HOME Master Article Index/Index by County Links Contact Us
Ancient Britain Castles Churches/Cathedrals Houses/Manors Museums Towns Countryside London History & Folklore Travel Tips

Test daily news

Visit the Stone Pages


A Victorian Christmas

by Pearl Harris

Charles DickensOn December 18, 1988, Britain's Sunday Telegraph proclaimed Charles Dickens as "the man who invented Christmas." And it is surely true that no other writer has left the world with a clearer picture of Christmas in Victorian England than Dickens.

Dickens might not have invented Christmas, but he is credited with the great revival of Christmas traditions in the Victorian era, which have continued in one form or the other to the present day in all English-speaking countries around the globe.

Dickens was born in 1812 in Portsmouth, and his childhood was far from easy, coming as he did from a large family with rather unconventional parents. From his mother, Elizabeth, he inherited a keen sense of the ridiculous. The disastrous financial affairs of John, his father, resulted in the young Charles being put to work at the age of 12 and the entire family, except for Charles and one sister, being incarcerated in a Debtors Prison. For someone whose formal education ended at such a tender age, the eternal magic and genius of his prose seem nothing short of the miraculous.

Out of his five Christmas Books, A Christmas Carol (published on 17 December, 1843) is surely one of his best-loved works. The uplifting tale of the heartless miser Ebenezer Scrooge and his reform at Christmas time have been immortalized in countless film and theatrical productions.

Just as A Christmas Carol profoundly influenced Victorian readers, its simple message of love, goodness and charity continues to touch modern readers in the same way. However, A Christmas Carol is not only an uplifting moral tale, but one of great historical importance due to Dickens' brilliant, witty and detailed description of a Victorian Christmas.

From its pages we are able to soak in the atmosphere of a cold, frosty Christmas Eve. Workers scurry home with the eager anticipation of a rare day off work. Shopkeepers close up their shutters. Fires are lit in hearths throughout the country. Families, both poor and wealthy, gather around the Christmas tree ("That pretty German toy", as it is referred to by Dickens).

Christmas TreeThe Christmas Tree tradition began in the Victorian era, with the custom of a lighted evergreen (Tannenbaum) originating in Germany. German-born Prince Albert, Consort of Queen Victoria, brought the idea to England and by the mid-19th century, Christmas Trees at Windsor Castle were decorated with wax candles and laden with presents. As citizens copying the Royal tradition spread this custom, the Christmas Tree soon became a popular English tradition.

It was (and still is) considered bad luck to remove the Christmas Tree and other Christmas decorations before Twelfth Night (6th January). Superstition stated that it was also bad luck to put up a Christmas Tree before Christmas Eve, although other Christmas decorations might appear some time before Christmas.

The mistletoe, holly and ivy were considered magical plants because of their winter berries. Mistletoe, with its pagan origin, was not allowed inside churches. The English custom of kissing under the mistletoe had the restriction that there could only be as many kisses as berries. Every time a couple kissed beneath the mistletoe, a berry was to be removed from the sprig.

Holly was used as a decoration and also to decorate the Christmas Pudding. The red "male" berry was meant to protect the household from witchcraft and could only be brought into the home by a male. The "female" ivy, with its leaves that remained green throughout the winter, was a symbol of immortality.

Some time before Christmas, Christmas cards were mailed. The first Christmas card was designed in 1846 by J. Calcott Horsley for Sir Henry Cole, Chairman of the Society of the Arts. In that first year, a mere 1000 cards were printed. By 1870, with postage reduced to one penny per ounce and cheaper color lithography having been introduced, the popularity of sending friends and family members Christmas cards rapidly increased. The most common designs of Victorian Christmas cards were plum puddings and church bells.

Plum PuddingPrince Albert imported many other German Christmas traditions besides the tree. As he was particularly partial to rich pudding, the flamed Christmas Pudding was given Royal pride of place at Christmas, beside German cookie-cutter cookies and gingerbread.

Dickens describes the streets of London with its shops gaily decorated with sprigs of Holly and Christmas Day as being the one day off work in the year. On Christmas Eve, Scrooge grumbles to his clerk as he reluctantly gives him the following day off: "A poor excuse for picking a man's pocket every twenty-fifth of December! But I suppose you must have the whole day. Be here all the earlier next morning".

The Victorian custom of carol-singing on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day is also given life by Dickens thus: Scrooge was too miserly to open his door to any carolers, so one young caroler "stooped down by Scrooge's keyhole to regale him with a Christmas Carol.." and was given short shrift! Carols were also sung at home, with some families going from door to door singing. The wassailers were usually the poor, who offered others a drink from their wooden bowls and expected donations of food, drink or money in return.

We soak in the wintry atmosphere of Christmas Eve as Dickens writes of the bitter cold, frost and fog in the streets of London in contrast to the cozy fires burning in the hearths of most homes as families gather together to celebrate Christmas.

