At the beginning of the Nineteenth century, Christmas was hardly celebrated. Few businesses closed, and it was common place to buy the items for your Christmas dinner on the day itself. Yet, by the close of the Victorian period, Christmas had become the major celebration that we recognise today.
Many things helped in this change of perspective; the most important being the marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert. Coming from Germany, where Christmas was already commemorated more festively, Albert is well known for having influenced the arrival of the Christmas tree. When Albert was young, his family had celebrated Christmas by having a dinner while sat around a decorated tree. In 1848 The Illustrated London News published a drawing showing this scene of a Christmas tree, with a royal family dining next to it. The idea caught on quickly, and soon almost every home in Britain had a tree hung with candles, fruit, homemade decorations and gifts. Although the medieval habit of decorating the house with evergreens continues, the Victorians added handmade decorations and the very first synthetically made decorations, which could be hung upon the Christmas tree, to the festive home.
For the Victorians, Christmas was a family affair. For the first time, the preparation of the food, eating together, and giving gifts between the family became a central part of the day. The roast turkey became the Christmas dinner meat of choice during the Victorian era. Mince pies stopped containing meat, as they had done in previous eras, and became the sweet pies we eat today, and Christmas puddings became hard and fruit filled, rather than being the porridge like substance of previous decades.
The Christmas card originated in the Victorian period. In 1843, Henry Cole commissioned an artist to make a card for Christmas. It showed a group of people at a dinner table and had a Christmas message written across it. These cards were sold for one shilling each, which meant that few people could afford them. Soon, however, cheaper versions were made, and by the time the halfpenny postage rate was introduced, the Christmas card industry was in full swing. In 1880 alone, 11.5 million cards, such as the one pictured above, were sold.
The Christmas cracker was another Victorian addition to Christmas day. Sweet maker Tom Smith invented crackers as a new way to sell sweets. He wrapped bon-bons in twists of paper. These novelties were so popular, that he adapted the paper into cracker shapes and added small gifts and paper hats.
The Victorian period introduced many of the things we associate with Christmas today. Family gatherings, trees, crackers, gift giving, and cards. It could also be argued that, for good or ill, it sparked the first signs of the Christmas commercialism which dominates the season in the modern world.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.