Christmas for all? 5

Victorian

No era in history has influenced the way in which we celebrate Christmas quite as much as the Victorian.

Before Queen Victoria’s reign started in 1837 nobody in Britain had heard of Santa Claus or Christmas Crackers. No Christmas cards were sent and most people did not have holidays from work. The wealth and technologies generated by the industrial revolution of the Victorian era changed the face of Christmas forever. Do-gooders like Charles Dickens wrote books (e.g. “A Christmas Carol”, published in 1843), which actually encouraged rich Victorians to redistribute their wealth by giving money and gifts to the poor. These radical middle class ideals eventually spread to the not-quite-so-poor as well.

The wealth generated by the new factories and industries of the Victorian age allowed middle class families in England and Wales to take time off work and celebrate over two days, Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

At the start of Victoria’s reign, children’s toys tended to be handmade and hence expensive, generally restricting availability to the well-off again. With factories however came mass production, which brought with it games, dolls, books and clockwork toys all at a more affordable price. Affordable that is to “middle class” children. In a “poor child’s” Christmas stocking, which first became popular from around 1870, only an apple, orange and a few nuts could be found.

Normally associated with the bringer of the above gifts, is Father Christmas or Santa Claus. However, the two are in fact two entirely separate stories. Father Christmas was originally part of an old English midwinter festival, normally dressed in green, a sign of the returning spring. The red and white costume became associated with Father Christmas in the 19th century and much of the present-day image is due to cartoonist Thomas Nast in the 1870’s and 80’s. The stories of St. Nicholas (Sinter Klaas in Holland) likely came via Dutch settlers and from the 1870’s Sinter Klass became known in Britain as Santa Claus and with him came his unique gift and toy distribution system – reindeer and sleigh.

The “Penny Post” was first introduced in Britain in 1840 by Rowland Hill. The idea was simple, a penny stamp paid for the postage of a letter or card to anywhere in Britain. This simple idea paved the way for the sending of the first Christmas cards. Sir Henry Cole tested the water in 1843 by printing a thousand cards for sale in his art shop in London at one shilling each. The popularity of sending cards was helped along when in 1870 a halfpenny postage rate was introduced as a result of the efficiencies brought about by the new railways.

Queen Victoria’s German husband Prince Albert helped to make the Christmas tree as popular in Britain as they were in his native Germany, when he brought one to Windsor Castle. The British people adopted the tradition after the Illustrated London News printed an engraving of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their family around their Christmas tree in 1848.

Crackers were invented by Tom Smith, a London sweet maker in 1846. The original idea was to wrap his sweets in a twist of fancy coloured paper, but this developed and sold much better when he added love notes (mottos), paper hats, small toys and made them go off bang!

Carol Singers and Musicians visited houses singing and playing the new popular carols including:

  • 1843 – O Come all ye Faithful
  • 1848 – Once in Royal David’s City
  • 1851 – See Amid the Winters Snow
  • 1868 – O Little Town of Bethlehem
  • 1883 – Away in a Manger

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We hope you have enjoyed this mini Christmas series and wish you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

‘Santa’s Portrait’ byThomas Nast, published in Harper’s Weekly, 1881

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