The term “Christmas” first became part of the English language sometime during the 11th century as a blend of the Old English expression “Christes Maesse”, which literally meant “Festival of Christ”. The celebration of Christmas, however, predates the creation of the very word itself. When we think of Christmas, we don’t think of the First Christmas in Rome. Instead, we think of turkey dinners, caroling, and Father Christmas, a few of the many traditions that emerged from the Victorian Era. Today, we will be exploring a traditional Christmas set in the Victorian Era.
The Victorian Era of the United Kingdom and the rest of its empire, was an era that lasted 63 years (June 1837 — January 1901) under the reign of Queen Victoria. During this era, the United Kingdom grew to be the world’s first global industrial power, and saw many advancements in art and science.
As hard as it may be to believe, Christmas was barely celebrated at the beginning of the 19th century. Many attribute the change to Queen Victoria, and her husband, the German-born Prince Albert. People believe it was their marriage that introduced some of the most prominent aspects of Christmas. In 1848 the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the royal family celebrating around a decorated Christmas tree, a tradition that was reminiscent of Prince Albert’s childhood in Germany. Within a year of that image being published, almost every household across the country tried to match its aesthetic; decorated trees became common, and giving gifts became a norm.
English society during this time was suffering from a class divide that meant Christmas was being celebrated differently within the different people. The more affluent families were able to take time off to celebrate two holidays: Christmas and Boxing Day. Boxing Day earned its name from the servants of these rich families, and those that fell within the same class divide, celebrated a day where they unboxed the gifts they received from their employers and the wealthy in general.
While the rich made it a tradition to dine on foods such as swan, pheasant and turkey, the poor would often have to settle for food such as rabbit or beef. On Christmas, however, it became a custom for those who could, to enjoy a turkey dinner.
The Victorian era greatly emphasized the importance of family. It was in time with that philosophy that Christmas was celebrated at home. For many, the new railway networks made this possible. Those who had left the countryside to seek work in cities could return home for Christmas and spend their precious days off with loved ones.
Among the main customs to rise out of the Victorian period is the Christmas card. It was Sir Henry Cole who can be credited for the concept of the Christmas card in 1843. Cole commissioned J.C. Horsley to plan a merry scene for his greeting cards and had 1000 printed — those he didn’t utilize himself were sold off to the public. The price of these cards was too expensive for most of the working classroom however, the sentiment did not go unnoticed, and numerous kids — as well as Queen Victoria herself — started to make their own Christmas cards. In this period of industrialisation shading printing technology immediately turned out to be further developed, leading to the cost of card creation to drop significantly. The Christmas card industry took off. By the 1880s the sending of cards had become incredibly popular, making an industry that created 11.5 million cards in 1880 alone. The commercialisation of Christmas was well on its way.