As we fall ever deeper into the technological clutches of TV, tablets, and smartphones, we might complain that the modern Christmas is morphing into a much less intimate, family-friendly celebration. There is certainly some truth in this, but in a sense we should be grateful. For had we been born in the Victorian Age (or in any other age since the end of the sixteenth century for that matter), we would have most likely been expected to participate in a group game of Snapdragon.
The premise of this particular parlor game is simple. First, you fill a shallow bowl full of raisins. Then you drown the raisins in brandy. After that, you set the brandy alight so that the blue flames dancing above the bowl light up the faces of family, friends and loved ones so that they come to resemble demons. Finally, in a blatant disregard for health and safety quite typical of a culture that thought sending people to the workhouse was perfectly fine, people would take it in turns to reach into the flames, grab a flaming raisin, and eat it before it could self-inflict significant burn damage on their fingers – or worse, their tongues.
Victorians Took their Parlor Games to Dangerous New Heights
Singed fingers and swollen tongues weren’t the only hallmarks of a merry Victorian Christmas. Though it may predate the Victorian Age by some 2,300 years, Blind Man’s Buff (or Blind Man’s Bluff, as it’s more commonly called) was a popular festive parlor game, notwithstanding the often extreme violence with which the Victorians played it. As a contemporary chronicler once bafflingly observed, more than just blindfolding the seeker or trying to verbally disorientate them, the Victorians had no qualms with throwing obstacles in the blind man’s way in an attempt to break arms, legs, or necks.
Of course, not all Victorian parlor games were violent. Charades, Truth or Dare, and a number of other games still played today were popular classics. The Victorians were perhaps more inventive with their forfeits than we are, though. The unfortunate losers of these challenges might, for example, have to make like a statue and allow other members of the group to rearrange their limbs while a defeated gentleman might be made to come up with a dozen compliments for a lady that didn’t use the letter “L” or to navigate the room and give every lady a kiss. For the luckier few.
Today, we all know Halloween as a time to let loose, get spooky, and stuff our faces with candy. But in the Victorian era, it was opportunity to find love. Young men and women gathered for an evening of dancing, food, and frivolity. Costumes were a must, even in the 19th century. Popular choices included witches, ghosts, bats, cats and devils, as well as Little Bo Peep, Mother Goose, Harlequins and clowns.Despite their reputation for straight-laced sobriety, the Victorians celebrated Halloween with great enthusiasmâand often with outright abandon. Victorian Halloween parties were filled with fun, games, and spooky rituals, some of which still feature at Halloween parties today.
The Victorians were haunted by the supernatural, by ghosts and fairies, table-rappings and telepathic encounters, occult religions and the idea of reincarnation, visions of the other world and a reality beyond the everyday. But they enjoyed making light of the spooky season. Parlor games that were thought to have some insight into a person’s future were popular at the time. One such game involved a woman walking into a dark room, alone, and standing in front of a mirror. As they peeled an appleâtry not to ask why that part was crucialâthe woman might be able to see the reflection of the person they would someday marry. Alternately, they’d see a skeleton, in which case they’d die alone.
No Victorian Christmas would have been complete without the traditional festive pickle. The green glass ornament would be hidden within the Christmas tree (helped in no small part by its natural camouflage), and whoever was lucky enough to find it first on Christmas would either be treated to a special present or would be allowed to open their other presents first. This rather odd tradition of a fortune-bringing pickle comes from a loosely coherent medieval legend.
According to one version of the legend, two Spanish boys were travelling home from their boarding school for the holidays when decided to check into a roadside inn. They had neglected to consult their TripAdvisor, however, for it turned out that the owner of the inn was a complete psychopath. After stealing their possessions, the innkeeper stuffed them inside a (presumably industrial-sized) pickle barrel. But luckily for the boys, St. Nicholas stopped by the inn later that day, and after he’d learned about what had happened he freed them from their captivity and sent them home to their families.
According to a second, slightly darker version, three Spanish boys, who for some reason happened to be in St. Nicholas’s hometown of Myra, Turkey, were kidnapped by a local shopkeeper. This shopkeeper had a particular hatred for children, but not content with merely holding them hostage, he chopped them up with an axe and stored their remains inâyou guessed itâa pickle barrel. When St. Nicholas found out about this, he did what any upstanding member of the community would have done and prayed for them to be returned to human form. Miraculously, God heeded his prayer, and the three boys emerged unscathed from the pickle barrel.
As if preserved on purpose, in some countries the tradition of the Christmas Pickle has leaked into the modern day. While any trace of the Christmas Pickle may have shrivelled up in the UK, the US city of Berrien Springs, MI is (not particularly well-) known as the Christmas Pickle Capital of the World, holding a (presumably not particularly well-attended) annual pickle festival towards the beginning of December.
