How the Victorians invented Christmas

Early Christians, being the good sort of folks they were, felt it inappropriate to join the general drunken debauchery of the Roman Feast of ‘Saturnalia’, probably the most fun religious festival in the Roman year. So instead they used all the dressing up and rule-breaking as a cover to have a Christian festival of prayer and worship – without getting prosecuted or even martyred for celebrating a banned religion. As the bible has no date for the birth of Christ, 25th of December, the time of Saturnalia (and also the time when agricultural societies could celebrate days beginning to get longer after the shortest day of the year), became part of our Christian calendar.

Agricultural communities naturally mark the shortest day (the idea of a Yule log predates Christianity) but should it be fun or simply holy? 

We all know that puritans set sail for America four hundred years ago in 1620, but we sometimes forget that when they came to power in Britain, before they got around to chopping off King Charles I’s head in 1649, they disapproved of Christmas (well, all the fun bits anyway). In 1647, even the police couldn’t put down rioting apprentices in Cornhill, in the ancient City of London, and the army was needed to break up the fun. Their crime? “In despite of authority, they set up Holly and Ivy” to decorate the water system on Christmas day. Even mince pies, historically in the shape of Jesus’s manger, are reported as banned by puritans.

Roll on 200 years and Charles Dickens sets his novella, A Christmas Carol about Ebenezer Scrooge’s conversion to Christmas joy and sharing, in the same area of London. Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchit, is so pleased to leave Scrooge the money-lender on Christmas Eve that he  “…went down a slide on Cornhill…” (Cratchit slid on the snow for fun as he walked home to his family Christmas with a spring in his step). A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, started the spirit of Christmas (generosity, families, games….)  as we know it today in Europe and North America. Just fourteen years after London publication, on reading the book a US businessman was famously moved to close his factory on Christmas day and, the story goes, buy a turkey for all his workers.

Marley’s Ghost, original illustration by John Leech from the 1843 edition. Public Domain

Scrooge hears Christmas carols (Bah! Humbug!), originally 12th and 13th centuries church songs reserved for processionals, but during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) our favourite fun Christmas songs “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing!,” “The First Noel,” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”  become part of church ritual.

By this time the Oxford Movement was growing within the British protestant church. Ritual (and fun!), with a big nod to Roman Catholicism, were replacing puritanical Protestantism. City-dwellers, in the new factory towns, needed mid-winter rituals. In the same year that Dickens published A Christmas Carol, Sir Henry Cole, a government servant and inventor who had previously invented the ‘penny post’ postage service, sent a greeting card at Christmas time to his friends. While the central picture showed a family raising a toast to the card’s recipient, on either side there were scenes of charity, with food and clothing being given to the poor

The world’s first commercially produced Christmas card, designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole in 1843. Public domain

Three years later (1846), one Thomas Smith noticed sweets wrapped in tissue paper (with a twist either side) in Paris. He brought the idea to London and they sold well at Christmas. In the early 1850s he included a motto with the sweet. Ten years later he had added his cracking idea – two strips of chemically impregnated paper that made a loud noise on being pulled apart. As other manufacturers copied the ‘crack’, he replaced the sweet with a gift. His sons added paper hat to the Christmas cracker the early 1900s. 

Catalogue for Tom Smith’s Christmas Novelties from 1911. Public Domain

Why the paper hat in the shape of a crown? Going right back to the Roman Saturnalia celebrations, revellers also wore hats, and sometimes slaves became masters for a brief period. In Britain, a ‘King’ or ‘Queen’, taken from inferior ranks like a child or a servant, was appointed to look over the Twelfth Night revelry, as rich and poor alike faced the rest of a freezing winter. 

The origins of the Christmas tree lead right up to British Queen herself.  Germany’s Prince Albert came to England in 1840 to marry Queen Victoria, and he brought the Christmas tree tradition with him. The royal family decorated it with small gifts, toys, candles, candies and fancy cakes, giving rise to our modern Christmas decorations. In 1848, a photo of the royal tree appeared in a London newspaper, so the tree became the height of Christmas fashion in Europe and America.

An engraving published in the 1840s of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert created a craze for Christmas trees. Public Domain

While Christmas may have begun as a Christian reaction against Roman revelry, our modern Christmas perhaps bears more resemblance to the ancient Roman feast of Saturnalia than we modern Christians might like to think! 


Featured Image: by jcw1967 from Leeds, UK, licensed under CC BY 2.0


About the author:

David Poyser is a London Blue Badge tourist guide, and a former Producer and Director of history programmes for the BBC, the UK’s leading television programmes. He leads walks around The City of London on Charles Dickens and How The City Got Rich.