Christmas time, a wondrous time that means to most people happiness and celebration with family and friends. But where did it all begin? The lavishly decorated Christmas trees, intricate Christmas cards and cheesy Christmas crackers are a fairly new phenomenon, and we have Queen Victoria and her fellow Victorians to thank for their popularity during this festive period. At the start of the 19th Century, Christmas was not that widely celebrated and in many professions it was not even considered to be worthy of a holiday. However, towards the end of the century, Christmas had become the biggest annual celebration in Britain and Queen Victoria was right at the heart of it all.
Although Midwinter festivals have been celebrated for thousands of years, with the birth of Christianity traditional pagan rituals influenced new Christmas celebrations. One such Pagan tradition which survived was the decking of homes and churches, with a branch of evergreen tree like holly or ivy. This was the closest we Brits got to a Christmas tree before the turn of the 19th century, and it was only through the German influence of Victoria’s husband Prince Albert that they became popular. In 1841, Albert ordered a tree to be brought over from Germany which he decorated and installed in Windsor Castle. By 1848, the Illustrated London News printed a picture of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert decorating their tree. Prince Albert also commissioned decorated trees to be sent into local schools and Army Barracks throughout Windsor. Although Prince Albert was the first to publically adopt the German idea of the Christmas tree, Victoria had also enjoyed Christmas traditions for many years during her childhood. Influenced by her German grandmother Queen Charlotte, Victoria’s love of Christmas stemmed from decorating trees and receiving gifts, which she described with much enthusiasm and enjoyment in her diary. These traditions were soon adopted in a progressive Britain.
Decorations such as candles adorned trees during this period, often used as a symbol to remind children that stars could be seen in the night sky when Jesus was born. The use of candles on Victorian Christmas trees ultimately led the way to the electric lights that we decorate our trees with today. Sweets and cakes were also hung from the tree by colourful ribbon, a tradition that is emulated today through milk chocolates wrapped in foil. 1880 saw Woolworths sell the first manufactured Christmas tree ornaments, which has been carried through to the present day with the custom of hanging baubles and other decorations on the tree. Decorating a Christmas tree seems like a perfectly normal Christmas tradition in the modern period, all thanks to the influence and popularity of the monarchy, and the significance of the Christmas tree as part of the Victorian Christmas.
Another popular Christmas tradition in Britain is the sending and receiving of Christmas cards during the festive period. The introduction of ‘Penny Post’ to Britain in 1840 meant that one penny would pay for a stamp to send a card anywhere in Britain. Sir Henry Cole capitalised on the idea of ‘Penny Post’ and in 1843, he commissioned an artist to design one thousand Christmas cards to be sold in his art shop in London. At one shilling a card they were considered fairly pricey for Victorians at this time, however the sentiment of sending cards caught on and children were encouraged to design and make their own. This included Queen Victoria’s own children, and so the tradition of sending and receiving Christmas cards was born. The popularity of the Christmas card tradition was cemented by the introduction of ‘halfpenny post’ in 1870, which ultimately made sending cards more affordable. In addition to cheaper postage, industrialisation and advances in printing technology meant colour prints could be mass produced at low cost. By the Twentieth century the affordability of postage and advances in printing technology helped establish the tradition of sending Christmas cards that we enjoy today.
Many factors influence the way we celebrate Christmas today, advertising and marketing has a huge role in the modern Christmas but it is fair to say that Queen Victoria and her family were hugely instrumental in shaping our Christmas traditions during the 19th century. Her love for all things Christmassy has contributed heavily to the way in which we enjoy Christmas today, truly defining her as the Queen of the traditional British Christmas which we all know and love and if we are honest can’t wait for. Roll on the 25th December for lots of festive fun.