The celebration of Christmas has taken many forms over the centuries on our fair isle – since the early days of Christianity when the ancient pagan mid-winter festival of Winter Solstice morphed into the Feast of Nativity. While it may seem unthinkable to us modern-day, festive-obsessed Brits, the popularity of Christmas has waxed and waned over the eras.
The indulgent feasting and theatrical entertainment of Tudor times, when laws were introduced to protect Christmas Day, were banned by the 17th-century Puritans under Oliver Cromwell, who saw it as ‘giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights’. Celebrations were reintroduced by Charles II 16 years later, albeit in a rather more subdued manner, but it was not until the 19th century that festivities experienced a welcome revival.
Find out how the Victorians celebrated the most wonderful time of the year, and which traditions have best survived the test of time.
1. Deck the Halls
Although the Victorians are widely credited with ‘inventing’ Christmas, they in fact built on the resurgent interest in celebrations that had started to gain momentum in the 18th century. The current popularity for natural, handmade accessories – draping banisters and mantelpieces with swags of native evergreens, or hanging a natural wreath at the door – is an age-old tradition linked with pagan-style celebrations.
The Victorians saw the tradition of decorating with evergreens through to the 20th century, and introduced artificial versions for those living in towns who might not have had access to fresh foliage.
2. Put up a Christmas tree
It was the famed image of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria and their children gathered around a decorated Christmas tree in an 1848 issue of Illustrated London News that saw Christmas trees soar in popularity.
‘People wanted to replicate this at home, but it’s a common misconception that Christmas trees were introduced to England by Prince Albert – they had been around since the previous century,’ says Elyse Bell, curator at London’s Geffrye Museum.
At first trees were always placed on tables in pots, but by the 1880s the homegrown Norway spruce began to take the place of the imported German Springelbaum, making them more affordable. Larger, floor-standing trees increased in popularity, and gifts – initially modest, but which became bigger and shop bought – were left, unwrapped, under the trees, with smaller presents hanging from the lower branches.
How to dress your Christmas tree
‘In the 19th century the tree would have been lit with candles,’ explains Ben Dale, house manager at the National Trust’s Standen House. ‘Decorations included patriotic Union Jack flags, strings of popcorn and traditional candy canes. The Victorians also made cornucopias that they filled with bon-bons.’
Blown glass Christmas tree ornaments, largely produced in Germany, arrived from the end of the century, and gradually reduced in price so that one or two were affordable for most.
3. Send Christmas cards
Even though much of our communication these days is through modern technology such as email, text and social media, the Victorian tradition of sending Christmas cards is still very popular. The first Christmas cards – an illustration of a group of people around a dinner table – were commissioned by Henry Cole in 1843 and sold for a shilling each.
With the advent of colour printing, Christmas cards became more widely available, and in 1880 11.5 million were sent.
4. Have a Victorian festive feast
Goose or beef was the roast of choice for most Victorians, and the poor would treat themselves to rabbit. Although turkey had been imported from the Americas in the 1500s, the cost was prohibitive for most people meaning it was very much the reserve of the upper classes.
However, as with anything popularised by the wealthier sections of society, demand grew and Norfolk soon became the centre of British turkey farming. Each autumn, the ill-fated birds were herded in their flocks to the markets of London where they were fattened up and sold for Christmas day. Their feet were wrapped in leather, or dipped in tar, to protect them on their 100-mile journey.
5. Sing along
Many of the carols we know and love today were formally written in the 1800s. William Sandys and Davies Gilbert collected and published Christmas songs from around the country, which were then printed and distributed. Carol singers were often led by council or clergy leaders to collect money from the public. This followed on from the medieval tradition of wassailing, where peasants would go to the homes of local lords, singing blessings to them in return for gifts.
The popular Christmas song We Wish you a Merry Christmas is about this tradition. The singers wish the lord a merry Christmas, and ask for ‘figgy pudding’ in exchange.
Where to visit for Christmas past
East Grinstead, West Sussex
Christmas Through the Ages
- 26 November–2 January 2017
- Knitwear designer Kaffe Fasset will also create a signature tree in the courtyard
- Open daily, 11am–4pm
- Admission: adult £10.75, child £5.45, family (two adults, two children) £27
Christmas Past: 400 Years of Seasonal Traditions in English Homes
- 22 November–8 January 2017
- Open Tuesday–Sunday, 10am–5pm
- Admission free
Christmas from Victorian to 1950s
- 26 November-2 January
- Open daily, 11am–3pm
- Admission: adult £5.50, child £2.80, family (two adults, two children) £14
- 27 November–6 January
- In each room of this townhouse a different era of Christmas is recreated, from 1724 to 1914
- Open various days and evenings, from £10 per person; booking essential