No period in history has influenced our modern Christmas traditions quite as much as the Victorian era. (A time very dear to our hearts, as it’s when Penhaligon’s was born). Many of our Yuletide customs were ushered in with Queen Victoria’s reign. And with the publication of Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ in 1843, the face of Christmas was changed forever…
A royally inspired tradition
The German tradition of decorating a tree was not de rigueur in England until a certain family were depicted gathered around their Christmas tree at Windsor Castle. It was this image of Queen Victoria and her family – appearing in the Illustrated London News in 1848 – that sent the masses running out to procure trees for their own parlours.
The birth of the Christmas card
In the 1840s, tradition dictated that at Christmastime, one must write lengthy epistles to distant relations and far-flung friends. Sir Henry Cole had no patience for such nonsense. He commissioned John Calcott Horsley of the Royal Academy of Arts to create a ‘decorated notelet’, perfect for a few perfunctory lines and a ‘Merry Christmas to all’. Sir Henry had a thousand printed, and those he didn’t use went on sale in his stationer’s Bond Street shop. Slowly but surely, the Christmas card took off, helped along by the ‘Penny Post’.
God bless us, every one!
‘A Christmas Carol’, published on 19th December, 1843, helped cement the Christmas customs of olde England, with its nostalgic descriptions of snowy midwinter, Smoking Bishop (mulled wine), a golden brown roast goose, and of course, goodwill to all men. While we might find it a heart-warming festive tale, Dickens wrote ‘A Christmas Carol’ to shock selfish upper class Victorians into becoming more charitable.
A cracking great accident
London confectioner, Tom Smith, invented the Christmas cracker in the early 184os – quite by accident. Ever the entrepreneur, Tom was looking for ways to sell his sweets for a higher price. He would wrap his bonbons in paper twists, with little ‘love messages’ written within. Sleeping by the fireside one night, Tom woke with a start as a log crackled loudly, and he realised he had the missing element to make his sweet sales go with a bang. Eventually the sweets were replaced with small trinkets and paper crowns, and the Christmas Cracker as we know it was born.
Throughout the early days of Victoria’s reign, children’s toys were expensive, as they were made from wood, in workshops in the East End of London. Hence only the luckiest littles from the wealthiest families could expect gifts on Christmas day. With the industrial revolution came mass production, which brought with it games, dolls, books and clockwork toys all at a more affordable price. Around 1870, the Christmas stocking became popular, traditionally stuffed with fruit and nuts. (We prefer a bottle of fragrance in ours, thank you very much.)