Although mid-winter celebrations and festivals had taken place for centuries prior to the Victorian age, Christmas and its symbols and traditions did not really become common place until the Victorian era. Many factors influenced the way British people began to practice activities such as gift giving, tree decorating and the sending of cards.
Influence of the Royal Family
Most historians agree that the Royal family played a huge factor in the development of Christmas celebrations. Trees and branches in some form had been used to decorate churches and homes for centuries, but it was with the introduction of the decorated indoor tree installed by Prince Albert in Windsor castle in the early 1840’s that made decorating an indoor tree popular. Indoor tree decorating was common place in the Albert’s native Germany and he brought the tradition with him. An etching of the royal family was published in the Illustrated London News showing a happy family around the lit Christmas tree at Windsor, and it soon became an essential item for every fashionable Victorian home. Live trees were brought indoors and decorated with candles, ribbons, candies and paper chains.
Decorating a Christmas Tree
Activities to make Victorian Tree Decorations
Decorating the home also evolved, the use of evergreens continued but decoration was more specific, uniform and planned.
The Industrial Revolution
The Industrial developments in Britain during Victorians reign impacted the celebration of Christmas in two ways. The advances in factories and other industries brought great wealth to the middle classes who were able to afford to take time off from work on Christmas day. Social reformers such as Charles Dickens encouraged those with money to give gifts to those who do not.
The development of technology enabled goods such as toys to be manufactured more cheaply. Prior to this most toys and gifts were handmade. This development made them more accessible to everyday people who could now purchase gifts to give to their children and family.
The Victorian Servant
The life for servants changed with the development of the Christmas celebrations. Traditionally the day after Christmas day called Boxing day, was a holiday for servants. A day where employees gave their servants a 'box' with a gift or a bonus. It was also a day when Churches emptied their collection box and distributed the contents to those in need. Many servants had moved from rural areas to the towns and cities to find work. This often meant they were far from home and were not able to travel home to visit family in the short time they were given off work. The development of the railway made this travel more accessible, consequently Christmas became more of a family event, where people travelled to be with their loved ones.
Penny Black Stamp
Development of the Christmas Card
At the beginning of Victoria’s reign sending letters and cards by mail was generally not accessible to everyday people due to the cost involved to send a letter and the time it took to be delivered. In 1843 Sir Henry Cole took advantage of the new penny stamp introduced to develop a Christmas card. He sold the cards in London, the sketch including a Christmas scene and poor people being helped with food and money. This was to encourage those to have to give to those in need. The sending of cards took off, both home made and commercially produced, and the introduction of the half penny post in 1870 helped to develop this tradition further. The introduction of the railway system also meant that post could reach more places at a quicker speed. The sending of Christmas greetings became popular and is still is today.
The Custom of Eating Turkey
Turkeys had been in Britain several hundred years before Victoria came to the throne but were considered a meal for the upper classes. Both chicken and turkey were very expensive and for the poor classes a rabbit would have been the meat available to them. At the beginning of Victoria’s reign beef and swan were the meal of choice in the royal palace. In London goose was eaten by those with money. As turkey became popular with the royal household, others followed suit and it evolved into a popular dish at Christmas time.
In A Christmas Carol written by Charles Dickens the character Scrooge called for the prize turkey to be fetched from the Poulterer’s. This emphasizes the fact that a turkey was considered an expensive treat, that Scrooge with lots of money can afford the best. On the other side of this, the Cratchits have a goose described as cheap and eked out with applesauce and mashed potatoes. A special treat for the family.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Social Reform and Christmas Charity
During this time there grew a greater awareness of social inequality and the need for reform. Influential people such as Charles Dickens wanted to make the upper classes more aware of the plight of the poor and mobilized them into doing something to help. In his book A Christmas Carol published in 1843 Dickens hoped to highlight the plight of the poor in Victorian Britain, in fact the book helped establish the idea of Christmas charity. It became one of the most well known stories associated with the celebration of Christmas and good will, its popularity making Christmas a time of family and giving to those less fortunate.
Introduction of the Christmas Cracker
The Christmas cracker was invented by the confectioner Tom Smith. He wanted to invent a new way to sell his sweets. He experimented with wrapping sweets similar to the way bonbons were wrapped in France and came up with the cracker. Initially filled with a sweet, the design evolved into including a gift, paper hat and a love note or joke. The cracker has become a staple of the modern Christmas dinner.
The giving of gifts had traditionally been in the new year. The industrial developments in manufacturing goods and the new Victorian idea of giving gifts at Christmas became popular. Gifts that were previously homemade trinkets and food treats were increasingly replaced with bigger gifts and moved from tree decorations to under the tree.
Christmas singing had always been enjoyed in Britain but became increasingly popular in the Victorian Era. Victorians enjoyed the musical entertainment involved in caroling and people of all ages got pleasure from singing.
The Victorians had a big impact on the development of the Christmmas celebrations as they stand today. During the Victorian era it became a time for family, gift giving, celebration and charity.
© 2014 Ruthbro