Kissing beneath the mistletoe, Santa, exchanging gifts, caroling,
all wonderful traditions embraced by the Victorian Era, are
some of our best loved traditions. The Nativity has been celebrated
since the 4th century. "The Colonies", however, were slow to embrace the
idea of Christmas, as the celebration of a Father Christmas in his long fur
trimmed robes was seen as a heathenish notion.
The Christmas Tree
The Christmas tree has been a German tradition since as early as the 17th century, but many ancient civilizations held evergreens to be a symbol of life during the long winter months and decorated trees as a symbol of eternal life. In 1841 Prince Albert, German husband of Queen Victoria, introduced the charming custom to the royal family. In 1850 a tinted etching of a decorated tree at Windsor Castle was published and the Tannenbaum became a necessity for every fashionable Victorian home. It was a tradition quickly embraced by Victorian England. Live trees were set up for the Christmas seasondecorated with lighted candles, draped with tinsel, ribbon, paper chains, cookies and candies.
Although the Victorian idea of Christmas was not commercial, having more to do with food, and the exchange of handmade gifts, New York soon saw the commercial advantages of a holiday full of the exchange of gifts. By the 1880's Macy's department store's windows were filled with wonderful dolls and toys from Germany, France, Austria, and Switzerland. Another window boasted scenes with steam driven moveable parts.
Homemade cornucopias of paper filled with fruit, nuts, candy, and popcorn were hung from branches of trees in America and England. Beautiful shaped cookies were hung for treats on Christmas day. Often the gifts were also wrapped and hung from branches.
With the growing popularity of Christmas trees manufacturers began producing ornaments around 1870. Also popular were molded wax figures of angels and children. Many ornaments were made of cotton-wool wrapped around an armature of metal or wood and trimmed with embossed paper faces, buttons, gold paper wings and "diamond dust", actually powdered glass.
The custom of caroling is a purely English tradition which was quickly taken up by America. In cities, the approaching holiday season was marked by strolling carolers, usually in groups of three, one caroler to play violin, one to sing, and one to sell sheet music. Holiday shoppers would pause to purchase music, joining in the trio for a few stanzas, before hurrying homeward. Carolers would stop at houses to sing, hoping to
be invited in for a warm drink.
The music you are listening to is "Silver Sleigh Bells" written in 1906 by Edward Taylor Paull. You may download it in The Music Room
The First Christmas Card
In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered- flushed, but smiling proudly- with the pudding like a speckled cannon-ball so hard and firm blazing in half of a half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.
A Christmas Carol ~ Charles Dickens, 1843
The first Christmas card, designed by J.C. Horsley, was sent by Henry Cole, who decided to send his many aquantiences something different from his usual Christmas letter. They sold for one shilling each, and only one thousand copies were lithographed. It depicted the charities of clothing and feeding the poor, with the middle section depecting a well to do family toasting to Christmas and the year ahead. It proved to be a very popular idea.
Christmas decorations began appering well before the holiday for many. The favorite plants were the berried evergreens, mistletoe, holly and ivy. During the Roman Solstice Ceremony known as "Saturnalia" holly was exchanged as it was believed the red berries would ward off lightning and evil spirits. It had to be carried in the house by a male, as the berries are only on the male plant. Ivy was twined in the holly as a symbol of the 2 halves of divinity. Mistletoe was not allowed in churches because of it's pagan origins. In ancient times, Druid priests harvested it from sacred oaks on the fifth day after the new moon following the winter solstice. Norse wariors who met under the mistletoe declared a truce for that day. The Victorians used mistletoe suspended from the ceiling. Those who met under it could claim a kiss. The number of kisses allowed under each plant depended on the number of berries. Each time a kiss was given, a berry was taken off. No more berries, no more kisses!
The exchange of presents, of ancient origin, symbolized the good luck, prosperity, and happiness wished for friends. The Victorians began planning their presents many months ahead. Most chershed were handmade, needlework, or something useful. People exchanged rememberances with family and friends. Children made their gifts as well.
Santa is a mixture of many different figures from many different cultures. The Dutch St. Nick, Englands Father Christmas, and the German Kris Kringle. In ancient times Norse and German people told stories of The Yule Elf who brought gifts during Solstice to those who left offerings of porriage. When Clemment Moore's poem "The Night Before Christmas" became enormously popular, the "Jolly old elf" was adopted as the ideal Santa. Years later Thomas Nast illustrated him as a round bellied whiskered figure in tight red leggings and coat. Coca-Cola's popular advertising changed the concept of Santa to a cheerful full bearded man with the now popular red suit, black boots and wide belt.
The next page will show you a typical
Victorian Christmas celebration.
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