Christmas Traditions from the Victorian Era
There are many cultural traditions that began in the Victorian Era and still have a strong foothold in society today. During Victorian Era Christmas traditions time, image was everything – How a person looked, acted, and dressed was instantly indicative of their place within society. It’s for this reason that people frequently mimicked the actions and customs of the royal family and ruling class, so that they too could appear affluent and prosperous.
Although many social norms from this time period have disappeared or changed throughout the decades, a host of wedding day and holiday customs that Western cultures still adhere to have roots in this romantic era. This is especially telling when we examine Christmas traditions that are still prevalent in the Western world.
Read on to learn which popular Christmas traditions originated in the Victorian Era.
Email, texting, and other instant forms of communication have changed the way in which people communicate with each other. With that said, the practice of sending Christmas cards through the mail is still very much alive. Today, people still prefer to send holiday greetings the old-fashioned way, and use this opportunity to share photos, good tidings, and updates about the past year to friends and family all over the world.
Although they were quite different than the cards and photos that we send today, the tradition of sending Christmas cards originated in the Victorian era. In 1843, a man named Sir Henry Cole worked in the “Public Record Office,” which was a predecessor to the modern Post Office. Just a few years earlier, the UK had adopted the “Penny Post,” which was the very first postal service that was available and affordable to everyday people. Before then, only very wealthy members of society could afford to send letters via post. The Penny Stamp, however, allowed this service to become accessible to the masses.
In an attempt to make more citizens utilize his services, he reached out to a local artist and together they created a “Christmas Congratulations Card,” which featured an image depicting friends and family gathered around a dinner table drinking glasses of wine. Only 1000 copies of this original card were printed, and they were sold to the public for 1 shilling each.
The tradition was slow to catch on, however there were a few important factors that allowed the idea of sending special Christmas cards to become more popular among the masses. The first is that Queen Victoria is said to have been a huge fan of sending homemade Christmas cards to friends and family throughout her reign. Queen Victoria was massively influential during her reign, and her actions, tastes, and preferences frequently became cultural phenomena.
The practice of sending Christmas cards was becoming more prevalent throughout the 1860s, but a second factor that contributed to people widely adopting this custom was that postage suddenly became even more affordable for the average person. In 1870, the cost of postage was cut in half, meaning that it cost the public only half of a penny to mail postcards and other correspondence to friends and family. This drastic drop in price allows the tradition to truly come alive throughout the UK.
In America, the tradition was a bit slower to catch on. A German immigrant named Louis Prang – who had designed and developed Christmas cards in the UK – began mass producing Christmas cards in 1875 so that they were more affordable for Americans to purchase. This, in conjunction with the completion of the transcontinental railroad and the adoption of the Railway Mail Service in 1869, allowed Americans to send Christmas cards in an affordable and reliable manner as well.
The Christmas Tree
The Christmas Tree is one of the most iconic symbols of the holiday season. Now an important holiday feature in homes everywhere, bringing an evergreen into the home and decorating it with ornaments also rose to popularity and truly became a cultural tradition during the Victorian Era.
The tradition of the Christmas Tree has origins that reach even farther back than the 1800s. Early Pagans were said to decorate their homes with evergreen boughs during holiday celebrations. The first version of our modern Christmas Tree reaches all the way back to the 15th century in Latvia and Germany. It is said that in the 16th century, religious figure Martin Luther was captivated by the twinkling stars in the sky above during a walk home from work in the crisp winter air. It was then that he decided to add flickering candles and other objects to the decorative evergreen tree within his home. Many of his followers copied this action and began adorning their trees with lights and other religious objects to celebrate the nativity.
It wasn’t until the Victorian era, however, that this practice became adopted by the entirety of the Western world. Unsurprisingly, the royal family once again had a hand in bringing this tradition to the masses. Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert was of Germanic decent, and in 1841, he decorated Windsor Castle with a stately evergreen during the holiday season. When the London News published an artistic rendering of the royal family’s Christmas Tree in 1848, the tradition was quickly adopted by the people of Europe and America.
Although Christmas is a time of goodwill and cheer, presents and gift giving is one of the season’s most popular activities. Now, beautifully wrapped presents sitting under a tree are a staple of the holiday season. Once again, this is a tradition that began during the Victorian era.
In the early 1800s, exchanging gifts at the start of the New Year was a long honored custom. As the celebratory nature of the Christmas season began to grow during the later parts of the 19th century, this tradition was altered slightly, and people began exchanging gifts on Christmas Day instead.
Not unlike today, giving children gifts was an important holiday tradition for many families. Initially, the gifts given at Christmas were relatively basic. Wealthy Victorian families would hang chocolates, sweets, and other treats from the branches of their tree for their children to enjoy. Handmade toys and dolls were also frequently given to wealthy Victorian children, as toys were not mass produced in the way that they are today.
For poorer families, having an entire tree full of decadent treats and precious items was not feasible. Instead, these families would fill socks with more affordable items like fruits and nuts for their children to enjoy. This led to the tradition of a Christmas stocking, which is also still very much alive today.
As industry progressed during the late 1800s, the mass production of items made it easier and more affordable to give Christmas presents to family and friends. Eventually, presents became too elaborate to hang from the branches of a tree. Victorians began placing these larger gifts underneath their Christmas trees instead, which is a tradition that remains relevant to this day.
While family traditions vary, an elaborate turkey dinner is still a popular meal that is served in many households to celebrate Christmas. Once again, the idea of serving turkey around the holidays is a tradition that originated because people thought that it would make them appear more affluent during the Victorian Era.
During the beginning of the 1800s, fowl like chicken and turkeys were too rare and expensive for the average family to enjoy. Even wealthy families feasted on goose or roast beef rather than turkey to celebrate the holiday season. Poorer families would opt for game meats like deer or rabbits for their Christmas meals. Even Queen Victoria didn’t have turkey on her Christmas dinner table during the mid-1800s.
In 1861, however, turkey suddenly became incredibly popular. Victorian people were always looking to follow the trends of affluent members of society, and the 1861 publication of “Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management” gave everyone a primer on how to run a proper Victorian household. This guide to proper living was incredibly popular and was a best-seller for years following its original publication.
In this book, there were many tips on how to run a home the “correct” way, including entire sections on proper items to serve at festive dinners. In her book, Mrs. Beeton stated that “A Christmas dinner…would scarcely be a Christmas dinner without its turkey,” and soon after, families throughout the UK began serving turkey as their main course at their festive holiday dinners.
In our fast paced modern world, Christmas traditions that hail from a simpler time are incredibly special and perhaps more important now than ever before. As our world gets smaller and people grow more disconnected, timeless traditions allow people feel connected to the past and connected to one another. Victorian activities like trimming the tree with family members, giving gifts to excited children, sending handwritten cards to close friends, and gathering around a dinner table for a turkey dinner persist because they are a valuable reminder of what the Christmas season is truly about.