Tuesday, 10 December 2013

A Victorian Christmas (Bah! Humbug!)

Ahh Christmas, the happy time of the year that makes every “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, clutching, covetous old sinner” (34) whoop “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man.” (111), as did Scrooge in A Christmas Carol... The snowball fights, the festive lights in every street, shop, home. The air filled with the smell of spices and roasted chestnuts. Christmas songs played all around. The seasonal cards garnishing the mantelpiece. The fir tree waiting to be decorated and the stockings waiting to be filled with presents. The merriment on every face...
The excitement and joy of the approaching holiday are in everyone's hearts and the obsession of Christmas is greatly due to the Victorians and how they refined these festivities.

During the 19th Century, Christmas gradually became an important festival and was soon celebrated by every class of the society (with extravagance according to one's own means), perhaps because this time of the year was rather dull, and people took it as an excuse to bring joy and charm to the bleak winter, have a feast, eat, drink lots and be surrounded by their loved ones. As we know, Victorians particularly treasured the time spent with their family, and Christmas was the perfect occasion to do so; “A cheerful company assembled round a glowing fire” (Dickens:2003:85) listening to stories. Paradoxically, Christmas stories were often ghost stories: Dickens' A Christmas Carol for instance. Another example is his short story “A Christmas Tree”, which starts by relating different aspects of the Christmas merrymaking perceived by the narrator (such as the splendid fir tree, the presents received, the stories read) and then shifts to some of the most frightening ghosts stories he knows...

Prior to the Victorians, Christmas was not that popular, being a mix of a pagan festival dating from the 4th century and, according to the Protestants who deprecated it, an unnecessary luxuriant commemoration of Jesus' birth. Christmas' meaning and festivities evolved throughout history and during the time and the industrialisation occurring through the 19th century is responsible for its commercial twist.

Charles Dickens' novel A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, helped revive people's interest for Christmas. He gave it a spirit of merriment, of a family-centered celebration and a time of compassion, goodwill and charity. Christmas became more a matter of family gatherings and generosity than of religious celebration. Dickens' Christmas stories have been influential in various matters.

John Leech's illustration of the Ghost of Christmas Present. It contains some elements constituting a 'Dickensian' Christmas: the warm fire, the feast and wassail and the greenery.

Victorians were very fond of Christmas, and preparations often started months in advance with the planning of the party, the making of gifts, the writing of the greeting cards, and so on. It required time, energy and above all, money! During the 19th Century, Christmas became fashionable and therefore, commercial! You had to decorate your home, send cards to all your acquaintances, buy (or make) presents, crackers, and a succulent dinner, ... The shops thus set up 'Christmas clubs' offering their less fortunate customers a credit on their festive expenses.
Typical Victorian grocery, reconstructed in the Museum of London.

Twelve Days of Christmas

Christmas Eve (24th of December)

On Christmas Eve, Victorians gathered around the Yule log burning in the fireplace and the magnificent Christmas Tree took pride of place on a table: it was the centre of the attention and the source of delight for the children.

Christmas Tree:
The custom has been imported from Germany by Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, and quickly became a 'must-have' in all the middle-class homes. In 1848, the Illustrated London News released a picture of the royal family gathering around a fir tree ornamented with lights and decorations and soon the traditions was established.

 Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle, drawn by J.L. Williams in 1848.

The tree would be decorated with lights, papers, fruits, sweets and small presents (the big ones being underneath).
In his short story “A Christmas Tree”, Dickens writes that “There was everything, and more.” (232) hanging from the tree and these collections of objects reminded the narrator of happy memories from the Christmases of his youth. Dickens really tried to make Christmas into a time of joy... and succeeded!
The rest of the home was decorated with diverse sorts of berried evergreens such as the holly, the ivy and the mistletoe. Poor people living in industrial cities, without access to the country could make fake berries by coating peas with melted red wax (Victorian Farm). Magazines, such as the Cassell's Family Magazine in 1881, would give instructions on how to decorate your home to bring a festive look in it.
Alongside the greenery and the tree, you could also admire the Christmas cards standing on the mantelpiece or the cabinet.

This is what a typical middle-class Victorian living room would look like at Christmas: the Christmas tree standing in all its splendour, the toys on the table, the cards displayed on the cabinet and a sheet music of a Christmas carol waiting to be played. The photos were taken at the exhibition “Christmas Past, Christmas Present” at the Geffrye Museum.

