The Victorian Christmas - a traditional celebration of the festive season
Image credit: Getty Images
The Victorian era, distinguished by the industrial revolution and technological and societal changes it brought forth, did much to transform the way people in the UK lived and worked. It also helped to shape the image of a classic British Christmas, as shown within the annual Christmas Past exhibition at London’s Geffrye Museum of the Home.
Though present across Europe much earlier, the Christmas tree was first popularised in the UK by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in the mid-19th century. It was the royal tree of 1848 which really promoted the tradition, when Illustrated London News published a drawing of the royal family gathered around a fir tree adorned with burning candles.
Christmas trees haven’t changed much since the Victorian times, although, owing to the high-flammability of natural trees, candles have gone out of fashion. Today, flame-retardant artificial trees are gaining popularity, with models available in a range of colours and size to suit all homes. This year’s most unusual designs include a ‘half’ Christmas tree perfect for those with restricted living spaces, available from Wayfair for £45.99.
The first commercial British Christmas cards were commissioned by Henry Cole in 1843 and available to buy for the hefty price of 1 shilling, making them a luxury only the wealthiest could afford. The cards gained popularity in the 1870s as printing methods improved and new railway systems helped bring about the halfpenny postage rate. In 1880 alone, 11.5 million Christmas cards were produced encouraging the post office to advise people to ‘Post Early for Christmas’ – early in this instance meaning the morning of the 24th December.
Today, a box of ten Christmas cards can set you back anything from £2.50 to £10 on average – unless you want one of Henry Cole’s originals, one of which sold for £22,500 back in 2001. Despite the popularity of email, the card market in the UK is still booming. In 2016, approximately one billion Christmas cards, with a market value of £1.75bn, were bought in the UK according to the Greeting Card Association. This year, the post office recommends sending your cards no later than 20th December by 2nd class post to ensure delivery by Christmas.
Invented by British confectioner Tom Smith in 1848, the Christmas cracker started out as an innovative new way of selling sweets inspired by the paper-wrapped bonbons sold in Paris. The earliest crackers were centrally wrapped packages of sweets that snapped when pulled apart. Small hats and toys were added in the late Victorian times and remain on our table today.
Smith’s creations, today equipped with flimsy paper hats and terrible jokes, have become a permanent fixture on festive table settings around the UK – with approximately 300 million crackers pulled each festive season. These days the tiny gifts inside range from corkscrews and paperclips to silk ties and leather wallets. There are price tags to suit all budgets – this year a £1,000 basket of ‘Imperial’ crackers, complete with fabric crowns, is available from Fortnum and Mason.
Victorian mince pies
The mince pies that grace today’s Christmas parties are loosely based on those enjoyed during Tudor times – large, savoury ‘Christmas pies’ made from minced beef, spices and dried fruits. During the 19th century mixes without meat gained popularity among the higher classes, leading to the sweet, festive treat we know and love today.
Modern mince pies
Today, mince pies are available year round, with all main supermarkets stocking the sweet treat in the run up to Christmas. Today, the festive snack isn’t limited just to the higher classes, with a box of 6 standards pies available from most retailers for between £1 and £3 – a good thing, considering that the average festive season in the UK sees the consumption of as many as 10,000 mince pies every minute, according to figures from money-saving website Voucherbox.
For any but the wealthiest in early Victorian society, gifts were a luxury not to be afforded. In the early Victorian era the majority of children’s toys were handmade and expensive, and so often restricted to only the most affluent families. The industrial revolution in the UK changed this with the introduction of mass production for the very first time, paving the way for the first semi-affordable dolls, games and clockwork toys.
This year, the average UK shopper is expected to spend £243.77 on gifts, according to the Centre for Retail Research, and for many people this isn’t limited to just buying gifts for children or their nearest and dearest. Today, it is not considered unusual, especially in the realms of secret Santa, to buy gifts for people you dislike or don’t even know - which ultimately leads to unwanted, useless gifts. A recent survey from Giftwink suggested that up to 84 per cent of people have received a gift at Christmas they don’t want - and only 9 per cent are willing to admit it.