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Victorian Christmas

Christmas, as we know it today, developed out of the traditions of the Victorian period. During the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), Christmas trees, cards, and children’s presents grew in popularity. These Victorian Christmas traditions became solidified in the American identity as Auburn transitioned from a gold rush town to a proper city.

Early Roots

The celebration of Christmas on the 25th of December began in Europe during the 3rd century. Jesus of Nazareth was not born on the 25th, but the date coincided with the popular pagan holiday of Saturnalia.

Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture

Dedicated to Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture and the harvest, the holiday featured feasts, gifts, and wreaths. These festivities evolved and changed over time.

Christmas in the Country 1791

In Colonial America, some refused to celebrate Christmas due to the pagan roots while others used the day to mark the beginning of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Parties, religious services, greenery, and food were common.

The Victorians

The traditions of modern Christmas took shape during Queen Victoria’s reign.

Queen Victoria's Coronation

The Queen was coronated in 1837 and married the German Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in 1840. While greenery was already popular during winter celebrations, Germany is credited with being the first to bring in whole trees for the holiday.

Queen Victoria's Christmas

In 1846, an illustration of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their children appeared in the London Illustrated News. It showed the family around a Christmas tree in the parlor, decorated with glass bobbles with presents underneath.

F. W. Woolworth's, 1908

This popularized the Christmas tree and German manufactured ornaments. F.W. Woolworth began importing glass ornaments to their department stores in the late 19th century. These replaced traditional homemade crafts and baked goods.

Placer Herald December 21, 1895

In Auburn, Christmas trees were first used in celebrations at the Methodist Episcopal Church. Little gifts, typically of fruit, were hung on the boughs to be distributed after the Christmas festival. By 1879, Christmas trees were becoming popular commodities in Auburn.

Placer Herald December 26, 1874

In the Home

The Christmas tree was essential for decorating, but it was only part of preparing for the holiday. The Victorian home typically revolved around two rooms – the parlor and the kitchen. The parlor was the center of entertainment and the kitchen was the center of industry. With family and friends visiting, both were in use.

The Bernhard Museum Parlor

The parlor was used to entertain guests with tea, conversation, games, and music. During this period some of the most popular Christmas carols were written, including “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “The First Noel,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Silent Night,” “O Christmas Tree,” and “Jingle Bells.”

Silent Night! Holy Night! Sheet Music

Historically, caroling was not a Christmas tradition. In the Victorian period, liturgical music and carols (Christian folk music) merged. The growing popularity and commercialization of Christmas led to the publication of anthologies of carols, which were then sung door to door by carolers. Warm beverages, such as wassail, might be offered to the singers.

Wassail, and other Victorian treats would be prepared in the kitchen, the center of most Christmas preparations. Beside the various drinks and treats for visitors, the Victorian Christmas meal was an elaborate feast to prepare. Queen Victoria’s dinner menu in 1899 included baron of beef, boar’s head, game pie, roast fowl, and tongue. In the home, it was common to find oysters, mince pie, bouillon, and plum pudding on the menu.

In England, there were many superstitions surrounding the plum pudding. Traditionally, each member of the family took a turn stirring the pudding for good luck. A ring, coin, thimble, and button were added to the batter. Whoever found the ring would soon marry. Finding the coin meant wealth in the coming year. If you were the unlucky girl who found the thimble it meant you would be single for the upcoming year, and the same fate awaited the unlucky man who found the button.

Serving Christmas Pudding 1848

The ingredients include raisins, currants, almonds, flour, eggs, milk, beef suet, and brandy. The word plum refers to the dried fruits.

Placer Herald January 18, 1890

The supper table was as elaborate as the meal. A centerpiece was constructed using vertical tiered food dishes or molded puddings and jellies topped with an apple or pineapple. An extravagant treat, pineapples were an especially expensive item to import in the 19th century.

Gift Giving

Modest gifts of fruits and nuts, sweets, or small handcrafted goods were traditionally reserved for the New Year. These were hung on the tree with other handmade decorations and pastries. Slowly, Christmas gifts became larger, store bought, and more central to the festivities.

Placer Herald December 25, 1858

Christmas cards also flourished throughout the period. In 1843, Sir Henry Cole printed the first Christmas cards for his personal use. The price was originally too expensive, but the new halfpenny postage and industrialized color printing made it feasible by 1880. Over 11 million cards were produced that year alone.

Naughty or Nice

Santa Claus evolved from the Dutch “Sinter Klass” and received his modern appearance in 19th-century-America. In 1822, the Episcopal minister Clement Clark Moore wrote “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” better known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” This poem helped popularize many modern aspects of Santa Claus.

Thomas Nast's Santa

In 1881, the political cartoonist Thomas Nast illustrated a modern likeness based on Moore’s poem, which was featured in an issue of Harper’s Weekly.

Placer Herald December 23, 1893

Historically, prior to Christmas celebrations, St. Nicholas was known for bestowing gifts, and punishing bad children. This reputation helped create the tradition of Santa Claus having a “naughty and nice” list. Countries around the world have similar figures who reward or punish children.

Background Image: Sinterklaas from the Dutch book Stories for the Youth.

The Victorian period was a time of change and transition for the holiday season as we know it. Many of these traditions, like the Christmas tree and Santa Claus, continued through the 20th century to today.