Many people know the feeling of sitting by a warm fire (or furnace) sipping on cocoa while watching “The Christmas Carol” while the parents fight over how many strands of lights to wrap around the lop-sided Christmas tree you purchased sometime after Thanksgiving. If not…than I’m sorry, but you came to the right place to find out what made that experience possible to start with! That’s right! This is a special post, one filled with the history of holiday traditions…Victorian style. All those crazy things people do on Christmas happened for a reason. They might be crazy and a little awkward, but without them we would not have the tree, the cards, the songs…not really a lot to be honest and with Victorians being…well, Victorians, this should be quite insightful.
The most resplendent tree that is decorated and cherished for almost a full month was popularized by Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert. The tree is essentially a German tradition (called Christbaum) and was first introduced by King George I (a king of England who barely spoke English). When it was Victoria’s turn, however, she and Prince Albert made it the focal point of Windsor Castle for the Christmas season. What made the Victorian Christmas tree so special was its elaborate decoration. But I think Charles Dickens said it best.
“A Christmas Tree”
I have been looking at a merry company of children assembled round that pretty German toy, a Christmas Tree. The tree was planted in the middle of a great round table, and towered high above their heads. It was brilliantly lighted by a multitude of little tapers; and everywhere sparkled and glittered with bright objects. There were rosy-cheeked dolls, hiding behind the green leaves; and…sugar-plums; there were trinkets for the elder girls, far brighter than any grown-up gold and jewels…there were teetotums, humming tops, needle-cases, pen-wipers…real fruit, made artificially dazzling with gold leaf; imitation apples, pears, and walnuts, crammed with surprises; in short, as a pretty child, before me, delightedly whisped to another pretty child, her bosom friend, “There was everything and more.”
I have come to realize that as long as someone enjoys it, anything can be a gift. For a Victorian, there was a slight segregation in gift giving. Some things you were expected to give to a woman, a man, your brother, neighbor…it was all different. And always make sure that the gifts you give are acceptable such as giving your mother a tea strainer instead of what people give their mothers today; a gift card to a adult entertainment store…which is wrong in itself. Think of the Nutcracker story where the girl got a doll and the boy got toy soldiers. As you got older, your gifts became more practical and useful in your everyday life. Stationary, cigar humidor, sewing basket with accessories, umbrella, cane. Everything a Victorian would need really. Harper’s Bizarre had something else to say.
CHRISTMAS PRESENTS FOR GENTLEMENGentlemen do not care for the pretty trifles and decorations that delight ladies; and as for real necessities, they are apt to go and buy anything that is a convenience just as soon as it is discovered. Knickknacks, articles of china, ect,. are generally useless to them.
A Lady cannot give a gentleman a gift of great value because he would certainly feel bound to return one still more valuable and thus her gift would lose all its grace and retain only a selfish commercial aspect.
What, then, shall she give? Here is the woman’s advantage. She has her hands, while men must transact all their present giving in hard cash. She can hem fine handkerchiefs-and in order to give them intrinsic value, if their relationship warrants such a favor, she can embroider the name or monogram with her own hair. If the hair is dark it has a very pretty, graceful effect, and the design may be shaded by mingling the different hair of the family. We knew a gentlemen who for years lost every handkerchief he took to the office; at length his wife marked them with her own hair, and he never lost another. Such gifts are made precious by love, time and talent.
The bare fact of rarity can raise an object commercially valueless, to an aesthetic level. Souvenirs from famous places or of famous people, a bouquet of wild thyme from Mount Hymettus, an ancient Jewish shekel or Roman coin, etc. All such things are very suitable as presents to gentlemen and will be far more valued than pins, studs, ect., which only represent a certain number of dollars and cents. Do not give a person who is socially your equal a richer present than he is able to give you. He will be more mortified than pleased. But between equals it is often an elegance to disregard cost and depend on rarity, because gold cannot always purchase it. Still between very rich people presents should also be very rich or else their riches are set above their friendship and generosity.
That’s right! There’s Victorian logic going again.
Simple: Use as much garland and foliage as you can grift from the side of the road or local forestry. Then drape the best room of your house with said foliage. Most Victorians were not wealthy but that did not stifle their love for decorating. The Victorians used mistletoe suspended from the ceiling. Those who met under it could claim a kiss. The number of kisses allowed under each plant depended on the number of berries. Each time a kiss was given, a berry was taken off. No more berries, no more kisses!
The custom of sending holiday greeting soon caught on tremendously in the nineteenth century since people had become more mobile. Victoria herself sent thousands of cards at Christmas. It was all started because it was easier to make one good wishing card for many than to write up hundreds of letters. The Arts and Crafts movement also improved the cards by introducing lithographs. Most cards sported fancy silk fringe, lace, satin, sachets, tinsel, feathers, fold-outs, pop-outs, and pull tabs for animation. Novelty cards were a big hit in Victorian times, especially those that played a trick or worked mechanically…Steampunk, yes? That is what needs to be brought back!
Since Santa is something different for everyone, I am going to use this description. Santa is a mixture of many different figures from many different cultures. The Dutch is St. Nick, England’s is Father Christmas, and the German have Kris Kringle. In ancient times Norse and German people told stories of The Yule Elf who brought gifts during Solstice to those who left offerings of porridge. When Clemment Moore’s poem “The Night Before Christmas” became enormously popular, the “Jolly old elf” was adopted as the ideal Santa. Years later Thomas Nast illustrated him as a round bellied whiskered figure in tight red leggings and coat. Coca-Cola’s popular advertising changed the concept of Santa to a cheerful full bearded man with the now popular red suit, black boots and wide belt. And there’s Santa that we all know and love today!
Though there is quite a bit more, I doubt I could fit all of it in this blog. But make sure to check in soon since my next article will give out some great Steampunk holiday ideas.