Victorian Christmas

Christmas as we know it is a largely Victorian invention.

Victorian family at Christmas

Those industrious Victorians popularised Christmas trees, invented Christmas crackers and were the first to send mass-produced Christmas cards. As if that wasn’t enough, they were busying about at home as the festive season approached, making their own fun. Read on for our ten pointers to a proper Victorian Christmas.

Know your place

Of course, if you were a rich Victorian, Christmas would be a time of guaranteed plenty. But what if you were from an ordinary background? There’s good news here. One of the reasons we celebrate a Victorian-style Christmas today is because this version was the first to permeate all levels of society. Britain’s burgeoning trade links across the empire, together with its booming industries, brought cheaper foodstuffs and little luxuries within the reach of ordinary people. Most of us could afford some kind of celebration at Christmas.

Get a dropper

Forget those posh, modern Christmas trees at the garden centre. If you’re after a Victorian Christmas, what you want is a Norway Spruce. Yes, the traditional British dropper was popularised by the Victorians, after the Royal family introduced us to the German custom of a Christmas tree at the end of the 18th century.

Modest gifts

Victorian Christmas presents were modest compared to today. Gifts of sweets, nuts, fruit and hand-crafted nick-nacks hung on the Christmas tree for family members to find. Recreate this tradition by stitching together two pieces of felt to make a small bag. You can fill this with treats and hang it on the tree.

Presents under a traditional Christmas tree

Presents under a traditional Christmas tree

Deck the halls

The custom of decorating a home with evergreen branches brought in from outside has been with us since medieval times. Fir, holly, ivy and bay branches will all add to the Victorian feel. Don’t forget the mistletoe. Victorians would have wound their mistletoe over wire hoops, intertwined with evergreen twigs.

Paper chains

The Victorians were also keen on fashioning elaborate, colourful paper decorations. You can try something simpler: make traditional paper chains from strips of different coloured paper around 25cm long and 2cm wide. Build chains by successively glueing links together in random colour order.

Sing-song

Christmas carols were an important part of the festivities for Victorians. They didn’t invent them but they revived them and belted them out with zeal, often updating the tunes. These carols, such as Good King Wenceslas and The Holly and the Ivy are the ones we sing today.

Good grog

Once you’ve built up a thirst with all that carol-singing in the frosty outdoors, you’ll be in the mood for some mulled wine. The Victorians made their mulled wine by reducing a syrup of sugar, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and orange zest, adding it to red wine and heating. For a simpler version, try the Good Food recipe.

Best bird

Once again, it was the Victorians who popularised turkey as the centrepiece of a Christmas feast. The nearest modern equivalent of the birds consumed in Victorian times is the bronze turkey. Victorian cookery writer Eliza Acton recommended a breadcrumb, herb, butter and egg forcemeat, or stuffing, that was inserted between the breast and the skin. If that’s a little plain, try this Good Food recipe for beer, sage and pork stuffing.

Cute crackers

A Victorian sweet shop owner named Thomas Smith invented the Christmas cracker as a way of selling more sweets during the festive season. You can make your own by covering three cardboard tubes with decorated crepe paper. Leave spaces between the tubes. Place your goodies in the centre tube, add a cracker snap (available from craft suppliers) and cinch the crepe paper between the middle and outer tubes with ribbon.

Fun and games

Parlour games were a popular way to pass festive evenings. Try this one, known as The Sculptor. One player is nominated The Sculptor. He or she arranges the rest of the group into unlikely or tricky positions (take care with older guests!) Players have to hold the position as long as they can, without moving or laughing. The Sculptor is permitted to distract them but cannot touch them. The first person to break a pose or laugh becomes the next Sculptor.