Christmastime is here! And when the most wonderful time of the year arrives, the most meaningful traditions aren’t far behind. Decorating Christmas trees and homes, giving gifts, exchanging Christmas cards…we eagerly anticipate these things every year. But traditions weren’t always traditions. All traditions have a beginning, and many of these beginnings happened during the Victorian Age.
Christmas at the beginning of the 19th century bore little resemblance to the Christmas we know today. Low literacy rates, huge economic disparities, and the lack of industrial advancement all combined to create very basic, unadorned celebrations. But as the century progressed – especially during reign of Queen Victoria – Great Britain began to experience technological, societal, and infrastructure advancements that changed the way Christmas was celebrated. By the end of the century, many of the traditions we know and love today had begun to take shape.
A few weeks ago, we explored the Victorian origins of Christmas greeting cards. Today, as we head into the heart of the Christmas season, we’re pausing to take a look at some of the other traditions that make this time of year so merry and memorable.
During the 19th century, England began to see industrial advancements that allowed a new middle class to develop and thrive. As a result, more people had disposable income to buy things that they might not have been able to afford before. Whereas Christmas gifts had once been largely hand-made and prohibitively expensive, new mechanization and mass-production techniques (including huge strides in printing and literacy) began to make toys, books, and other gifts more affordable and accessible to more of the population.
Giving fun gifts to children became more feasible, and exchanging gifts with friends and family became more practical and commonplace. A gift-giving tradition that had once been reserved for wealthy families at the New Year was shifted to Christmastime for a lot more people, and that certainly opened up the season to more widespread, collective celebration.
Holly, ivy, fir trees, and other evergreens have been used to decorate during winter months going back millennia. Romans, Egyptians, Scandinavians, and other ancient cultures used evergreen décor to symbolize the eventual return of spring, while Christians saw evergreens as symbols of eternal life in Heaven. Trees and wreaths are the most familiar greenery of the winter, and this was nothing new for the Victorians.
But the idea of setting up a tree inside the home and decorating it as part of a holiday celebration was new. Fir trees (also known as Weinachtsbaums or Tannenbaums) decorated with gingerbread and fruit, glass ornaments, and candles had become common in Germany. The familiar carol “O Tannenbaum” – later “O Christmas Tree” – was written in Leipzig, Germany in 1824. While not technically a Christmas carol, “O Tannenbaum” was about constancy and faithfulness, and it has become a traditional holiday song.
Germany was the native country of Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, who seems to have brought the Christmas tree tradition to England with him. During Christmastime in 1848, the Illustrated London News published an illustration of Victoria, Albert, and their family celebrating Christmas around an elaborately decorated tree. This led Christmas trees to become widely popular in both England and America in the following years, and the tradition only continued to grow. To this day, it’s hard to think of a pop culture Christmas story that doesn’t feature a Christmas tree in some memorable way.
In 1840, an industrious London baker named Tom Smith traveled to Paris and discovered the “bon bon” – a French treat featuring a sugared almond wrapped in tissue paper with a twist on either end. Smith began to make his own bon bons when he returned to London, but in 1847 decided to add a dramatic twist to the treat.
Inspired by the crackling sound of logs in a fireplace, Smith decided to recreate the sound by layering two strips of paper together with silver fulminate on one side and an abrasive surface on the other. The paper was wrapped around a tube and twisted on either end. When the sides of the wrapper were pulled, the friction created a surprising popping or “cracking” sound. Smith placed a variety of jokes and assorted treats inside the cracker tubes, and the novelty was an immediate hit. Smith’s fun Christmas tradition has continued to delight millions for over 150 years.
St. Nickolas / Santa Claus / Father Christmas
This one is a bit tricky because in modern times, these folk figures seem to blur together. But it all started with St. Nicholas – a Bishop born in Asia Minor (now Turkey) in the 3rd century AD. During his life, Nicholas earned a reputation for being incredibly kind and generous – especially to the poor and less fortunate. The traditions of giving secret gifts and placing gifts in stockings are attributed to him. Nicholas was exiled during a Christian purge by Emperor Diocletian and died in the year 343 on December 6th (now known as St. Nicholas Day), but he was later canonized as a saint by the Catholic church, and his charitable legend was preserved for centuries.
After the European Reformation of the 14th century, the veneration of saints (St. Nicholas among them) fell out of favor. To fill the void of a kindly figure who spread cheer during midwinter festivals, a folk character with colorful robes and a long beard was created. The name “Father Christmas” first emerged in 17th century England, and the character became the most familiar embodiment of Christmas revelry through the Victorian Age.
As Christmas grew in prominence during the 19th century, writers and artists began discovering and re-telling the stories of various holiday folk characters. As a result, St. Nicholas and Father Christmas experienced a renaissance of sorts. In 1823, the Troy, New York Sentinel published an anonymous poem (later attributed to American writer named Clement Clarke Moore) called “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Better known today as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” the poem had an immediate and dramatic impact on how the St. Nicholas character was perceived. St. Nicholas was now modernized, and Moore created many of the physical characteristics we now associate with the character.
The traditional Dutch name for St. Nicholas, “Sinterklaas,” soon morphed into “Santa Claus,” and the Father Christmas and Santa Claus figures of British and American cultures began to merge in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Whatever he’s called and however he’s depicted, one thing that has never changed is that Santa/St. Nicholas/Father Christmas has always represented the very best of the holiday season: Cheer, joy, generosity, and good will.
Non-British people who are unfamiliar with the tradition sometimes think Boxing Day is a day for boxing up discarded gift wrap or boxing up gifts to return, but Boxing Day actually began as a much more charitable occasion. Dating back to the Middle Ages, St. Steven’s Day was the day when church alms boxes – which were used to collect money for those in need – were opened and their contents distributed to the poor. In the 1830s, the British designated this day “Boxing Day” and determined that it would occur the day after Christmas, or December 26th. Boxing Day was also traditionally a day when wealthier British families gave their servants boxes of monetary gifts and leftovers from the previous day’s Christmas feast (and the day off!).
Today, Boxing Day is primarily associated with shopping and sports in the UK and other former British territories (including Canada, Australia, and New Zealand). It’s still a designated holiday, but much of its original meaning has been lost. Still, songs such as the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas” carry reminders of the day’s origins. Written in 1853, the carol is set on St. Stephen’s Day and celebrates a wealthy king who was renowned for his generosity toward the poor. The song ties Boxing Day into the Victorian focus on charity for those less fortunate during the holiday.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this look back at some of the most prominent Christmas customs and traditions of the Victorian Age. That unforgettable period has left a lasting impression on how most of us experience the holiday season. From pulling ancient customs into 19th century “modernity” to placing a greater emphasis on family, charity, and the importance of Christmas Day as the center of the holidays, the Victorians left a rich legacy to which we’re all indebted. And that’s definitely worth remembering and celebrating, even as we enjoy celebrating new traditions of our own!