The Victorian era has long been associated with an idealized vision of Christmas. Where did this modern notion originate?
Christmas before 1840
In the eighteenth century, Christmas was treated with indifference. Open rejoicing and displays were deemed signs of low social standing. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Christmas celebrations in Hanoverian England had few familial connotations but the holiday was not completely devoid of them. Celebrations among the upper classes occurred but included an array of guests, not just immediate family and close friends. Christmas family gatherings (in the vein of what is currently thought of as “Christmas”) were held more commonly among the middle and lower classes prior to the Victorian period. The Humanitarian and Romantic movements emphasized the virtues of charity, goodwill and renewed a focus on family and children. Christmas became more popular thanks to these movements and due to the expansion of the middle class during the nineteenth century.
Why was Christmas not a cultural mainstay at this point? Class and religious belief is a major factor in understanding the development of Christmas rituals. Some middle class people were Protestants of Quaker, Puritan, and Baptist origin. Extravagant celebrations of Christmas were perceived as a relic of the Catholic past and something that was primarily enjoyed by the wealthy. Despite these beliefs, it was celebrated enthusiastically by clerks, domestic workers and the shopkeeping classes. Christmas related activity increased in the 1840s.
In 1843, Charles Dickens published the much cherished Christmas classic, A Christmas Carol. Dickens loved Christmas as a child and he has been credited with launching the modern popular idea of Christmas. However, this was not his first foray into writing about the holiday.
Dickens documented Christmas customs in books like The Pickwick Papers but didn’t fully explore the theme until A Christmas Carol. In the 1840s, Christmas became fashionable once again and Christmas customs evolved rapidly. Queen Victoria’s love of the holiday made celebrating it acceptable at all levels of society – thus elevating the holiday. She loved Christmas trees, and gave out food, blankets and scarves to the poor during this time of year. The first Christmas crackers were sold in 1841 and the first Christmas cards in 1843. Dickens timed the released of A Christmas Carol for the weeks preceding Christmas 1843. He didn’t write the book just about Christmas merrymaking but made the festival the central theme and appealed to the readers to reaffirm the values the holiday espoused. In the 1840s, poverty was a massive concern and all readers would have been aware of the conditions in which the poor lived. A bank crisis in 1837 and high bread prices made the period known as “the hungry 40s”. A Christmas Carol successfully confronted the issue of poverty and spoke out against it. The book was called A Christmas Carol because carols were very popular at the time and often referenced the plight of the poor. Dickens did not “create” Christmas, he made it popular again. Dickens also wrote other books based on Christmas, in The Christmas Books and Christmas tie serials but discontinued the practice in 1868.
Victorian Christmas Traditions
In 1840, Prince Albert introduced a Christmas tree to Windsor castle. This new royal custom spread rapidly among the upper classes. In aristocratic households, extended family or several generations of family members were invited to Christmas celebrations. Dancing and formal games were played, such as cards. Santa did not make a regular appearance in English Christmas festivities until the 1870s but he began to appear in books and newspapers in the 1850s. Children were given books, and educational gifts. While toys grew in popularity during Victorian times, the tradition of giving books remained important for children. Reading and story telling became an integral part of Christmas. Entertainment included pantomime, choirs and carol singers performing seasonal songs, equestrian events, slide shows, and occasionally, circuses, and children’s parties. The upper classes attended parties and balls for New Year and Twelfth Night.
Unfortunately, many of the working classes only experience Christmas through a philanthropic lens – the kindness of others enabled them to partake in Christmas merrymaking. By the early nineteenth century, England had a long established tradition of providing for the poor during this time of year. Churches played an important role in administering charity to the poor that dated back to the Middle Ages. This generosity declined in the Early Modern period and into the Hanoverian period when giving to the poor was considered vulgar in some circles. Begging began to rise; the poor would offer entertainment in exchange for food or drink. The culture of philanthropy during this season grew as the century progressed and book like A Christmas Carol fed into this sentimental feeling of ‘goodwill towards all men’. Since many working class people were employed by middle and upper classes as domestic aids to assist in their Christmas occasions, the working class had very little time to enjoy their own. Shop assistants, postal workers and domestic servants did not get to experience Christmas like their upper class counterparts until the latter half of the nineteenth century.