Archival Anecdotes: Victorian traditions still shine at Christmas


December 6, 2021

Mother and child decorate a Victorian style Christmas tree, complete with burning candles. Courtesy of Alice Stanley's postcard collection circa 1900.

So many of the Christmas traditions we embrace today took root in the British culture of the Victorian Era. It was a time for rapid commercial development and industrial growth. There were great advancements in transportation, and the first mail order catalog made its debut.

We start by going back 203 years to 1818, when "Silent Night" was first heard by villagers attending Christmas Eve mass in St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria. It has endured to become one of the most appreciated carols of the season.

Many other popular carols followed: "The First Noel" in 1833; "O Holy Night" in 1847; "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear" in 1849; "Jingle Bells" in 1857; "Up on the House Top" in 1864; "What Child is This?" in 1865; "O Little Town of Bethlehem" in 1868; and "Away in a Manger" in 1887.

Carols weren't the only words being penned at this time. Across the Atlantic, Clement Clark Moore anonymously published "Twas the Night Before Christmas" in the New York Sentinel on December 23, 1823. Originally titled "A Visit From St. Nicholas" this poem provided the first ever detailed historical account of Santa Claus.

In 1843, Charles Dickens published "A Christmas Carol"­- the timeless tale that introduced us to Scrooge and Tiny Tim.

That year also marked the beginnings of the Christmas card. It was Henry Cole, who collaborated with John Callcott Horsley to design the first Christmas card. Believe it or not, he did so in order to save time. In Victorian society, letters were the primary form of long-distance communication. Cole surmised that his holiday greeting would cost less and save time, allowing him to send cheer to an abundance of friends and acquaintances. The idea didn't really begin to take hold until the 1880s, when printing technology improved and prices dropped. From then on Christmas cards became a standard part of the season.

The tradition of bringing a fresh evergreen into the home dates back to the 16th century when Germanic Christians adopted the otherwise pagan custom, but it wasn't until 1848 that the Christmas tree was popularized in England and America.

It was Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who brought a Christmas tree into Windsor Castle and decorated it along with their children. An illustration of the holiday happenings were featured in the "Illustrated London News" in 1848, and inspired an undying tradition.

The writers, poets and artists of the 19th century gave us many gifts to share throughout the holiday season, but that doesn't mean the invention of tradition is complete.

Many Victorian traditions have expired such as suet pudding and oyster dressing. Other traditions and tales have emerged since like Frosty the Snowman, Rudolpf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and even Mariah Carey's Christmas album.

Christmas card addressed to Mrs. F.E. Johnson of Barlow, N.D., postmarked in 1911, and signed by Mrs. Hanna Nelson.

The holiday season is a special time, so make it so in your own way, with traditions of old or new. May your holidays be bright, no matter how you spend them.


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