GUEST BLOG: Victorian Christmases by Lynn Viehl

Thursday, December 12, 2013 13:00
Posted in category Guests and Events

Lynn ViehlYou are never more Victorian than when you celebrate Christmas, and this is because a great many of today’s holiday traditions began or were popularized during the Victorian era.

Decorating a Christmas tree, for example, was originally a somewhat obscure German tradition dating back to the sixteenth century.  Yet when Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, who was born in Germany, she also adopted many of his homeland traditions for the royal family’s holiday celebrations.  This included the setting up and decorating of a tannenbaum at Windsor Castle.  Since Her Majesty was regarded by her subjects as the ultimate social trend-setter, the custom spread like wildfire, until nearly every household in England put up and decorated their own tree during Christmas.  Today it’s estimated that 25 to 30 million Christmas trees are sold each year during the holidays.

When you give gifts during Christmas and place them under your tree you’re also being quite Victorian.  According to the original German practice, little gifts were sometimes tied to or hung from the branches of the Christmas tree, a custom which the Victorians found especially charming (and until this era midwinter gift-giving was usually done on New Year’s Day, but moved to Christmas as that became the more popular holiday among Victorians.)  As with most things, the Victorians liked to go bigger and more elaborate, and soon the gifts they bought each other were too big and too many for the tree’s branches, so they began placing them under the tree.

Hand-written cards and letters were very important during the Victorian era, as correspondence was the primary form of personal communication.  You may have even felt a pang of regret when reading a Victorian-era novel during which one of the characters sits down at a desk to write, or reacts to some important news delivered by letter.  Still, every time you send a Christmas card to someone you’re doing almost the same thing.

Our habit of sending cards to each other during Christmas was born in 1843, when Sir Henry Cole had artist John Calcott Horsley design and print for him a thousand cards depicting a Christmas scene.  According to some researchers, Cole chose to go with cards because he didn’t have time to write his annual holiday letters to his friends and family; others claim he commissioned the cards to sell in his London art shop.

Either way, at a cost of one shilling a pop, Cole’s Christmas cards were too expensive for most people to afford, but the concept appealed to many Victorians, who began hand-making their own cards (this apparently includes the Queen, as there exists some evidence that her own children made Christmas cards.)  It would be another twenty years before printing technology and mass production advanced enough to make printed Christmas cards inexpensive, but by then the custom of sending cards had become another lasting tradition.

Some of the carols you sing during Christmas hail from the Victorian era (Joy to the World, 1833; O Come All Ye Faithful, 1843; Jingle Bells, 1847; We Three Kings, 1857; O Little Town of Bethlehem, 1868; and Away in a Manger, 1883.)  Caroling wasn’t invented by the Victorians, but they were huge fans of musical entertainment and did much to revive the practice.  There were no radios or recordings at the time, so if you wanted music you had sing or play your own instruments.  Many Victorians would often go out caroling door-to-door during the holidays as a family activity in order to spread cheer and entertain their neighbors — probably why the first historically important collection of these songs, Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, collected by W.B. Sandys,  was published in 1833.

Even when you’re being charitable during Christmas, you’re participating in a practice that can in one sense be attributed to the Victorians.  For this we have to blame author Charles Dickens, who published A Christmas Carol in 1843.  The story, in which a very affluent but stingy businessman is haunted by three Christmas ghosts who convince him to avoid damnation by becoming generous, offered for the time a fairly radical philosophy about charity.  Yet the story convinced many wealthy Victorians to begin giving generously to the poor and needy during the holidays.  To me what Dickens did with his book is probably the finest of all Victorian Christmas traditions, for it continues to inspire us to do the same during the holidays — and is there any better way to celebrate the season of giving?

 

Lynn Viehl December Giveaway

The giveaway includes:
A hand beaded and quilted Victorian tote
Signed print ARCs of Disenchanted & Co. and The Clockwork Wolf
Unsigned copies of The 12th Enchantment by David Liss and Never Kiss a Rake by Anne Stuart
A pretty Victorian-style journal
A Keep Calm and Carry On notepad
A copy of Vintage Holiday Christmas magazine
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