Remember the old sci-fi movie classic about the mutated man who couldn’t stop growing? Christmas, and celebrating it, evolved that way during the Victorian Era. It grew from a rather staid, relatively unimportant observance to a giant celebration and perhaps the biggest holiday on the Victorian calendar. All this took place from about 1840 to 1890.
Prior to 1840, Christmas was a small Puritanical observance in most Christian countries, especially Protestant ones, except in what is today Germany and was then a loose conglomeration of Germanic, post-feudal states. There, Christmas was a time for rollicking celebration. In 1840, Queen Victoria, herself of Germanic ancestry, married a German Prince, Albert. He introduced the celebratory Germanic Christmas traditions to England and the empire. Albert introduced Christmas trees and cards and gifting and restarted Christmas feasts, caroling, and decorating one’s home with evergreens. With him, too, came a Christmas gift-giver whose name would eventually evolve into Santa Claus.
As with so many social and cultural trends, whatever the Royal Family did quickly became the popular and proper thing to do, both in most of Europe and the United States. Within a decade, most of the Victorian world was celebrating Christmas a la the Royal Family.
These initial celebrations began on a relatively small scale compared to what they would grow into during the next half century. The Christmas tree and how it was decorated is an apt illustration of this process. The first trees were tiny table-top ones only a few feet tall and decorated sparsely, mainly with edibles for the children and real candles. Quickly the Christmas tree, like so much else in Victorian culture, became a status symbol for the newly rich middle and upper classes. The urge to conspicuously consume and display that consumption overwhelmed the early tree. Following the basic Victorian motto of more is better and there is no such thing as too much, the Christmas tree soon became laden with glass ornaments, scraps, flags, garland, icicles (tinsel) and first many individual and then strings of electric lights. To accommodate this mass of decoration it grew to six or more feet, often looming from floor to ceiling. At least this made hiding the Germanic pickle deep within it easier.
As with the tree, so with the presents beneath it. Originally the only ones getting gifts were the children and then one per child. The gifts and their recipients quickly multiplied. Soon they went even to friends beyond the family and then to not just social but business significant others. It certainly was getting to be a merry Christmas for manufacturers, merchants, the new department stores, and the new marketing and advertising industries.
Even Santa grew from the jolly old elf of Clement Moore’s 1923 “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (The Night Before Christmas) as illustrated by Thomas Nast in the 1860s, into human-sized store and parade versions. He no doubt needed to bulk up to carry all those gifts.
Other illustrations of Victorian gigantism related to Christmas abound. Toy trains went from simple one car pull toys to full length trains electrically powered through landscaped layouts with people and buildings. Cards grew from simple one-sized sentiments to elaborate multi-page tomes of prose and poetry with elaborate artwork. Even more than presents, the recipients of cards went from family to everybody who was anybody (or one wanted to be somebody) in one’s life.
By the 1890s, modern time travelers to the Victorian world at Christmas would have found an opulent celebration very familiar to them. Some Victorians were even wondering whether they had created a monster which had almost completely overshadowed the real reason for the season.
A retired history teacher, school administrator and university professor, Dr. R.E. Heinly writes a weekly column on the Victorian Era in the Cape May Star & Wave. He is MAC’s Director of Museum Education and portrays our own Dr. Emlen Physick.