Strange and Delightful Holiday Traditions of the Victorian Era
Strange and Delightful Holiday Traditions of the Victorian Era

Strange and Delightful Holiday Traditions of the Victorian Era

Alli - November 15, 2021

Strange and Delightful Holiday Traditions of the Victorian Era
Victorian Christmas Village. Wikimedia Commons.

Victorians Loved to Capitalize off of Christmas Too

When it comes to decking the halls and decorating the house, we’re not so different from the Victorians. Around Christmas, households both rich and poor would hang holly and mistletoe in plain sight, as would pubs and churches up and down the country. So plentiful was mistletoe around this time, in fact, that Victorians were even known to sprinkle it over their Christmas puddings. These days it’s impossible to avoid these Christmas decorations as they’re sold almost everywhere. But how did the Victorians get their hands on them?

Written in the 1840s, Henry Mayhew’s book, “London Labour and the London poor”, offers us a valuable insight into the trade of Christmas decoration selling (or “Christmasing” as it was commonly known). On all accounts it was a booming business, bringing in around £15,000 a year. And considering that enough holly was sold not just for every house in London but for practically every room, it’s easy to see why.

Strange and Delightful Holiday Traditions of the Victorian Era
Mistletoe was a popular tradition in Victorian England. The Graphics Fairy.

Christmas Decor in the Victorian Age

Mistletoe was the more traditional plant under which to practise various “ancient” ceremonies (to this day, kissing remains one of them). But it was also a lot more rare; a parasitic plant specifically to the apple-tree grown only in the South of England. Its rarity meant that it was mainly in the preserve of the rich of Victorian society: a fashionable status symbol and one of the centrepieces of any respectable Christmas party.

While there was little difficulty shifting these natural decorations, procuring them wasn’t always so straightforward. In the lead-up to Christmas, desperate vendors would scour the streets of London searching for holly. As it was rare to find some not already attached to someone’s house outside, they would sometimes resort to trespassing on private property—hoping not to be caught by an irate homeowner or servant. Their efforts at acquisition weren’t always, successful however, particularly when it was mistletoe they were after. Collecting mistletoe meant combing through orchards that were often well protected by guard dogs and hidden traps.

Strange and Delightful Holiday Traditions of the Victorian Era
Victorian New Year’s Eve. Wikimedia.

Victorian New Year’s Celebrations Were Full of Mysticism

Victorians thought New Years was important because what you were doing on that day was what you would be doing for the rest of the year. If you stayed at home you might doom you to a year of illness that kept you inside. Victorians did not work on New Year’s because they wanted a life as leisurely as possible. British Victorians would socialize and make merry, this was not a time to stay home as it might foretell illness and bad luck in the year to come. New Year’s was a time for foretelling the future. Victorians believed that there was an active unseen world. Plus they were deeply superstitious. After all, it was in Victorian times that having seances became popular. Some Victorians would predict each others fortunes with reading tea leaves. Victorians who were even more devoted to the occult would gaze into crystal balls.

On the last day of every year the ashes from the hearth were swept completely away. That was symbolic of sweeping away all the ugliness of the old year and welcoming the New Year with a clean start. Cleaning out the ashes from the hearth was to be done on New Year’s Eve as a sign of sweeping away all the past year’s ills and ushering in the new year with a clean slate. You would not let your fire out in a Victorian home , or even take a candle or lantern out. To do so would be considered letting the fire go out of the home. The home’s threshold was also significant. When the midnight bells struck the Victorians would open their doors and shout out “Welcome” to all that was good. It is believed that they often would throw a cake against the door to prove that they believed this would be a year without hunger and want!

Strange and Delightful Holiday Traditions of the Victorian Era
Believe it or not, Michael Faraday delivered his 1855 Christmas Lecture “The Distinctive Properties of Common Metals” to a packed crowd of London’s rich ad powerful. Even in attendance was Prince Albert and several other royals. Hunterian Museum Collection

The Victorians Loved to Merge Science and Christmas Together (Part One)

These days, the only science involved in Christmas is domestic science; namely for how long and at what temperature to cook the turkey so as neither to poison the guests nor incinerate the bird. However, surprising though it may seem, science once played as important a role at Christmas time as gift-giving or cracker-pulling do now. This was in no small part down to the fact that just as Christmas was undergoing its transformation to become a popular festival, so too was science coming to capture the minds and intrigue the imaginations of Victorians the land over.

Newspapers, books, magazines; all advertised family-friendly, science-related Christmas presents and experiments that could be purchased and practised at home. Not that science mania was only confined to the home of course. Pantomime productions took up science-related themes, and in the 1830s London’s Adelaide Gallery started putting on productions of popular musical pieces—Hayden’s “Creation” and Handel’s “Messiah”, for example—which featured electrical light shows or giant projections of microscopic organisms.

Strange and Delightful Holiday Traditions of the Victorian Era
The Victorian Age was filled with scientific exploration. Wikimedia.

The Victorians Loved to Merge Science and Christmas Together (Part Two)

In the late 1840s, John Henry Pepper, the show business scientist of Victorian Britain, arrived on the scene to really spice things up. He treated the Victorians to a number of scientific marvels, transforming the Royal Polytechnic Institution (of which he was head) into a winter wonderland of electric lights, wacky inventions, and an enormous Christmas tree packed full of scientific gifts for children. The real showstopper, though, was “Pepper’s Ghost”. Aghast crowds would be treated to an uncannily lifelike phantom floating onstage; the projected plate-glass reflection of an actor concealed from view in another room.

There is, however, one yuletide tradition that has yet to fall by the wayside. Every year since 1825 (excluding 1939 – 42 when any would-be participants were too busy fighting the Germans), the Royal Institution in London has held its annual Christmas Lecture. The man behind the idea was renowned scientist Michael Faraday, who delivered 19 of them himself. The lectures were aimed at a general audience, and those giving them sought to deliver a scientific topic in an engaging, accessible way. Guest speakers throughout the years have included Sir David Attenborough and Richard Dawkins.

Where do we get this stuff? Here are our Sources:

https://www.britannica.com/summary/Notable-Characters-in-the-Works-of-Charles-Dickens

https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/jack-in-the-green

almanac.com/…/where-does-the-term-bel-fire-come

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Factory_Acts

https://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/serial?id=lhj

fidmmuseum.org/…/sarah-elizabeth-crafts-easter-bonnet-1852

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anfield

https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/Victorian-Workhouse/

https://www.bbc.co.uk/victorianchristmas/history.shtml

http://www.historyisnowmagazine.com/blog/2021/10/18/the-rise-of-spiritualism-in-19th-century-america

https://www.graceport.com/blog/the-legend-of-stingy-jack

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/mistletoe-the-evolution-of-a-christmas-tradition-10814188/

https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.14318/hau7.3.027

https://www.victorianvoices.net/topics/holidays/index.shtml

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen_Victoria

https://www.rigb.org

Advertisement