How the Victorians invented Christmas

A report on our meeting held 15th January 2018

Our speaker Robert Chester MA, who is the Education Officer at Sewerby Hall, entertained us by relating “How the Victorians invented Christmas”.

Christmas as we know it today is little different to how it was at the end of the Victorian period in 1900. But go back another 100 years to 1800 and we learn that Christmas was just one of several winter festivals with New Year being the major celebration.  Back in the early 1800’s Christmas day was not a holiday, shops were open, and newspapers were printed.

Robert told us about some of the other Winter festivals such as jumping the plough, and wassailing the trees. Drinking, mischief and outrageous dressing up were the order of the day. These festivals were not about families or children. With urbanisation, communities began to frown upon such unruly events and improved transport led more people to consider travelling home for Christmas.

Charles Dickens wrote prolifically about Christmas and gave the Victorians a template of what a family Christmas could be like. Robert explained how Queen Victoria and Prince Albert popularised the family Christmas.  In particular the Christmas tree developed out of a tradition, brought to England by the German wife of George III, of bringing a yew bough indoors and decorating with lit candles and presents. The similarly adorned Paradise tree which featured in medieval Mystery Plays may also have been an influence. The use of Holly and Mistletoe also predate the Christmas tree.

Robert showed us how the Victorians also commercialised Christmas. A sweet maker wanted to sell more bonbons, so he wrapped some in a large bonbon shaped wrapper we now recognise as a Christmas cracker. The banger and paper hat are a remnant of the older winter festivals were noise and dressing up were a part of the scene.

Christmas cards were introduced by Henry Cole in 1843. Robert showed us some of the strange and amusing early cards. He also explained how the traditional Christmas dinner evolved in Victorian times.

Robert investigated the origins of the two distinct characters of Santa Claus and Father Christmas which today we regard as one of the same, complete now with added reindeer. This was a fascinating story in its own right.

Robert acknowledged that some Christmas traditions have been added since Victorian times.  These include the Monarch’s Christmas Broadcast, the Christmas Number One song, Christmas Specials on TV, Christmas Sales, and the Christmas Market.

The Prior Bro Garry Sunley asked Bro Peter Ryalls to give the vote of thanks.  Bro Peter thanked Robert for his brilliant presentation. He explained why an addition to the list of recently introduced Christmas traditions could be a visit to the hospital A&E Department.