A VICTORIAN CHRISTMAS
An engraving of the royal family celebrating Christmas around a decorated tree was released in the 1840s and it captured the imagination of the public.
Many of our modern Christmas traditions stem from the Victorians.
The concept of the Christmas tree was first introduced by Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III, at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor, in December 1800. The Queen was hosting a children’s Christmas party when she had an entire yew tree brought inside to decorate with candles and gifts for the children. It soon became a popular tradition for the upper classes to have a tree at Christmas.
Forty years later, Prince Albert imported spruce fir trees from his native Coburg and it quickly became a popular tradition with the general public when the royal family were pictured decorating one.
The royal Christmas tree was decorated with waxed tapers, ribbons and sugar ornaments according to the Queen’s diary. In the early days, each person would have a tree on their own table where their gifts would be distributed.
Queen Victoria liked to spend Christmas at Windsor Castle and the family would exchange gifts on Christmas Eve as per the tradition in Germany. After Prince Alberts’s death in 1861, the family would spend Christmas at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.
As expected, the royal couple gave each other elaborate gifts, including painting and jewellery, however the Queen encouraged her children to make their own gifts.
The royal family also gave gifts to their household which were usually presented before the family opened their own gift. It was an important opportunity for the royal household to show their gratitude to their staff.
Over the Christmas period, the royal family liked to sing songs around the piano and perform plays to entertain each other. In her diary entry of 26 December 1850, Victoria recounts how the children performed the same play as the previous year with a change of ending. The children also recited poetry and performed a dance with the children of their visitors.
However, Prince Albert was also keen on the outdoors and loved skating on the frozen lake at Frogmore. On one such occasion, the prince fell through the ice and had to be rescued by his shocked wife.
Christmas Cards & Crackers
The first Christmas card was designed in 1843 by artist John Calcott Horsley and it portrayed a family enjoying Christmas dinner with seasonal greetings. The cards were so expensive they could only be bought by the upper classes, however printing techniques improved and cards would eventually became more affordable.
The Christmas cracker was introduced by sweetshop owner Tom Smith in the 1840s but it would be another 20 years before he perfected the familiar bang. Smith was inspired by the French tradition of wrapping sweets in paper, however Victorian Christmas crackers could contain anything from sweets to fine jewellery.
Christmas Plum Pudding
Queen Victoria loved plum pudding and the cooks at Windsor Castle had to make over 200 so the Queen could send one to her numerous relatives and descendants.
While plum pudding had been around for a while by Queen Victoria’s time it was made in a mould and generally served with a sweet custard or brandy sauce. Trinkets like small silver coins were also added to the mixture.
The plum pudding was generally made about five weeks before Christmas as its flavour improved over time. The pudding often contained breadcrumbs, flour, suet, sugar, eggs, brandy, lemon zest, candied citrus peel, spices, and dried fruits. The Victorians referred to raisins as plums which is where it got its name, however it is more often called Christmas pudding these days.
A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens was first published in 1843 and recounts the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a miser, who is listed by the ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. Afterwards, Scrooge has a change of heart and becomes a nicer person.
The book was an instant success and sold out by Christmas Eve that year. Victorians were undergoing a change in how they were celebrating Christmas with the arrival of trees and cards. The book captured the themes associated with this new Christmas ideal but also the need for charity towards those less fortunate.
The book is still popular at Christmas and it has been adapted for the stage and screen numerous times. It’s hard to imagine Christmas without it.