea of the holiday meal and holiday decorations.
In 1841, for example, Prince Albert introduced the first Christmas tree to Windsor Castle, setting the stage for the subsequent popularity of Christmas trees in England. Since Victoria and her family enjoyed an astonishing popularity, much of what they did was widely emulated. Newspapers and magazines such as The Illustrated London News provided a hungry audience with chronicles of the royals’ daily activities. Anything seen in the castle, it seemed, was soon copied in homes throughout the country.
As a result, the Victorian Christmas was quaint and warm, highlighted by family togetherness. It commanded a special spirit, full of kindness and charity. More prevalent than the excesses of the past, was the idea of giving and of concern for others, particularly those less fortunate. As Charles Dickens said, Christmas was “the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely.”
Charles Dickens also played a large role in reviving the Christmas spirit in his countrymen. Along with a stinging indictment of the living conditions brought about by the Industrial Revolution, Dickens’s publication of “A Christmas Carol” in 1843 reminded people what the holiday truly meant, and all that it could bring to their lives.
The Christmas card was created during the Victorian Era, and it enjoyed great popularity. So did carols, which got their biggest boost since they had become legal again under Charles II. There was now caroling in church, caroling in homes, and bands of carolers roaming the streets. Most of the images we have today of outdoor carolers are from these times.
After all that caroling and good cheer, there were bound to be some hungry mouths to feed. The Victorian Christmas menu is the one most people envision when thinking of a classic Christmas dinner: turkey, goose, or roast beef; mince pie; Yorkshire and plum pudding; wassail; and eggnog. To aid in digestion, there were games like Shadow Buff, the Memory Game, Poker and Tongs, and the Minister’s Cat; there was also the ubiquitous sprig of mistletoe.
The custom of giving gifts on Christmas Day did not come about until the last few decades of the century; before that, England adhered to the old Roman tradition of waiting until New Year’s Day. When Christmas eventually became the day for gifts, it was England’s turn to borrow from America, whose Santa Claus became the model for the English Father Christmas.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, Christmas was fully re-established as a holiday, steeped again in tradition and spirit. The Victorians had helped to mold a Christmas tradition that would forever alter the way Christmas was celebrated in England and America.