Scrooge and Albert

Christine Lalumia sees the 1840s as the key moment in the creation of the modern celebration of Christmas.

The first commercial Christmas card, produced by Henry Cole and John Horsley in 1843Today it is somewhat of a cliché to say that Christmas as we know it in Britain was either invented or largely created by the Victorians. In fact, historians never seem to tire of debating the role of the Victorians in forming our modern concept of the Christmas celebration. Was it invention or re-invention? Was it an act of myth-making or simply a case of repackaging older traditions in a form that suited their modern age and appealed to the general mood?

There is ample evidence, as well as many good scholarly arguments and critical studies, to convince us that the latter is probably closer to the truth. Christmas, as we know it today, is essentially a nineteenth-century mixture of all that was best and most popular from English Christmases past, continually tempered by new sensibilities, ideas and prevailing concerns. What is surprising is that much of this repackaging and revivification was vigorously undertaken early in Victoria’s reign, during the 1840s – in the first full decade of her  monarchy and her marriage. Why was this period historically significant in the story of Christmas? And what were the foundations upon which this ‘new’ Christmas was constructed?

The answer lies, in part, in the reaction to the social changes that  threatened the middle classes. Increasing urbanisation in England  had brought about high concentrations of poverty, overcrowding, insanitary conditions and disease. The middle classes were perhaps more vulnerable to the threats posed by urbanisation and the poor owing to proximity in the city and the insecurity arising from often similar social backgrounds, than the upper classes who were at some remove. To protect themselves, the early Victorian middle classes built a world of strict moral codes and strong religious beliefs, with an emphasis on hard work and achievement. This was underpinned by the idea of the family as the most acceptable social unit and so the type of Christmas the Victorians fashioned reinforced all their social and moral beliefs. The middle classes almost used it as an exercise in social engineering, to encourage others to be equally moral and upright, even though they might be less fortunate. Christmas also provided a cultural anchor, a life raft of familiarity in changing times.

Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Christ was integrated with an already established festival over which the Church itself had remarkably little influence. As a cultural festival, its influences were many and although in the 1840s the Christian faith was an important part of the season, Christmas, then as now, seems to have been a festival of family and kinship in which charity toward others was perhaps the strongest element.

There was undoubtedly a growing interest in the history and traditions of Christmas during this period. This can be seen as part of a larger trend of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries to examine and understand English history in a new way. The nation’s history became of interest not just to antiquarians but to a wider public. The preceding centuries were useful not only as a mirror in which those in the nineteenth century could see and understand themselves but also provided a fertile picking ground for historical role models. A ‘magpie’ approach was employed as selected elements of Christmas across the ages were considered suitable for adaptation. The Christmas-makers of the early-nineteenth century were attempting to create a festival – to reflect a society – that was better, morally and socially, than the immediate past. For this reason they were highly selective about which ‘past’ suited their purpose, and the result was an eclectic mix of the traditional and modern.

In this constructed idea of festivity, the immediate past seemed not to appeal. A common perception was that the Regency period had lacked substance, was cold-hearted and characterised by unbalanced excess and overspending. Christmas during this period was viewed as having become a soulless shadow of what it had once been. Something more robust, both morally and in terms of sheer celebration, was required. The medieval and, in particular, the Elizabethan periods provided the most suitable models. ‘Olde Christmas’ was perceived as a vigorous, heartfelt festival, which struck the right balance between hedonistic pleasures and an awareness of communal relationships and responsibilities. The celebrations of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were considered to have been both morally sound and exceedingly jolly. As the Scottish poet and editor Thomas K. Hervey observed in The Book of Christmas in 1836:

If the old festivals and commemorations in which our land was once so abundant – and which obtained for her, many a long day since, the name of ‘merrie England’ – had no other recommendation than their convivial character, the community of enjoyment which they imply, they would on that account be worthy of all promotion, as an antidote to the cold and selfish spirit which is tainting the life-blood and freezing the pulses of society.

‘Merrie England’ and ‘Olde Christmas’ provided most of the raw materials with which to revive and re-shape Christmas into something both spectacular and appropriate for this new age. Traditions like burning  the yule log and the emphasis on bringing light to the darkest days of the year, feasting and decorating the home with evergreens were sixteenth-century customs embraced, and in some cases enhanced, by the Victorians. Most of these ancient customs were still familiar and popular across all bands of society and were therefore strong enough to stand some modernisation.