Christmas Cards:
The Christmas card is an English invention. The first was made at the request of Henry Cole in 1843 and was designed by John Calcott Horsley. Henry Cole wanted to send his kinfolk something more original that the traditional Christmas letter.
First Christmas card (1843): It represents well the spirit of Christmas according to the Victorians; people gathered around a feast and on the sides, representation of charity. It also included what would soon become the traditional message: “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year”.

His idea proved to be very popular and soon everyone who could afford it was sending Christmas cards. But as it was quite pricey, people and especially children (included Queen Victoria's) made their own. According to the BBC “History of Christmas”, the Christmas card industry was well on its way by the 1880s, producing not less than 11.5 millions cards in one year. The progress in printing allowed the designs to be more elaborated and also allowed the production to be less expensive. The sending of Christmas cards was soon within the reach of (almost) all budgets.
You could buy them at the stationery.
This is the reconstructed stationery at the Museum of London.

The night was spent with the exchange of gifts and joyous party games, pantomimes, musical performances and finally everyone went to bed with a merry heart.

Christmas Gifts:
The gifts were originally simple and handmade, being an exotic fruit such as an orange, or a needlework or anything useful, but along with the commercialisation of Christmas – and only among the middle class – the gifts became elaborate and children received beautiful toys such as the ones presented in Emma Constantine's entry. It is explained in the Victorian Farm Christmas episode that poor people gave each other what they could find or make by themselves.

Christmas Day (25th of December)

On Christmas Day, families attended the Christmas Mass, and in a spirit of Christian charity, they would give money or food to the poor in the streets.
They then proceeded to have their Christmas dinner. This gargantuan feast consisted of turkey, flaming brandy plum pudding, mince pies and other pastries, meringues, apple tarts, …

George Cruikshank's picture of the excesses of Christmas in The Comic Almanack (1841).

Now, interestingly, the replacing of the goose as a main dish by a turkey was influenced by A Christmas Carol: intentionally the Cratchits were having a goose, but Scrooge, in his sudden burst of generosity, bought them a turkey “twice the size of Tiny Tim” (113). Dickens implying there that a turkey was a bigger and more magnificent bird than a goose. During the 19th century, rich people would then have a roast turkey instead of other meats. The Christmas pudding was also popularised by Dickens, as the Cratchits go on and on, claiming that their pudding was the most extraordinary thing, the “greatest success achieved by Mrs. Cratchit” (81). The passage also proves that no matter your means, a lovely family time at Christmas was always enjoyable, it was as much a matter of hospitality than of abundance!

Another aspect of the commercial Christmas was the invention of the Christmas crackers in 1847 by the British confectioner Tom Smith. He had been influenced by the French 'bonbons' (“sugared almonds wrapped in twists of paper”) during a trip to Paris in 1840 and got the idea of filling sweets in a package that would break when pulled apart. Smith, being ambitious, was always trying to improve his invention and stimulate its sale, when a truly innovative idea came to his mind while he was sitting before a fire: the crackle of a log inspired him to make his cracker 'crack' and the commercialisation of it was due to its uniqueness and in Smith's talent in business. People usually pulled their crackers during or after the meal.
Throughout the day, carolers would go singing door to door in the hope of receiving a warm drink.

Boxing Day (26th of December)

Boxing Day was a day devoted to charity, and as seen in Helene's entry, people went to see Pantomimes.

Epiphany (6th of January)

The Twelfth Night (5th of January) marked the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas. According to what I have read at the Geffrye Museum, the tradition was to have a family party with the random election of a King and Queen for the night. They had a Twelfth-Night cake, containing a dried bean and a pea. The man finding the bean would be proclaimed King and the woman finding the pea was the Queen, the rest of the party were their 'courtiers'. However, the Victorians did not keep this tradition and the cake became increasingly decorative, but did not contained a bean nor a pea anymore. The night was then dedicated to games of charades.
Dickens defines the Christmas spirit in “What Christmas is, as we grow older” as being “the spirit of active usefulness, perseverance, cheerful discharge of duty, kindness, and forbearance!” (249) and instil it to his Victorian audience through his writings, and particularly through the more than famous A Christmas Carol, where the unkind and malevolent Scrooge goes from claiming that “every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas,' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his hearth.” (36) to wishing “A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world!” (111) while spreading his joy all around him.

And if my entry inspired you to make your own Victorian Christmas, here is a link where you can find all the tips and tutorials from the show “Victorian Farm” (BBC). Have fun!

A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

Works cited

Dickens, C. A Christmas Carol and Other Writings. London: Penguin Classics, 2003.

Miles, C.A., Christmas customs and traditions, their history and significance. New York: Dover Publications, 1976.

Web Sources

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