Step into Christmas…past!

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Every year we take out the decorations, buy mountains of chocolate selection boxes and enjoy the guilty pleasure of singing soulfully to Mariah Carey’s ‘All I want for Christmas’. But the concept of our ‘modern’ Christmas in fact has its foundations in the Nineteenth Century.

Firstly let’s look at the most important aspect: Christmas food. We devour the turkey, light the brandy-soaked Christmas pudding and crack roasted chestnuts: but why? During Victoria’s reign, turkey gradually replaced the traditional goose as its larger size could feed the whole family over the holidays. The period also saw the transition of the ‘Christmas pudding’ from a basic plum cake to incorporate fruit, sugar and spices, topped with holly. Its long-term keeping properties made it popular amongst society’s poor; while roasted chestnuts became a fashionable, easily-prepared and cheaply-sold winter-warmer for the country’s shoppers. It’s clear that our Christmas foods stemmed from Victorian Britain’s preference for efficient, long-lasting and economically viable products – properties that remain relevant, especially in today’s economic climate.

Royal Family around Christmas Tree, in Illustrated London News, 1848.

This is also the case for our modern family rituals. Cynics might blame commercialism for decorating your house with thousands of bulbs and sending Christmas cards to people you regularly see anyway, but again we have Victorian Britain to thank. Prince Albert brought the practise of having an indoor, evergreen ‘christmas tree’ from Germany and its decoration was popularised through the publication of an image of the Royal Family surrounding their tree in the Illustrated London News in 1848 (pictured).The media and public’s obsession with the Royals led to the widespread invitation of their style (a type of ‘royal-fever’ seen at the recent Royal Wedding!).

As Facebook events and e-cards were blatantly unavailable at the time, but the Victorians had their own exciting new technologies as the ‘Penny Post’ was first introduced in 1840. The new-found cheapness of sending cards and letters to people all over the country was a communication revolution with effects comparable to Facebook and IM today. New mass production techniques in the factories of the industrial revolution allowed more cheap toys to be manufactured, creating a new market for children who had ‘been good that year’. Santa Claus as we know him today was popularised in the 1870s, while Christmas crackers originated from a London sweet-maker’s idea to twist his sweets in glittery, coloured paper in 1846. It’s amazing to think that these token Christmas favourites did not exist before Victoria’s reign. Even Justin Beiber’s attempt at the Christmas Number One record has the era to thank, when many popular yuletide carols were written: Away in a Manger (1883) for example.

To sum up, we have a lot to thank the Victorians for when it comes to our modern celebration of Christmas. The holidays only really became ‘holidays’ when legislation confirmed them as Bank Holidays in 1871, while the literary romanticism of Dickens’ Christmas Carol (1843), confirmed that the foundations for the ‘modern’ Christmas were set. I’d even like to think that the Queen who was regularly ‘not amused’ had the odd laugh at a classically naff Christmas cracker joke…

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