What was Christmas like in the Victorian era?
We have the Victorians to thank for many of our favourite Christmas traditions – as well as a popular ghost story…
The Victorians may not have invented Christmas, but they certainly introduced and revived many of the traditional elements we celebrate during the festive season today. Before the Victorian period, Christmas celebrations were muted affairs, with many of the working classes limited to just one day off. When Queen Victoria married Albert, however, the family became the heart of the Christmas period again, and the royals led by example.
Many traditions celebrated in Germany were popularised by Prince Albert, including the Christmas tree. After The Illustrated London News published an image of the royal family making merry around a tree, everyone wanted one, and so the tradition was born. Gift-giving had traditionally been observed at New Year but, as the importance of Christmas increased, gifts began to be given on Christmas Day, with shop-bought presents starting to replace homemade gifts.
What is the history of Christmas trees?
Astonishing as it may seem given the highly flammable nature of resin-rich Christmas trees, before electricity they were illuminated with candles. Great care was, of course, needed to stop the candle setting fire to the tree, particularly as the tree dried out over the festive season. It was for this reason that branches above the candle had to be carefully trimmed back. The candles were usually mounted on holders that had a dish of thin foil to catch any hot wax before it dripped and caused problems.
It is widely thought that the Protestant reformer Martin Luther was the first to add a lit candle to a Christmas tree in around 1525. The candle was lit on Christmas Day itself to symbolise Christ's arrival as the Light of the World; a phrase used by Christ to describe himself in the Gospel of St Matthew.
- Read more | Welsh Christmas traditions through history
Candles were expensive objects at the time, so the candle on a tree remained the preserve of wealthier German Protestants for many years. It was not until the mid-19th century that cheaper candles and greater wealth combined to make a candle on the tree a standard part of the festive season for middle class families. By the 1860s it was usual to have more than one candle, with some trees having a dozen or more lit on Christmas Day.
The first use of electric lights instead of candles came in 1882 as part of a marketing publicity stunt by the Edison Electric Light Company in New York. The cost of electric light bulbs meant that these fairy lights did not become popular until the 1930s when prices came down. In the 21st century LEDs have replaced light bulbs on Christmas trees.
What other Christmas traditions changed in the Victorian era?
As the focus of Christmas began to shift to family and children, the role played by Father Christmas also changed. The jolly fellow had previously been associated with adult celebrations, but now he became the bringer of gifts and added a magical element to the holiday. The singing of Christmas carols was also revived and the custom of kissing under the mistletoe – which possibly had pagan roots – became an acceptable way of stealing a Christmas kiss.
- Read more | How to host a medieval Christmas
Meanwhile, the reform of the postal system and introduction of the Penny Black stamp in 1840 – making it easier to keep in touch with friends and relations – helped launch the tradition of the Christmas card, the first of which appeared in 1843.
More like this
Roast turkey remains the customary fare for Christmas lunch and we can thank the Victorians for this, too. In the early 19th century, turkeys would have been too expensive for the majority of households to afford. But the development of the railway made them more accessible and affordable, and soon they had become the star attraction at Christmas dinner tables. The inclusion of a roast turkey at the end of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, also helped cement this meaty tradition.
How did Charles Dickens save Christmas?
When we think about the Victorian Christmas, often it's the fictional scenes from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol that spring to mind. Published in 1843, this spooky ghost story was written after Dickens had toured northern England and seen the plight of many of Britain's poor. It became one of his best-known works, and had the unexpected side-effect of reinvigorating the festive season and creating a sense of nostalgia for the celebrations of years gone by. It was so popular that its first edition sold out within a few days.
Read more of our articles about the history of Christmas traditions
Emma Slattery Williams was <BBC History Revealed’s staff writer until August 2022, covering all areas of history – from Egyptian pharaohs and pirate queens to Queen Victoria and Marilyn Monroe. She also compiled HistoryExtra’s Victorian newsletter and interviewed historians on the HistoryExtra podcast.. She studied both History and English at Swansea University.
Subscribe to BBC History Magazine and receive a signed copy of 2023 edition Windrush: 75 years of modern Britain by Mike Phillips and Trevor Philips
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99