Carol-singing was a popular medieval custom that was thought to be in decline at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The middle classes in particular worried that the songs themselves would be forgotten and lost forever. To counter this, antiquarians in the 1820s and 1830s began to compile collections of traditional carols. At the same time, inexpensive printed carol sheets and books, such as The Star of Bethlehem: a selection of excellent carols (1825) and The Evergreen: Carols for the Christmas Holidays (1830) became widely available. Medieval songs and even some from the eighteenth century, such as ‘O Come, all ye faithful’ and ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’, were revived. New carols, such as ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, written by Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander in 1845, were also added to the repertoire. 

Concern that Christmas had  become an anaemic version of its former self and that some of the more vibrant traditions of the past were on the verge of disappearing altogether was noted by several writers in the 1820s and 1830s. Thomas Hervey worried that society would suffer if ‘right joyous festivals’ such as Christmas were lost:

The natural tendency of the time to obliterate ancient customs and silence ancient sports, is too much promoted by the utilitarian spirit of the day … It is, alas! but too true that the spirit of hearty festivity in which our ancestors met this season has been long on the decline; and much of the joyous pomp with which it was once received has long since passed away.

Hervey quoted Washington Irving who, in the 1820s, also worried about the diminution of the festival. William Hone expressed a similar view in The Every Day Book of 1826-27, where he noted that Christmas was no longer ‘kept with anything like the vigour, perseverance and elegance of our ancestors’. All these writers expressed the fear that an interest in the ‘merriest month of the year’ might be lost.

Although the first three Hanoverian courts certainly celebrated Christmas at home, following the seasonal  customs familiar to them from Germany, it seems to have been a fairly private affair, and not something about which the general populace were aware of or could copy. In addition, during the second half of the eighteenth century, London’s social elite tended to view Christmas as a rather down-market festival and reduced their celebrations to nothing more than elegant dinner parties. So in general and particularly in London, Christmas may have gone through a rather lacklustre phase. However, the fears that the celebration of Christmas would disappear altogether seem somewhat exaggerated. Other contemporary accounts from the early nineteenth century suggest Christmas was far too strongly embedded within the national psyche and English culture to be seriously endangered. Instead, it is more likely that it was at a turning point, ripe for re-evaluation.

As the 1840s began, Christmas, like many other social customs which bonded society, needed new advocates. Two of the most powerful of these were the new monarch Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, whose influence on the celebration should not be underestimated. Although they created far less then they are often credited with, their simple support and embracing of Christmas was influential and gave the celebration a tremendous boost. Their personal delight and interest in Christmas became apparent soon after their marriage in 1840. That, combined with their emphasis on a happy domestic life and pleasure in the raising of their many children, seems to have inclined them to view Christmas as a particularly special annual event. It provided a respite from the daily grind of official life and they seem to have enjoyed hugely those times when domestic celebrations and rituals took centre stage. On December 26th, 1841, a member of Victoria’s household observed that ‘Christmas has brought the usual routine of festivity…’. Victoria herself described Christmases spent with Albert and her growing family as ‘a most dear happy time’.

Details of the royal family’s Christmases at Windsor Castle in the 1840s were spread widely by newspapers, periodicals and word of mouth. Victoria and Albert were popular and their activities set styles among much of the population, particularly among the growing middle classes. With a revised template and the royal stamp of approval, Christmas  was once again fashionable. The royal couple’s focus on their children at Christmas was a very important model, as Christmas until this time had largely been an adult festival. From the 1840s onwards, children gradually became more central to the celebrations. The popular view today that Christmas is ‘really for children’ would, however, have surprised the Victorians as it was still seen as a festival equally for adults.

