A Victorian Christmas
By Trisha Hughes
No era in history has influenced the way in which we celebrate Christmas quite as much as the Victorian era. Before Victoria’s reign began 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. Instead, for thousands of years, people around the world had enjoyed midwinter festivals. Christmas was a time for fasts, vigils, prayers, and the giving of alms both to monasteries and to the common people, for the full twelve days before Christmas.
In Anglo-Saxon days, Christmas did not have the same importance in the church calendar as it does today. It was only the arrival of Christianity that pagan festivals became mixed with Christmas celebrations. Long before the birth of Christ, midwinter had always been a time for merry-making by the masses. The root of the midwinter rituals was the winter solstice – the shortest day – which falls on 21st December. After this date the days lengthened and the return of spring, the season of life, was eagerly anticipated. It was therefore a time to celebrate both the end of the autumn sowing and the fact that the ‘life giving’ sun had not deserted them. Bonfires were lit to help strengthen the ‘Unconquered Sun’. One of the leftovers from these pagan days is the custom of bedecking houses and churches with evergreen plants like mistletoe, holly and ivy. Apparently, as well as their magical connection in protecting us from evil spirits, they also encourage the return of spring.
With the wealth and technologies generated by the industrial revolution of the Victorian era, the face of Christmas changed forever. Authors like Charles Dickens wrote books like “Christmas Carol”, published on 17th December 1843, which actually encouraged rich Victorians to redistribute their wealth by giving money and gifts to the poor. Arguably this most famous story featuring Ebenezer Scrooge is said to have had the greatest impact on Christmas celebrations in the western world. The story’s focus on the triumph of good over evil and the importance of family brought a new meaning to Christmas in the Victorian era and established the modern interpretation of Christmas as a festive family gathering. These radical middle-class ideals eventually spread to the not-quite-so-poor as well.
The wealth of 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. Boxing Day, December 26th, earned its name as the day servants and working people opened the boxes in which they had collected gifts of money from the “rich folk”. The new-fangled invention, the railway, allowed the country folk who had moved into the towns and cities in search of work to return home for a family Christmas.
The Scots have always preferred to postpone the celebrations for a few days to welcome in the New Year in the style that is Hogmanay. And no one celebrates Hogmanay with such revelry and passion as the Scots. It is believed that many of the traditional Hogmanay celebrations were originally brought to Scotland by the invading Vikings in the early 8th and 9th centuries. These Norsemen, or men from an even more northerly latitude than Scotland, paid particular attention to the arrival of the Winter Solstice or the shortest day, and fully intended to celebrate its passing with some serious partying.
It may surprise many people to note that Christmas in Scotland, for around 400 years from the end of the 17th century to the 1950s, was not celebrated as a festival and virtually banned. The reason for this dates back to the years of Protestant Reformation, when the straight-laced Kirk proclaimed Christmas as a Popish or Catholic feast, and as such needed banning.
And so it was, right up until the 1950s that many Scots worked over Christmas and celebrated their winter solstice holiday at New Year when family and friends would gather for a party and to exchange presents which came to be known as Hogmanay. Christmas Day itself did not become a holiday in Scotland until many years after Victoria’s reign and it has only been within the last 20-30 years that this has been extended to include Boxing Day.
In Wales, the day after Christmas Day was celebrated in a way unique and included the tradition of “holly-beating” or “holming.” Young men and boys would beat the unprotected arms of young females with holly branches until they bled. In some areas it was the legs that were beaten. In others, it was the custom for the last person to get out of bed in the morning to be beaten with sprigs of holly. These customs died out before the end of the 19th century (luckily for young girls and those who like a lie-in!)
At the start of Victoria’s reign, children’s toys tended to be handmade and hence expensive, generally restricting availability to those “rich folk” 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. 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 stories of St. Nicholas (Sinter Klaas in Holland) came via Dutch settlers to America in the 17th Century. 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.
Christmas Cards – or 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-fangled railways.
Before Victorian times, turkeys had been brought to Britain from America for hundreds of years. When Victoria first came to the throne however, both chicken and turkey were too expensive for most people to enjoy. In northern England roast beef was the traditional fayre for Christmas dinner while in London and the south, goose was favourite. Early on at the introduction of Christmas celebrations, many poor people had made do with rabbit but by the end of the century most people began feasting on turkey for their Christmas dinner. The great journey to London started for the turkey sometime in October. Feet clad in fashionable but hardwearing leather the unsuspecting birds would have set out on the 80-mile hike from the Norfolk farms. Arriving obviously a little tired and on the scrawny side they must have thought London hospitality unbeatable as they feasted and fattened on the last few weeks before Christmas. On the other hand, the Christmas Day menu for Queen Victoria and family in 1840 included both beef and of course a royal roast swan or two.
The original idea of the crackers, invented by Tom Smith, a London sweet maker in 1846, was to wrap his sweets in a twist of fancy coloured paper, but this developed, and sold much better, when he added love notes (motto’s), paper hats, small toys and made them go off with a BANG.
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 in the 1840’s. Usually Windsor Castle came into its own at Christmas.
Vikings to Virgin
The Hazards of Being King
In Vikings to Virgin - The Hazards of Being King Trisha Hughes provides the reader with a pacey introduction to the many pitfalls faced by the ambitious as they climbed the dangerous ladders of royalty. It is easy to think that monarchs are all powerful, but throughout the Dark and Middle Ages it was surprisingly easy to unseat one and assume the crown yourself. But if it was easy to gain ... it was just as easy to lose.From the dawn of the Vikings through to Elizabeth I, Trisha Hughes follows the violent struggles for power and the many brutal methods employed to wrest it and keep hold of it. Murder, deceit, treachery, lust and betrayal were just a few of the methods used to try and win the crown. Vikings to Virgin - The Hazards of Being King spans fifteen hundred years and is a highly accessible and enjoyable ride through the dark side of early British monarchy.
Virgin to Victoria
Virgin to Victoria is a powerful retelling of the history of the British monarchy, beginning with Henry VIII's daughter, Elizabeth I, as she comes to the throne. Charting Elizabeth's incredible journey, Virgin to Victoria travels in time through the confusion of the Stuart dynasty, the devastation of a Civil War led by Oliver Cromwell, horrific battles for the throne and the turbulent Hanover dynasty with its intricate family squabbles. Despite her amazing legacy, Elizabeth failed England in one vital area. She never married, nor did she leave an heir to the Tudor family. In making this one fateful decision, the Virgin Queen left the path open for a take-over and life would never be the same. Victoria did not ask to be Queen. It was thrust upon her by a series of events that removed all others who stood in line for the throne. She assumed it reluctantly and, at first, incompetently. Parliament was sure that the 18-year-old could be relied upon to leave the job of running the country to the professionals. Couldn't she?
My first book, ‘Daughters of Nazareth’ is my story, written eighteen years ago, fuelled on by the discovery of a family I never knew I had. It’s full of family secrets, tremendous heartache but proves the human spirit’s amazing ability to triumph over adversity. Nineteen years ago, after just one phone call, my life changed abruptly. With that change came a passion for writing and I have been writing ever since.
I love writing crime novels but my passion is with the history of the British Monarchy. The first in my‘V2V’ trilogy is ‘Vikings to Virgin – The Hazards of being King’ published in 2017. The second in the series is due for release on 28th April this year and is called ‘Virgin to Victoria – The Queen is Dead. Long live the Queen.’ The final book, ‘Victoria to Vikings – The Circle of Blood’ will be released early 2019.
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