If you love Christmas and history, then it is fun to learn how they used to celebrate the festive season in times past. We have lost so many of the traditions that are associated with Christmas, but we do still celebrate some of them today.
You may be surprised by the origins of many of the traditions that are still part of our Christmas celebrations today. We take many of them for granted, for example the Christmas tree in our homes, the wreath that we hang on our front doors, the exchanging of gifts, holly decorations, and the mistletoe. A lot of the meaning associated with these traditions has mostly been lost today.
A Georgian Christmas
Having a Christmas tree brought into the house was a German custom and it is believed that it was brought to court in 1800 by Queen Charlotte (wife of King George III)
The Georgian Christmas was celebrated, and lasted from 6th December (St Nicholas Day) to 6th January (Twelth Night) It was traditional to exchange gifts on st Nicholas Day and marked the beginning of the Christmas season.
Christmas Day was a national holiday and the gentry spent it on their country estates. They would attend church, after which they would return to a Christmas banquet. They would celebrate it with many guests and hold parties.
Christmas dinner would be turkey, goose or venison. followed by plum pudding.
Greenery was brought into the homes on Christmas Eve and was a tradition not just for the gentry but the poor too, They would decorate their homes with holly, ivy, mistletoe and rosemary, which were decorated with spices, apples, oranges, candles or ribbons..
The day after Christmas, St Stephens Day and was a day of charity. The gentry presented their servants, and staff with their 'Christmas Boxes' This is why St Stephens Day is known as Boxing Day. This was a way of thanking their servants for waiting on them on Christmas Day. The boxes would contain gifts which they could then take home to their families. The servants were allowed this day to spend time with their families and observe Christmas in their own way.
A Victorian Christmas
The tradition of the Christmas tree did not become popular in Britain until the Victorian era. It became popular when Prince Albert brought a tree to Winsdor Castle. Illustrated London News printed the engraving of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their family around their Christmas Tree in 1848.
The way we celebrate Christmas today is very much influenced by the Victorian era.
Due to the factories and industries of the latter part of the Victorian age, middle class families found new wealth. and they were able to take two days off work to celebrate Christmas day, and Boxing day. It wasn't just the gentry who could enjoy Christmas.
Children's toys at the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign were handmade and expensive so only the wealthy could afford to buy them. When factories were able to mass produce, toys, games, books and clockwork toys became more affordable. They were still only affordable to middle-class families. so children from poorer families would receive,an apple or an orange, and a few nuts in their Christmas stocking. The Christmas stocking became popular from the 1870's.
The 'Penny Post' was introduced in 1840, and this brought with it the idea of sending greeting cards. The idea of sending a Christmas greeting card belonged to Sir Henry Cole who commisioned his friend John Callcott Horsley in 1843 to design the very first Christmas and New Year's card. In 1843 an edition of 1000 of these cards were printed and placed for sale in London.
One of the first Christmas greeting cards - This card was one of 18 cards produced, and auctioned at Southeby's in 2010 and sold for $7000. It was produced by Sir Henry Cole.in 1843. This card was sent to a "Miss Rusby" from a "H. Vernon" (Image "Daily Mail") source: Victoriana Magazine.(victoriana.com)
Sending Christmas cards gained popularity when the halfpenny postage rate was introduced in 1870.
Crackers were invented by Tom Smith, a London sweet maker in 1847. The idea was to wrap sweets in a twist of fancy coloured paper, but this idea developed and sold much better when he introduced "love messages" into the wrappers with the sweets as a promotional idea. The crack (banger mechanism) was added at a later date, and the paper wrapper got bigger and eventually the sweet was dropped and replaced by trinkets, and other items. Toys, paper hats and different designs were introduced by Tom Smith's son, Walter Smith to differentiate from other rival varities that came onto the market.
An Edwardian Christmas
By Edwardian times St Nicholas and Father Christmas had merged into one and now known as Santa Claus.
The Christmas tree was still very popular and not put up until Christmas Eve which they would decorate with paper and glass ornaments, as well as sweets, mistletoe, and ribbon. People were still using mistletoe, ivy, holly, yew and laurel to decorate their homes, but they began to add paper chains, ribbons and candles to their decorations.
The plum pudding had become a Christmas dessert favourite, and with it a custom that each family member would take a turn at stirring the batter, and a coin would be added so that the finder of the coin would have good luck. It was prepared, cooked and stored a month before Christmas giving the rich flavours time to ripen.
Other foods that were eaten at Christmas during this era were fruit cake, mince pies, chestnuts, pork and apple stuffing, roast pork, goose or turkey, dates, figs, and nuts.
Christmas cards had become even more popular during Edwardian times as the postage was relatively inexpensive, and many cards were sent to friends and family.
On Christmas day, the family would attend church coming home to a Christmas meal, and they would pull crackers, and put on their paper hats (as we do today) After the meal they would play games and sing carols.
Children's gifts (though not for the poorest families) would be tin soldiers, wooden animals,, dolls, tea sets.and penny tinplate gifts.
Boxing day was still known as a day for charity, and gifts were given to those in need.
Outdoor activities were increasingly becoming more popular during Edwardian times, and Christmas was seen as a time when you could relax and have some fun and one such pastime would be ice skating on the frozen lakes.
We can recognise a lot of our celebrations in the way the Georgians, Victorians, and Edwardians celebrated the Christmas season.
I wish you all a Merry Christmas
Happy New Year!
( Happy Holidays )