It is a common misconception that Albert brought the Germanic custom of the Christmas tree to England. It was, in fact, an eighteenth-century, or earlier, introduction. Charlotte, wife of George III and herself German, was known in the 1780s and 1790s to have decorated and lit a fir tree in the house. Victoria herself described ‘two large round tables on which were placed trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments’ when she was fourteen years old in 1833. However, it was undoubtedly Victoria and Albert’s joint enthusiasm for these trees and their presence every year at Windsor that popularised this custom. Each year from 1841 the royal family decorated trees under which they would place gifts for one another. In fact,  in 1847 Albert decorated the trees for the children himself. But it was the tree of 1848 which was to have the greatest impact on the celebration of Christmas. In that year, the Illustrated London News printed a picture of the royal family, showing five children round the tree with their parents and grandmother. This image was widely published in periodicals at home and abroad. The Times of December 27th, 1848, described it thus:

The tree employed … is a young fir, about eight feet high, and has six tiers of branches. On each branch are arranged a dozen wax tapers. Pendant from the branches are elegant trays, baskets, and bonbonniers, and other placements for sweetmeats of the most varied kind, and all forms, colours, and degrees of beauty.

The royal couple also gave trees to schools and army barracks, and the fashion spread. From the late 1840s, a German springelbaum became a must for homes throughout the land. Gradually, through various media, word spread from the royal household that Christmas was indeed a ‘right joyous festival’, suitable for the time.

The other important, well-known advocate of Christmas in the 1840s was, of course, Charles Dickens, although he was not, as some have said, the creator of the modern festival. Dickens' genius, rather, lay in being able vividly to express, through an examination of Christmas, contemporary social concerns. His vision immediately captured the hearts and minds of the nation. A Christmas Carol, and his other Christmas writings, show Dickens’ genuine delight in the joys of the season. But this was tempered by a concern for the welfare of the less fortunate, a subject that had coloured debate about the health of society for several years.

In 1843, the year A Christmas Carol was first published, a piece in Punch asked,

What have you done, this ‘merry Christmas’, for the happiness of those about, below you? Nothing? Do you dare, with those sirloin cheeks and that port-wine nose, to answer – Nothing?

As early as 1836 Thomas Hervey said

Above all, we love those seasons … which call for the exercise of a general hospitality, and give the poor man his few and precious glimpses of a plenty which, as the world is managed, his toil cannot buy; which shelter the homeless wanderer, and feed the starving child, and clothe the naked mother, and spread a festival for all …

How easily this could be mistaken for a passage from Dickens! As Scrooge’s nephew (perhaps the voice of Dickens himself?) says, Christmas was a ‘good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time’. Clearly the idea of being a truly inclusive charitable society, even if only for twelve days of the year, seemed to appeal in equal measure in the 1840s both to those giving and receiving. A Christmas Carol vividly reflected a prevailing mood and marked a change in perception from Christmas as a celebration of general festivities and conviviality toward one more specifically preoccupied with family and goodwill toward others. The story was an immediate success, touching the conscience of the middle classes and must have influenced behaviour.

The highlight of Christmas Day for many, then as now, was a big meal, often shared with extended family and friends. Preparations were extensive and as much money and time as was available would be spent on making a memorable feast.  In the early-nineteenth century the traditional Christmas dinner was similar to that found on tables throughout Britain today. The centre-piece of the main course was beef in the north of England and goose in the south. Turkey had been bred in England since the sixteenth century but had not yet become a widely popular dish, though it was a prize turkey that Scrooge sent to the Cratchits on Christmas Day, suggesting they were fairly easily available but expensive. The meat was accompanied by a variety of vegetables and sauces. Other courses included mince pies and Christmas cake (a descendant of the ancient Twelfth-Night cakes traditionally served at Epiphany) and plum pudding. The latter, a peculiarly English creation, had been around for centuries and by the early Victorian period had become a symbol of seasonal hospitality. This ‘speckled cannonball’ was to be found in houses of all classes across the land. According to Hervey, writing in 1836:

Plum pudding is a truly national dish, and refuses to flourish out of England. It can obtain no footing in France.

The food historian Maggie Black has  called it a ‘democratic dish’, a ‘unifying dish’ that was economical with fuel and inexpensive in ingredients but created a wonderful and, to most, a delicious result. An image of Mrs Cratchit boiling the plum pudding over the family fire vividly comes to mind. All this would be washed down with wines and warming drinks.

