QUESTION: I see a lot of references to the nostalgia of an old-fashioned Victorian Christmas. Just how great were Christmas celebrations back then and what did they do?
ANSWER: While what you read and see on T.V. about how the Victorians celebrated Christmas is often exaggerated, many of the holiday traditions we still practice today began back then.
With luck, there was snow. Twinkling, sparkling, clean, white, heart-warming old-fashioned snow. Nothing reminds us of an old-fashioned Christmas like snow. Just enough to coat the brick sidewalks, to dust the backs of the horses, to lightly stick to the long velvet gowns and the top hats, to put a glow around the Christmas tree lights. For this was the essence of a Victorian Christmas. During most years, many northern locations had many more than a dusting.
During the Victorian era from 1837 to 1901, people celebrated Christmas with special family gatherings, feasting, embellishing the home with decorations, and gift giving in increasing abundance. Victorians loved to decorate for the holidays. A giant fir tree, adorned with dried hydrangeas in shades of rose and pale green, lacy fans, white silk roses—a symbol of the Virgin Mary—German glass balls, and delicate handmade paper ornaments, held together with lace garland, woven with ribbon and strung fresh cranberries, stood in the parlor. Many people believe that the Christmas tree evolved from the Paradise tree, a fir hung with red apples and wafers, representing the host, which represented the Garden of Eden in a medieval miracle play about Adam and Eve performed on December 24.
Arrangements of fresh greens and holly, a pagan custom adapted by Christians, decorated Victorian homes. The color green came to symbolize the Christian belief in eternal life through Christ. Legend says that Jesus' crown of thorns was plaited from holly. It's said that, before the crucifixion, the berries of the holly were white, but afterward, they turned crimson, like drops of blood.
Greens hung from chandeliers. Pine roping, wrapped with pearls and pink moire taffeta bows, draped the grand staircase. Perhaps a small wooden tree covered with prisms stood on a marble-top table. Another, covered in intricate origami birds, might have stood on a hall table. The crowning touch was a large welcoming wreath that hung on the vestibule door flanked by alabaster urns filled with gold tinged twisted willow and red poinsettias. But the most important part of the Victorian celebration was the family's creche, which featured carved figures of Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child set in a miniature village, complete with meadows, fences, windmills and ponds. flanked by poinsettias. Many believe St. Francis of Assisi created the first creche using live animals in 1223.
Gift giving played an important role in Victorian celebrations. The lady of the house would smile as she peeled back the tissue covering a heavily embossed sterling silver dresser set or opened a box in which a pair of gold and amethyst earrings nestled. On the more practical side, she might have received a steel chatelaine, a chain which clipped to the waist and held keys, a pencil, and a button hook. For a special evening out, she might have been given a dress cape of black silk velvet trimmed with jet beads and ostrich feathers.
Children often received books, considered appropriate for their educational or moral value. Or perhaps a doll's china tea service and sewing equipment for the girls, and miniature tools for the boys to help prepare them for adulthood. An extra special gift for the whole family might have been a stereopticon viewer with slides of exotic places.
Men weren't left out. To go walking, a man might receive a gold-tipped cane, or a brass bicycle lamp, reflecting the favorite pastimes of Victorian gentlemen. Or he might receive a fine ivory meerschaum pipe or a bowler hat by Stetson.
All of the above was fine and dandy for wealthy Victorians, but for the majority of people who worked long hours for subsistence wages—not unlike Bob Cratchet in Charles Dickens’ beloved story “A Christmas Carol”—life was a daily drudgery and Christmas, for many, was just another day of the year, albeit one they had off.