For protection from Stingy Jack and other apparitions, people in the British Isles began carving faces into pieces of produceâparticularly turnips, but in some cases potatoes, radishes and beets. Stingy Jack was a miserable, old drunk who loved playing tricks on anyone and everyone. One dark, Halloween night, Jack ran into the Devil himself in a local public house. Jack tricked the Devil by offering his soul in exchange for one last drink. Celebrants placed lit candles inside the cavities, similar to the pumpkin jack-o’-lanterns of modern Halloween. Pumpkins were definitely a Halloween tradition, but they weren’t the only vegetable that the Victorians used around the holiday. Turnips (also called neeps) were a common resource for seasonal carving and even for making turnip lanterns.
This could sometimes prove dangerous; In Scotland in 1899, a man angered a small army of children by refusing to accommodate their demands for candy. When he opened the door, a turnip hit him in the face, breaking his nose. But Victorian society always loves to go over the top with their decor – so pumpkins and turnips weren’t the only decorations during this season. Victorian hostesses set the scene with elaborate decorations, which included harvest centerpieces and doorways decorated with hanging apples and horseshoes. They also used more familiar images like black cats, bats, witches, ghosts, and devils. Turns out, the Victorians knew how to let loose and have a good time despite their religious background.
No Victorian Christmas is Complete Without Ghost Stories (Part One)
It’s symbolically powerful that, in Charles Dickens’s “Christmas Carol”, Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three ghosts: Christmas Past, Present, and Future. It serves as a metaphoric nod to the idea that during the dark of winter ghosts are all around us; an idea that the Victorians absolutely revelled in (even if it’s not an idea they completely believed in). But while Dickens offers us perhaps the most famous example of this ghostly tradition, the association between Yule and ghoul wasn’t a product of the Victorian Age.
The supernatural element of Christmas long predates Christianity, stretching back to pagan traditions around the Winter Solstice. Anthropologically speaking, it makes a lot of sense that we used to think of the coldest, darkest days of the year as the time in which our connection to the dead was at its strongest. And the Victorians capitalised on this association in their newspapers, novellas, and stories told around the parlor table.
No Victorian Christmas is Complete Without Ghost Stories (Part Two)
One of the most famous ghost-story writers of the Victorian Age was M. R. James. As provost at King’s College Cambridge, on Christmas Eve James would invite small groups of graduates to his college dorm where he would read them a ghost story he had just written. Still widely read or adapted for TV, some of James’s stories are genuinely terrifying, not least the 1904 short story “Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You My Lad.” There were actually several socio-economic reasons behind the importance given to ghosts in the Victorian mind. For a start, this was a new age of urbanisation, in which people from the country were moving into packed townhouses already crowded by servants.
In such buildings it was not uncommon to hear creaks in the night, or to see shadows of unknown and unexpected guests. Then there was the fact that everything was illuminated by gaslights, which could induce hallucinations through the carbon monoxide they emitted. Also running parallel to all of this was the rise of Spiritualism. The prevalence of ghost stories at Christmas died off remarkably slowly. Rather than the Disney films and comedy reruns that plague our screens today, throughout the 1970s, the BBC would broadcast chilling tales on Christmas Eve and the early hours of Christmas Day, and right up to the early 2000s they would wheel out Christopher Lee to read out one of M. R. James’s horror classics in the foreground of a crackling, roaring fire.
Never one to let the potential for an opulent affair pass by, Halloween night with Queen Victoria was often a social event. At her part-time residence at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, the Queen would arrange for incredibly lavish parties and traditions. One featured a procession with everyone carrying torches in the wake of the Queen’s carriage. A “shandry dann,” or witch effigy, was carried around by a servant dressed as a hobgoblin until the gathering made its way to a giant bonfire, where the witch was tossed in. This grim scene was often accompanied by bagpipes and later morphed into a pseudo-courtroom dynamic, with the “witch” a metaphor for the accused. (Naturally, she was always found guilty and tossed into the fire.)
Other years, the Queen might arrange for a “demon” to bear a resemblance to someone she disliked, like Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, whom she once dubbed “half-mad.” Then again, he wasn’t the one throwing witches into bonfires. The Queen sometimes received backlash for these displays, as it seemed unbecoming for a Christian Queen to indulge in such affairs. It was also sometimes possible for a large crowd of people wielding torches to get out of hand. In 1874, the Queen ceased festivities for the evening when she decided the partygoers were too raucous to let inside.
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 Â£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.
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 propertyâhoping 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.
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!
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 piecesâHayden’s “Creation” and Handel’s “Messiah”, for exampleâwhich featured electrical light shows or giant projections of microscopic organisms.
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.