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British Christmas Through the Ages: A Victorian Christmas

15 Oct 2021 by Liz Tod

*Updated 21/11/2022*

In the last blog, we looked at how Christmas was celebrated in medieval times.
Whilst religion was very important, it was treated as a time for rest, relaxation and fun over twelve days.

Now we’re going to leap forward and hear how the Victorians celebrated the festive season and discover how much our present-day Christmases have been influenced by this era.


Christmas was cancelled!

Fun and celebrations at Christmas weren’t always a given in Britain.  

Did you know - Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas in 1644? Christmas Carols were forbidden and so were any festive celebrations. Hard to imagine.

In 1660 Charles 2nd was restored to the throne and Christmas was reinstated but subdued.

However, by the Georgian era (1714-1830) celebrations were revving up and the first Christmas tree was introduced to Britain! 

In 1800 Queen Charlotte, wife of George 3rd, had a tree brought over to court from her native Germany, where they were customary. Talking of trees brings us to our Victorians….


Queen Victoria and Prince Albert – Christmas lovers!

This iconic couple are credited by many with changing the tone of Christmases over here, turning it into our biggest annual celebration.

During Queen Victoria’s reign, many traditions were established in which our Christmases are now rooted.


The Christmas Tree

Queen Charlotte may have brought the first tree to the UK, but it wasn’t until a picture of Queen Victoria and her family was published that the tree became popular and established as a tradition, certainly for the middle classes.  

Like Queen Charlotte, Prince Albert had German roots and was likely to have had fond childhood memories of the decorated tree and so brought one over.

In 1848 the ‘Illustrated London News’ published an engraving of the Royal family beside a decorated table-top tree at Windsor and people were enamoured.

Trees were decorated with beads, tinsel, paper ornaments, wax ornaments formed in the shape of angels and children, slices of dried oranges, apples and cranberries and often lit candles (dangerous of course and eventually replaced by electric tree lights!).


Christmas Crackers

These were invented in 1846 by a London sweet maker called Tom Smith. He just wanted to wrap his sweets in coloured paper, but he got carried away and added mottos, paper hats and toys. Then he added the bang!

Modern-day Christmases wouldn’t feel complete without them.


Christmas Carols

The first collection of carols was published in 1833.  Old words were put to new tunes and their popularity grew throughout Victoria’s reign.


Christmas Cards

The combination of the ‘Penny Post’, introduced in 1840, in which it cost just a penny to send a letter ANYWHERE, with the introduction of Sir Henry Cole’s printed greetings cards helped Christmas cards become popular.

Then in 1870 due to the development of new railways and a new halfpenny postage rate, the sending of Christmas cards became VERY appealing!


Christmas Turkey

When Queen Victoria first came to the throne turkey and chicken were too expensive for most people.

The wealthy would enjoy turkey, beef and maybe a boar’s head. The less wealthy would have beef and goose and the very poor would have rabbit.

Some people would join a ‘goose club’ whereby you could pay in instalments for your festive bird. However, by the beginning of the 20th century turkey was very popular amongst middle-class families.


Toys and gift-giving

The Victorians didn’t introduce gifts, but they did enjoy them, and presents were traditionally exchanged on Christmas Eve.

At the start of Victoria’s reign, toys as gifts were handmade and expensive. But thanks to the development of factories mass production meant cheaper toys – dolls, games, books, clockwork toys for example.

However, these were still unaffordable for poor children and their stockings, around 1870, would contain just an apple, an orange and a few nuts.


Father Christmas

It was during the Victorian period, as Christmases became more child-focused, that Father Christmas became popular as a gift-giver to children and the first evidence of a letter from a child to him dates back to 1895.

He started to appear regularly in magazines of the 1840s as the jolly-faced bearded man that all children now easily recognize and associate with Christmas.


What else during the Victorian period?

There were a few other important developments during this time that changed the way Christmases were, becoming more recognizable as our type now.

  • The wealth generated by new factories and industries in this period allowed middle class families in England and Wales to take time off and celebrate over two days.
  • The new railways enabled people to travel home.
  • The publication of Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’. Published in 1843, this novel is thought by many as having a HUGE influence on British Christmases and helping to spread the traditions of the festival.

    In the book Christmas is a family-centred, child friendly occasion and he popularized the idea of the ‘spirit of Christmas’ in which one is generous towards those in need.


And one final Victorian Christmas fact:

After Dickens used the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ in ‘A Christmas Carol’ it became extremely popular amongst the Victorian public?! 

And still is.


In the next article we’ll be stepping into a Roaring Twenties Christmas!