Monday, December 5, 2011

A Victorian Christmas

A Victorian Christmas  
 Carols,  Cards, Trees, 
        and Stories….

Many Christmas traditions we celebrate today were made popular by Queen Victoria and her beloved Prince Albert. The Victorians, with their love of nostalgia and history, rushed to copy everything done by their  dear Queen. 

Decorating Christmas trees, sending Christmas Cards, singing Carols, and exchanging gifts found favour with the English masses, who eagerly imitated the Royal Family. From Christmas Eve to Boxing Day, and from church to table.      
                                    Hope you enjoy reading more about them,
                                                  Suzi Love  
Christmas Carols

           The word ‘carol’ comes from the old French ‘carole’ for a song written and played as a courtly dancing song. Carols then took on a more popular form, telling stories and celebrating religious themes for all seasons until the late 19th century when they became associated with Christmas.  

          In 1822, Davies Gilbert published “Some Ancient Christmas Carols”, in which he described a typical English West Country Christmas. The collection sang of food, drink, and good things celebrated at Christmas.
       The British Museum said: “Mr. Gilbert has taken advantage of old Time, and made safe, for some centuries at least, a record of our ancient Christmas Carols; and for this good deed has secured the gratitude of Antiquaries yet unborn. These Carols are genuine national curiosities.”

       They took the place of Psalms in all churches on Christmas Day and, as the whole congregation could join in, were greeted with huge approval. Carols were passed on orally from place to place, often with different words or tunes.

       The published carols included songs still popular today, including The First Noël, I Saw Three Ships, and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. This collection was followed by compilations of carols from other scholars such as William Sandy’s works  in 1833 and 1852.

                Christmas Cards
Victorian, circa 1870
Victorian, circa 1870 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

       At the end of the winter term, schoolmasters would set their pupils to work on Christmas Pieces, samplers of writing on superior paper with engraved borders, to show parents how they had progressed during the year. By about 1820, the engraved borders were enhanced with color and the children’s pieces became more decorative.

In 1843, Sir Henry Cole commissioned an artist from the Royal Academy to design a card he could send to his large circle of family and friends instead of writing them letters. Postage had been standardized  three years earlier and Cole had played a key role in initiating Uniform Penny Post.

Wanting to popularize the use of post, Cole hit upon a brilliant idea of spreading holiday cheer by sending cards. The card was issued from a periodical, Felix Summerly’s Home Treasury, and sold for a shilling a piece.

Lithographed and hand-colored,  it showed a family of three generations quaffing wine and caused a furor among the temperate classes. On either side were allegorical vignettes depicting the feeding of the hungry and the clothing of the naked and the whole thing was enclosed in a rustic frame of carved wood and ivy.
       Sales grew and designs and sizes changed. The first cards were meant to appeal to the masses and encourage them to send large numbers by post. So rather than focus on religious images, they showed sentimental or humorous images of family and children, fanciful designs of flowers, fairies, or reminders of the approach of spring.

       Cards were shaped as a bell, a fan, a crescent, a circle, or a diamond and were folding, decorated with jewels, iridescent, embossed, and carried either simple Christmas and New Year greetings or had verses and carols written in them. The next year, Mr W.C.T. Dobson produced a sketch symbolizing the ‘Spirit of Christmas’ which sold many more than the previous thousand and the novelty caught on. More Victorian Christmas Cards     More on Victorian publishers of Christmas cards

      Christmas Trees
       After Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert, the English adopted his German customs for trees and presents.

       In 1841, a large tree was decorated in Windsor Castle and the Queen and her family exchanged gifts on Christmas Eve. Presents were laid out on tables, each of which had a Christmas tree at its centre.

       On 24 December 1850 the Queen wrote in her journal, 
‘My beloved Albert first took me to my tree and table, covered by such numberless gifts, really too much, too magnificent.’

In 1860, a visitor to Windsor Castle described how the rooms ‘were lighted up with Christmas trees hung from the ceiling, the chandeliers being taken down. These trees…were covered with bonbons and little wax colored lights, some of the trees were made to appear as if partially covered in snow.’

In 2011, Windsor Castle’s Christmas  display follows Victorian tradition with a lavish dinner table setting and an artificial tree suspended from the Octagon Dining Room ceiling, where the chandelier usually hangs.

More on the Victorian Christmas Tree looks at Windsor Castle here.
Though carols, cards, and trees were either revived or started, a new trend began in the early Victorian era where Christmas stories were no longer simply told in families but were written down and published.

In 1843, Charles Dickens turned the Christmas season back to one of festivity and merriment when his novel, A Christmas Carol, was published.Under financial stress, he wrote it during a period of intense creativity and completed the work in a mere six weeks, having made no working notes, outline, plans, or preliminary drafts.

The sixty-eight-page manuscript is viewable at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City. The Morgan’s collection of Dickens’ manuscripts and letters is one of the two greatest collections in the world, the other being Britain's Victoria and Albert Museum. 

NB - This story was immediately popular and critically acclaimed, and has been in print continuously for 157 years.

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Elaine Golden said...

Lovely post, Sue! I found the images delightful. Looks like the trees were potted, and how unusual that they 'hung' a tree from the ceiling! Thanks for sharing!


Tracey Devlyn said...

Suzi, great post! Love learning more about our current traditions and those that have faded with time.

Allison Butler said...

Hi Suzi,

Thanks so much for the dazzling assortment of Victorian Christmas traditions. The origins are fascinating and the pictures are gorgeous. I love Christmas and was already in the Christmas spirit, but your fabulous post has doubled my joy. Huge thanks:)

Cheryl Leigh said...

Wonderful post, Suzi! I love the pics. The Victorian Christmas cards are so unique and lovely.

Elle Fynllay said...

A big thank you to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert for spreading the Christmas tree tradition. Lovely post Suzi

Cassandra Samuels said...

A lovely post Suzi

Hard to think that Christmas trees have only been around since Victorian times.

Feeling all Christmasy now.

Christina Phillips said...

Thanks for such a fascinating post, Suzi, I enjoyed finding out more about our Christmassy traditions!

Erin Grace said...

What a wonderful post! With all the commercialism these days, it's nice to see some of the old time nostalgia that really gives Christmas traditions meaning..



Kelly Ethan said...


I have hanging christmas tree lust. Somehow I don't think my hubby would agree ;p

Kelly Ethan

Suzi said...

Thanks so much to everyone who has stopped by and commented.
Glad you all enjoyed a little peek into Christmases past.
I really think we should bring back the tradition of hanging trees.
Wouldn't that be wonderful?

Anonymous said...

Wonderful history there Suz...
ont he subject of Hanging Christmas tree. It is still a tradition in Eurppean families today.
# years ago we visited Dutch relatives at Christmas time and I was gob-smacked to see not one or two but three Christmas trees in the very tiny home. And yes They actually take down the center light fittings in the main lounge room and there was a 4ft Christmas tree hanging. Fully decorated.
From what we saw in three countries, they do Christmas like no others over in Europe. I loved it.