Only 151 days until Christmas! What—you’re not thinking about Christmas right now? The 98 degrees, 200% humidity,* and melting squirrels on your deck aren’t putting you in the Christmas spirit? Well, bah, humbug! I’m all about Victorian Christmas right now,** and by the end of this post, you will be, too!
As I’ve talked about the last couple of weeks, much of modern middle-class culture comes from the Victorian era, and Christmas is no exception! Many of the elements we consider traditional must-haves in our yuletide celebrations were born or evolved in the 19th century in England and America—with a little nudge from Germany.
This image of Queen Victoria, her German-born husband Prince Albert, and their children celebrating Christmas in 1848 was many people’s first glimpse of a Christmas tree. First published in Illustrated London News then widely reprinted, it immediately popularized the Christmas tree and made this German novelty seem quintessentially British. Victoria and Albert were married in 1840, and by Christmas 1841, Albert had installed the Christmas tree as a family tradition. That year, Victoria wrote in her diary of her children’s “happy wonder at the German Christmas tree and its radiant candles.” It did not take long to catch on in Prince Albert’s new country.
Of course, traditions don’t spring up out of nowhere; they evolve from other customs. Victorian folklorists were fascinated with tracing the history of Christmas observances back to their ancient origins. As early as 1836, Scots-born poet and literary critic Thomas Kibble Hervey offered readers The Book of Christmas. Hervey was looking back with a nostalgic view of Old England, before Christmas’s Victorian renaissance, and speaks of the “Extinction of the Ancient Festival; [its] Partial Revival; [and] Summary of the Causes of its Final Decline.”
But sixty-five years later, William F. Dawson was able to capitalize on decades of renewed enthusiasm for this most Victorian of holidays in 1902’s Christmas: Its Origins and Associations and its prodigious subtitle:
Dawson was fascinated both with early Christianity’s observance of the Nativity, as well as pagan festivals believed to have been co-opted into traditional Christmas celebrations.
Naturally, by mid-century, Mrs. Beeton, our middle-class maven, was full of advice for the holiday, too:
She was especially enthusiastic about the turkey as the centerpiece for Christmas dinner:
Of course, the figure perhaps most associated with Victorian Christmas is Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol was published in 1843, right when Victorians were just beginning to embrace the yuletide spirit with new zeal. Throughout the 19th century, as daily life became more industrialized, globalized, commercialized, and modernized, people began to romanticize what they saw as old-fashioned traditions (even if they were brand-new). The Victorian era was fertile soil for a holiday reimagined around hearth and home and ancient customs.
Dickens, already a master of sentimental prose, recognized this yearning. And he was prescient, too. We still think of A Christmas Carol as that most Christmassy of Christmas traditions, 177 years later.
Are you ready for Christmas yet? Here are some more period images to get you in the mood:
There! Now don’t you wish it was snowing? So haul out your Christmas tree, sing some carols, whip up a Christmas pudding, and have a happy Christmas in July!
*slight hyperbole, Dear Reader
**For Top Secret Reasons, to be revealed in Due Time!