A Victorian Christmas by Mary Dutson
A Victorian Christmas
With Mary Dutson
Meeting of 13th December 2012
‘Mary Christmas’ arrived in her full Victorian lady Father Christmas outfit, with her companion in 1890s formal wear (with enormous sleeves that say ‘I don’t have to work’!). She brought loads of toys for us to play with, including cup-and-ball, spinning tops of pressed metal (of which a huge number of Victorian toys were made), yoyos, and a ‘Miss Sophie’ dress up doll (a card doll with cut out paper dresses to hang on her). She then filled us in on ‘what the Victorians did for us’:
- Christmas pudding: with Stir-up Sunday the week before advent.
- Christmas cards: the first was sent by Henry Cole (the first director of the Victoria & Albert museum) in 1843. It had a scene of a wealthy Christmas on one side with children in rags in the snow on the reverse, to encourage charitable giving. He had 1,000 cards lithograph printed then hand-coloured and sold them at Felix Summerlee’s ‘Treasure House’.
- Pantomime: although panto had been around for ages, the Victorians made it a Christmas event. Cardboard self-assemble theatres were on sale.
- Crackers (originally ‘cosaques’): invented by Thomas Smith, a pastry cook, who saw French sweets wrapped in tissue paper twists and copied them, adding a motto, hat and gifts but no crack (he added that later, inspired by the sounds that wood makes on a fire).
- Carols: lots of the popular carols came from the Victorians, including ‘Away in a Manger’ and ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’. Carol singing derives from the Wassail.
- Father Christmas’s red and white outfit: he wears this on some Victorian Christmas cards (so the chubby red and white Santa was not invented by Coca Cola!). Previous images show him in green and brown.
- Christmas tree: brought over by German immigrants in Manchester and then popularised by the German Prince Albert, mainly through the Christmas photo of the royal family in front of the tree at Osbourne House. The tree was decorated with presents – silk handkerchiefs, sweets, drawings etc – to be distributed. Real candles covered the tree, but were only lit for a short time on Christmas Eve as there had been lots of Christmas house fires!
- Reindeer names: first given in the famous ‘The Night before Christmas’ by Clement Clarke Moore. Dunder and Blixem are Belgian for thunder and lightning, but later became Donner and Bltzen. Rudolph was not in the original list.
Mary read us an atmospheric 1874 extract from ‘A Forest Christmas’ (a collection of reminiscences, unhappily now out of print). At this time the miners were on strike due to a threatened 10% wage cut when a similar cut had already been swallowed a few years previously. Local landowners had a whip round and raised £100 to give out beef, ale and bread, then gave a loaf of bread each Sunday and congratulated themselves over their Christmas tables on being generous whilst mining families struggled with no income.
Then came the annual Christmas quiz fortified with mulled wine and stollen. CS