Victorian Christmas Traditions

Many of today’s Christmas traditions had their origins in Victorian America and England. Prior Victoria‘s reign, which started in 1837, hardly anyone in Britain, and few in English-speaking America, decorated trees, gave gifts, sang carols, or had heard of Santa Claus. No one mailed Christmas carols or ate turkey dinner.

Outside of German and Dutch immigrant communities, Christmas was not celebrated as a major holiday. Rather, in the early 19th century, the celebration of Christmas was associated with the countryside, disconnected to the urbanization and industrialization reforming society.

Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert, a German noble, in 1840, brought a new vitality to the German customs practiced by the English royals and, in turn, by the rest of English and American society. Victorian society transformed the idea of Christmas, centering it on family, the preparation and eating of a feast, decorations and gift giving, entertainment and singing.  Each aspect became central to the celebration of a festival to be shared by the family and society in general. As a result, many of these traditions that are the basis of current American and English practices, are over 150 years old.

 
 
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Christmas Trees

While already popular in Germany and the Netherlands and in the areas of America settled by German and Dutch immigrants, the spread of Christmas trees in England and the rest of the United States is attributed to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.   

 
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Ornaments

When the idea of Christmas trees was just taking hold, there were no pre-made ornaments. Victorians has to use their imagination and things found in nature to decorate their trees. Eventually, inexpensive pre-made ornaments became commonplace.

 
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Holiday home decor

Decorating the home at Christmas also became a more elaborate affair. The medieval tradition of using evergreens continued, however the style and placement of these decorations became more important and elaborate.  Uniformity, order, and elegance were encouraged.  There were instructions published on how to make elaborate decorations for those residing in towns.

 
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Christmas dinner

The Christmas feast has its roots in the Middle Ages (if not before), but it was during the Victorian period that the dinner featuring roast turkey began to take shape.  

 
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Carols and caroling

Wassailing or caroling actually began in medieval times as a pagan ritual.  A hot beverage of ale or mulled cider, called a wassail, was made to honor the orchard trees in the dead of winter.  Farmers went from farm to farm to make offerings by pouring wassail on the roots of trees.  They made noise to scare off the bad spirits responsible for shorter days.  Eventually the custom evolved into going door to door singing and drinking.   A Christmas tradition was born.

 
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Santa and his Reindeer

The classic image of the bringer of holiday gifts and his unique mode of transportation are firmly rooted in the 19th century.

 
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Gift giving

Gift giving had traditionally been a New Year tradition.  But as Christmas became more important to Victorians, the tradition moved to the new holiday.  Initially gifts were quite modest – fruit, nuts, sweets, and small handmade trinkets hung as decorations on the Christmas tree.  However, as gift giving became bigger and shop-bought (because of industrialization and the time constrains of urban life), they moved under the tree.

 
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Christmas cards

The first Christmas card was commissioned by Sir Henry Cole, the initial director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum , in 1843.