Carols & Christmas Cards: The Origins Of Our Treasured Traditions
17 September 2020 -
We’re all for cranking up Wham!’s ‘Last Christmas’ and knocking back another schooner of Baileys while writing our Christmas cards and decking out the tree, but have you ever wondered where some of our best-loved festive traditions come from? Believe it or not, the stuffy old Victorians essentially invented Christmas as we Brits know it today…
And it’s all thanks to good old Prince Albert, because, before he married Queen Victoria, he grew up in Germany and experienced all sorts of yuletide customs - from gift-giving and tree decoration to singing carols to Christmas cards - and later introduced these treasured traditions to Britain in the 1840s. Thanks Albert, Fröhliche Weihnachten (Merry Christmas)!
Gift Giving and Christmas Trees
Let’s start with the best yuletide tradition; gift-giving. After a photograph was published of Victoria and Albert gathered around the Christmas tree, every home in Britain wanted to get involved! Initially, people used to exchange gifts at New Year, but as the Victorians started to get swept up in the event of Christmas, they brought this tradition forward by a week.
Gifts were actually originally strung up on the tree - just small little tokens like sweets, nuts, fruit and hand-crafted curios, along with candles and decorations - but as gift giving became more prominent, presents became much bigger and had to be placed under the tree instead. As for the decorations, it wasn’t long before people realised that putting candles in trees could be a fire hazard(!) so they were eventually replaced with strings of electric fairy lights, and in 1880, Woolworths began to sell manufactured Christmas tree ornaments.
Carols weren’t exactly new to Victorians, they took great pleasure in all sorts of musical entertainment and one of the greats ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ was first published in 1739, however, it wasn’t until 1833 that the first large collection of ‘Christmas Carols, ancient and modern’ was published by William Sandys, and the likes of ‘O Come all ye Faithful’ and ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ later followed in the 1840s.
Christmas cards started to make an impression when the ‘Penny Post’ (buy a stamp for a penny and send a letter to anywhere in Britain) was created by Rowland Hill. Sir Henry Cole then printed hundreds of cards and sold them for a shilling each in London in 1943, and while many people might not have been able to afford this, they loved the idea and started making their own handmade Christmas cards. By the 1880s, the ‘Halfpenny Post’ was introduced due to the invention of the railway and the development of printing technology soon meant that the price of cards became much more affordable, and therefore started flying off the shelves!
How Christmas Has Evolved
Who doesn’t love pulling a good old cracker, telling an awful ‘dad joke’ and delighting in the whimsical toys? Christmas crackers have evolved since they were invented by Victorians in 1848, when Tom Smith, the renowned British confectioner created them in hope of selling more sweets over the festive period. Taking inspiration from French bonbons, all wrapped up in twists of paper, he came up with the cracker that snapped open when pulled apart to reveal yummy sweet treats. Later on they were replaced with paper hats and the little gifts we know as part of our present day Christmas traditions.
Love them or hate them, it’s safe to say the mince pies were definitely improved by the Victorians. Original recipes show that the Tudors would make them from meat and suet, before they were revolutionised in the 19th century and the meat was swapped out for dried fruits and spices. They quickly gained popularity with high society and became the festive treat we know today.
Festive Parlour Games
The Victorians absolutely loved their festive parlour games, while they may have lacked in the creativity department, we love some of the names! Piggy Squeak Piggy; guess the identity of another player by listening to him or her squeal like a pig, Up Jenkins; guess who’s hiding a coin in their fist and Shadow Buff; identify other players by looking only at their shadows…. We think we’ll stick with Charades and Articulate this year!
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