Many secular aspects of our modern celebration of Christmas are Victorian in origin. Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, introduced many of them into Anglo-American culture from his native German culture. If we were transported via a yuletide time machine to the Victorian Era, perhaps similar to the one Santa uses to travel the world and visit so many homes in a single night, we would find much that is familiar about a Victorian Christmas.
We find ourselves in the world of Tiny Tim and Ebenezer Scrooge since Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843. It’s also the world of A Night Before Christmas (Clement Moore, 1822). The scenes we see look like Currier and Ives illustrations because they are Victorian also. Wassailing carolers sing such new songs as Hark The Herald Angels Sing, Joy To The World, and Silent Night. When that new song Jingle Bells is sung, there likely will be real sleigh bells in the background if it’s snowy.
Among the many Christmas customs that will seem old to us but are new to the Victorians are Christmas cards and Christmas trees. Jolly old Santa Claus’ image is new to the Victorians also, created by a leading American artist, Thomas Nast, to illustrate Moore’s tale of Christmas Eve. If it’s after 1897, you’ll hear parents assuring their children that, Yes Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus.
The air is full of the aroma of gingerbread, of chestnuts roasting and fresh cut boughs and wreaths of evergreen and holly. There is even a new song about decking your halls and entire home with these.
As you look at the Christmas tree, the taller it is, the later in the era it is, since the table top trees of the 1850s and 1860s grew to ceiling height by the 1880s and 1890s. If glass ornaments and metal tinsel have been added to fruits, cookies, and candy-filled cornucopias as decorations, it is also the late Victorian Era. The lights are still candles unless it’s toward the end of the century. Those unusual illustrations (perhaps from Currier and Ives) decorating the tree are known as “scraps.” Under the tree you’ll notice the gifts are rather plainly wrapped, by modern standards, with ribbon and tissue paper. There are not as many of them also, but the more that you see the later in the era it is.
Most familiar to the Christmas time traveler about a Victorian Christmas will be the spirit that abounds; a spirit of all that is good about humanity, of peace and love, of beauty and serenity, and of optimism about the future and thankfulness for past blessings. You can even hear Tiny Tim saying “God bless us, every one.” Merry Victorian Christmas!
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.