23 December 2009

Victorian Christmas

It is said that no era has influenced the manner in which we celebrate Christmas quite as much as theVictorian era. Since the Puritan ban of Christmas under Oliver Cromwell from 1642 to 1660, the celebration of the holiday had not been widely celebrated in England. It wasn't until Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837 that Christmas began to grow in popularity again and the traditions we know today began to emerge.

The Victorian era saw the rebirth of several practices like sending Christmas cards, decorating a Christmas tree, and Christmas caroling. The newfound wealth generated by booming industry allowed the middle classes to enjoy time off work for Christmas and Boxing Day. The new railroads allowed families that had settled far apart to be reunited for a family celebration. Mass production made toys, which had previously been reserved for the rich, available to the middle class children as well, though poor children found only apples, or perhaps oranges, and nuts in their stockings.

The tradition of trimming the tree originated in Germany. It was widely popularised in part by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband, who brought one to Windsor Castle in the 1840's. It was common for Victorians to use items around the house to decorate the tree. You can decorate you own tree in this fashion using things like small wooden toys (e.g. handmade trains), ribbons, and candles. Natural decorations were also very popular. Dried fruits, berries, walnuts, pinecones, and cinnamon sticks were often fastened to branches with ribbons or raffia. Sugar plums, holly berries, and paper chains were also used in addition to marzipan candies, tin soldiers, and decorated gingerbread men. Oftentimes garlands were made by threading fruits onto ribbons or string. I recall making a garland with my mum and grandmother by alternating popcorn and cranberries. Presents were incorporated into the decoration when small gifts were set carefully on branches. Victorians were elaborate with their decorating and this practice extended to their holiday decorations. As tree-trimming became more popular, homemade decorations were gradually replaced by imported German ornaments. Among them, hand-blown glass globes (kugels), glass icicles, and gold and silver embossed cardboard ornaments (dresdens). The most important ornament was then as it remains today the Nuremberg angel which represented childlike or womanly innocence.

Victorians also decorated their homes for Christmas with paper flowers, mistletoe, holly berries, pine garlands, wreaths, and nativity scenes. Wreaths were made by hand using a frame made of hazel cane and wire. Holly, bay, and yew were most popular among the Victorians as greenery to be attatched to the wreaths which were then decorated with ribbons and fruits. Mistletoe was often hung over doorways for the same purpose it is today. It was usually placed inside a 'mistletoe ball' constructed from a globe-like wire structure covered with greenery and ribbons.

Gift-giving in the Victorian era was a deep sign of love and gifts usually took the entire calendar year to complete. The Victorians used coloured paper to wrap gifts and used techniques such as paper marbeling to make wrapping paper. They also presented and saved gifts in keepsake boxes crafted from paper maché and decorated with paints and various trinkets. The presentation of gifts was just as valued by the Victorians as the actual gift itself. They sometimes crafted intricate cloth gift bags in which small gifts could be hung from trees.

Children in the Victorian era were charged with the task of writing Christmas greetings to their parents in fine cursive writing. Adults seldom penned cards to one another because it consumed a great deal of time in an all ready hectic season. Soon the first Christmas card was printed in England, though they did not become popular until around 1840 when the penny post, coloured-printing, and printing machines made sending and crafting Christmas cards all the more easy.

Many Victorians felt that Christmas caroling was a dying practice and that many carols would be forgotten, so books were published to preserve them. Popular carols for the Victorians included: The Holly and the Ivy, O Come All Ye Faithful, Once in Royal David's City, See Amid the Winter's Snow, O Little Town of Bethlehem, and Away in a Manger.

Before too late on Christmas Eve, I will post a second article on Victorian Christmas, focusing on Christmas dinner. Don't forget to follow Swell & Dandy. Keep watch for the next article which should be coming very soon.

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