The Victorian era influenced present day Christmas traditions more than any other time. A new social awareness developed although the conditions of the working class were still bad, especially for children. A new child labor law required that children must be older than nine years before they could work in the textile industry. But it did not apply to other industries and teenage prostitution.
Reform was in the air with the social classes and the old aristocratic hierarchies overturned with the growth and advancement of middle classes. Literature flourished and many novelists including Sir Walter Scott, the Bronte sisters (Emily, Anne, and Charlotte), George Eliot and Charles Dickens commented on the social reforms and standards of the Era. Dicken’s book, “A Christmas Carol” commented on the child labor laws and the poverty of the lower classes.
New ideas such as holidays, Christmas cards, Christmas trees, Santa Claus, giving to charity, gift giving, Christmas turkey, and new Christmas carols came during this time. The Victorian Era was the prelude to the modern Christmas as we know it now.
New holidays came into being along with Christmas Day. The workers and servants celebrated Boxing Day on December 26, which was also known as the Feast of St. Stephen. Since the servants worked on Christmas day, they opened boxed gifts from their employers and charities from the church on the day after Christmas.
In Scotland, Hogmanay is the big celebration on New Year’s Day. The traditions include house cleaning on New Year’s Eve (December 31) for the the festival on January 1st. Immediately after midnight, Scots gather to sing Robert Burns’ song “For Auld Lang Syne” which came into print in 1788.
The Christmas holiday was banned in Scotland for about 400 years from the end of the 17th century to as late as the 1950s, because it was supposed to be a Catholic feast and was banned by the Protestant Reformation. Since many Scots worked over Christmas, they celebrated the winter solstice at the New Year with parties and presents.
Father Christmas and Santa Claus, or St. Nicholas came from two different sources. St. Nicholas or Sinta Klaas from Holland morphed into Santa Claus with the reindeer and sleigh and the gifts for the children in the 1870’s. Father Christmas is a hold-over from the old English midwinter festival. He dresses in green to represent the returning spring.
Children’s Stockings and Gifts
The assembly line factories and industries made possible affordable games, dolls, toys and books as gifts in the new traditional Christmas Stockings for the middle class children. The poorer children had their stockings too, but usually found only an orange, a few nuts and maybe an apple tucked away in their sock.
The feasting was still a major part of the holiday, but it was somewhat different from the Medieval Christmas banquets. Chicken and turkey were both too expensive for most people. Instead they dined on roast beef and goose. Poor folks feasted on rabbit.
Queen Victoria and her family enjoyed both swan and beef in 1840, but by the end of the century, turkey was available to most people.
The turkey growers in northern England provided their birds with leather foot protectors and marched them on a turkey trek to London along 80 miles of country roads. Beginning in August through October, the birds hiked to London where they arrived as scrawny, tired birds. But the turkeys enjoyed their last couple of months of life as they fattened up and rested, never knowing what was in store for them in December.
The Christmas dinner was generally a huge family affair. In addition to the main meat dish, they served Christmas pudding with beef, raisins and prunes. Mince pie was a traditional dish to be eaten during the Twelve Days of Christmas to ensure luck throughout the coming new year.
Cards, Carols, And Trees
Roland Hill introduced the “Penny Post” to Britain in 1840. This was a card that cost one penny and could go to any part of Britain. It was the ideal set up for a Christmas card idea and Sir Henry Cole capitalized on it in 1843 by printing one thousand cards at his art shop and selling them at one shilling apiece. It was an immediate hit.
Yet another tradition began when Prince Albert brought a tree to Windsor Castle and decorated it in the 1840’s. This came from the old German tradition of decorating a tree with flowers and burning it in the town square every year. The Christmas carol, “O Tannenbaum” grew out of the new custom.
The Carolers came on the scene, visiting house to house with songs and Christmas cheer. Sometimes they carried candles, and the homeowners welcomed them inside to sing and enjoy a treat. They had something to sing about too. Several new carols became popular:
- O Come All Ye Faithful, 1843
- O Little Town of Bethlehem, 1868, and
- Away in a Manger, 1883.
The American colonies felt the effects of the Victorian trends over the years and adapted their own traditions accordingly.
Christmas, Victorian Style, was not a commercial affair. It consisted mainly of food and handmade gift giving traditions. However by 1870, manufacturers began the production of Christmas tree ornaments, angels and dolls. A New York store, Macy’s, saw a tremendous commercial potential there and by the 1880’s, the department store advertised toys and dolls from Germany, France, Austria, and Switzerland with more novelties to follow over the coming years.