Consumption and spending were already a well-established part of Christmas in the early nineteenth century. William Hone observed in 1827 that ‘the charms of Christmas give temporary bustle to most classes of tradesmen’. David W. Bartlett, a visitor to London from the United States in 1847-48, was impressed by the array of foodstuffs available in London:

Perhaps a week before Christmas, we noticed that all the markets began to increase in the quantity and quality of their stores, and in front of them all, green branches of holly were hung as emblems of the coming holiday. The game shops were full of pheasants, rabbits, and venison; the confectioners exhibited a richer than usual assortment of saccharine toys; at the bookshops, Christmas presents began to appear, consisting of every variety of beautiful books. As the day approached, all these shops, in fact all the shops of whatever kind, increased in the splendour and quantity of their wares; the very countenances of the people in the streets were brighter than usual…

When finally Christmas Day arrived, he was not disappointed:

And when at last we all gathered around that groaning table… it indeed seemed that Christmas in England was a happy festival.

Shopping for food was as important in the 1840s as it is now, and although shopping for presents was slightly more restrained, it was also an important part of the season. The same American visitor observed that ‘the streets on Christmas Eve were one continuous blaze of show and ornament’. Victoria and Albert seem mainly to have given improving gifts such as books and paintings, although Victoria gave Albert a small pin for Christmas the year before their marriage, saying ‘I hope you will sometimes wear it’. Picture frames, perfume bottles, small pieces of jewellery, binoculars for the theatre and albums were also widely popular. And gifts made and bought especially for children became more common.

Two enduring Christmas traditions were conceived in the 1840s, though both took some time to filter into the mainstream. The first was the commercial Christmas card which, unlike the Christmas tree, was an English idea. It was common practice in the early nineteenth century to write seasonal messages on calling cards or in personal letters. The Queen herself sent correspondence to Lord Melbourne in 1841 ‘upon paper adorned with many quaint and humorous Christmas devices’. In response, Melbourne ‘begs to offer… most sincerely and most fervently, the good wishes of the Season’. However, it was Sir Henry Cole who took the idea of sending seasonal greetings a step further with his conception in 1843 of the first commercial Christmas card. Cole and his friend John Horsley devised and printed a small batch of cards, intended to save Cole from handwriting dozens of business and personal messages at Christmas. Within two decades the sending of printed seasonal messages had become an indispensable way of spreading yuletide cheer and maintaining social and familial contacts.

Tom Smith of London was responsible for the other important Christmas invention of the 1840s, the Christmas cracker. First conceived in 1847, this party item was loosely modelled in appearance on a French bon-bon, but with the essential added excitement of the ‘pop’ or ‘crack’. It took Smith until 1860 to perfect the cracker with the addition of the saltpetre strip needed to make the distinctive bang, but once he had achieved this, his crackers became an instant success. By the 1906 one London shop alone could offer up to sixty-five types.

The Illustrated London News during the second half of the 1840s shows how closely our modern interests and preoccupations mirror those of the early Victorians. The edition for the week ending December 26th, 1846, gave pride of place on the front page to an article entitled ‘Christmas in two centuries’. There were also short pieces on Christmas presents, Christmas in Germany, the legend of the Christmas tree and Christmas morning. For the week ending December 25th, 1847, there were short features on the traditional game of snap dragon, the Christmas party, the children’s Christmas party and the carol. In the Christmas Supplement of 1849 there were a number of familiar topics: Christmas in town and country, plant profiles on choice evergreens such as mistletoe, holly and ivy, Christmas presents, old Christmas customs, Christmas charities, the Christmas pudding, and the meeting of families at Christmas.

By the end of the 1840s, the celebration had all the central ingredients of what we today consider to be a traditional Christmas: strong family feeling, sentimentality, charity and goodwill toward others, consumption and expenditure, fun and games, feasting and drinking. The Victorians certainly did not invent Christmas; they simply picked up a work in progress, begun by previous generations, and finished it with great flair. They mixed old traditions and new sensibilities to create a celebration that had broad appeal, was largely inclusive and was marked by an emphasis on goodwill. This suited a vision of themselves as good citizens in an ideal society. In a cultural sense, Christmas was the perfect festival on which to build cohesion and a sense of order and security in a rapidly changing society. The seeds for this notion of Christmas were sown before Victoria came to the throne, but they germinated and began to flourish during her first full decade as monarch, forming the core elements of the celebration as we know it today.

Christine Lalumia is the Deputy Director of the Geffrye Museum, London, which mounts an annual exhibition ‘Christmas Past – Seasonal Traditions in English Homes’ each December.