BallIn many Victorian firms, it was customary for employers to entertain employees and apprentices on Christmas Eve. Dickens vividly describes one such "Domestic Ball" in a warehouse: "lamps were trimmed, fuel was heaped upon the fire; and the warehouse was as snug, and warm, and dry, and bright a ball-room as you would desire to see upon a winter's night." The employees are entertained by a fiddler, they dance, eat cake, cold roast and mince pies and drink beer and negus" (hot, spicy mulled wine).

In addition to negus, common drinks at Christmas were various kinds of Gin Punch, including Purl (heated beer, flavored with gin, sugar and ginger) and Bishop (a Punch made with heated red wine, flavored with oranges, sugar and spices).

The Victorian Christmas was a merry, joyous, family celebration with "the brightness of the roaring fires in kitchens, parlors, and all sorts of rooms". Again, in Dickens's unique prose: "Here, the flickering of the blaze showed preparations for a cozy dinner, with hot plates baking through and through before the fire, and deep, red curtains, ready to be drawn to shut out cold and darkness. There, all the children of the house were running out into the snow to meet their married sisters, brothers, cousins, uncles, aunts, and be the first to greet them."

Christmas Day was celebrated with Mass, heralded by the peal of Church bells. "But soon the steeples called good people all to church and chapel, and away they came, flocking through the streets in their best clothes, and with their gayest faces". The traditional Christmas Church service consisted of carol-singing and scripture readings.

Spirit of Christmas PresentChristmas Dinner was a sumptuous occasion. Turkey was not traditionally served in England until the late 19th century. Instead goose, chicken or roast beef took pride of place on the Christmas table, followed by Christmas Pudding made from beef, raisins and prunes.

Mince Pies -- made with mincemeat and spices -- were also traditional Christmas fare and were eaten for the 12 days of Christmas, ensuring good luck for the next 12 months of the year. According to custom, each of the twelve mince pies had to be baked by someone different.

Even in humbler households, Christmas Dinner was a very special occasion, with a goose, apple sauce and mashed potatoes followed by Christmas Pudding being enjoyed by the poor Cratchit family. It was common for the poor family without proper cooking facilities to carry their Christmas dinners to the baker's shops to be cooked at Christmas. Dickens mentions this custom: "And at the same time there emerged, from scores of by-streets, lanes, and nameless turnings, innumerable people carrying their dinners to the bakers' shops".

The Sunday before Advent, known as Stir-up Sunday, was the day to mix the Christmas Pudding so that it could be well matured by Christmas Day. Each family member had to take it in turns to stir the Pudding with a wooden spoon (to honor the wooden crib of the Christ Child). Stirring was to be done clockwise to ensure good luck! As Mrs. Cratchit proudly carries in the Christmas Pudding, the importance of this once-a-year treat is highlighted by Dickens:

"A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastry cook's next door to each other, with a laundress's next door to that! That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered -- flushed, but smiling proudly -- with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top. O, a wonderful pudding!"

After Christmas dinner, the poor Cratchit family settles down around their hearth, enjoying together some fruit, hot negus and chestnuts roasted on the fire. In more prosperous families, Christmas dinner usually ended with gift-giving and pulling of Christmas Crackers (an invention in 1847 by the Londoner Tom Smith). The day would be rounded off with music, carol-singing and parlor games such as Forfeits and Blind Man's Buff.

At Christmas, it would be most appropriate for us all to heed the immortal wisdom of Charles Dickens as penned in the 1850 Christmas issue of Household Words:

"And I do come home at Christmas. We all do, or we all should. We all come home, or ought to come home, for a short holiday -- the longer, the better -- from the great boarding-school, where we are for ever working at our arithmetical slates, to take, and give a rest. As to going a visiting, where can we not go, if we will, where have we not been, when we would, starting our fancy from our Christmas Tree!"

More Information:

The Dickens Fellowship
48 Doughty St, London, WC1N 2LX

The Dickens Page

Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol
Online facsimile of the original published edition.

Charles Dickens Gad's Hill Place
Very definitely the "everything Dickens" site, including information about the life of Dickens, "the web's largest collection of Dickens quotes," quizzes, book information, and lots more.

Queen Victoria's Christmas http://www.royalinsight.gov.uk/output/Page2821.asp

Victorian Christmas Traditions

Pearl Harris, whose ancestors hail from Britain, was born in South Africa, where she lived for most of her life until emigrating to the Czech Republic in 2002 with her husband, their dog and cat. She is now a teacher of English as a second language and freelance travel writer. Pearl has travelled extensively in Africa, Europe, the USA and Britain. Recently she undertook a car journey through England and Northern Ireland, visiting major sites of historical interest. Her main interests are travel, photography, reading and writing. Besides a qualification as a Diagnostic Radiographer, Pearl has a B.A. in English and Linguistics and post-graduate Diploma in Translation.
Article © 2005 Pearl Harris
Plum Pudding photo courtesy of BritainOnView.com


 Site Copyright © 2017 Moira Allen. All rights reserved.
For information on reprinting articles or photos on this site, please contact Moira Allen, Editor