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Ways to Celebrate a Victorian Christmas

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Sometimes we think about life more than 100 years ago and imagine simpler times. But when it came to Christmas, the Victorians really did it up right. Decorating, feasting and sharing songs, music and gifts with others were all the order of the day. I was recently reading one of my favorite Christmas books, Joy to the World by Cynthia Hart, John Gossman and Priscilla Dunhill, for a refresher on Victorian Yuletide customs. If you want to experience a nostalgic holiday, take these suggestions to heart. You might, however, find they’re not so different from your own favorite holiday traditions.

Send Christmas Cards

As a continuation of the Valentine tradition, the Victorians extended the custom of sharing holiday greetings to Christmas. While Valentines were reserved primarily for those young and in love, Christmas cards were sent to everyone. During the Gilded Age, they became more and more frilly and adorned. The late-Victorian era yielded Christmas postcard greetings, which were wildly popular for sending and collecting.

Go Caroling

Victorians revived the centuries old custom of singing carols to celebrate the season, which included adding new life to the 400 year-old song “The First Noel.” They not only went door to door singing for friends and neighbors, they enjoyed carols in parlors at home and during beautiful candlelit worship services in local sanctuaries. And where there was song, there was sheet music. Nicely illustrated pieces with Christmas themes from the early 1900s are quite collectible today.

Decorate a Tree

A photo of Queen Victoria near a bedecked Christmas tree with her family sparked a tree-trimming frenzy in Victorian homes. The German custom of tabletop Christmas trees was taken to new heights by Victorians who placed them on the floor in their homes. They adorned their beloved evergreens with flickering candles, fancy paper Santas, glistening angels, chocolate wreaths, gilded apples, silver cornucopias decorated with tinsel tassels, and dozens of other beautiful ornaments.

Prepare a Feast

The English tradition of the wassail bowl and serving plum pudding transitioned to America in many areas. The plum pudding (the round dessert illustrated here) held charms holding symbolism for the person who ended up with that particular piece of dessert – a ring for marriage, a coin for wealth and a silver thimble for a happy yet single life. Being a German delicacy at the time, carp was often enjoyed by Victorian families served on special fish china sets during Christmas feasts as well. Many American homes also enjoyed turkey, ham, jams, jellies, pickles and several types of potatoes along with oyster dressing, pudding and stew.

Haul Out the Holly

In addition to decorating a handsome Christmas tree, Victorians also adorned the sideboard, mantle, banisters and most any other wooden surface available with rope upon rope of evergreen garland. Fresh mistletoe made its way into town as well, and hung in bountiful balls around the home. The olden tradition of warming the hearth with a specially cut Yule log continued on to foster continued good health and prosperity as well.

Make Your Own Gifts

Women’s magazines during the late 1800s encouraged making holiday gifts rather than buying them ready made. According to Joy to the World, in 1890 editor Emma Hopper wrote: “An article one makes is certainly more complimentary than one bought, for we weave with every stitch sweet wishes for the recipient.” Homemade gift suggestions included knitted mittens, embroidered bed slippers and handkerchiefs, stenciled lampshades, hand-painted button boxes and perhaps a hand-stitched black apron for the lady in mourning on a Victorian gift list.

Plan a Christmas Program

In the days before radio, television and movies, entertainment was spun closer to home. In fact, the Victorian parlor where a piano or organ often stood was center stage for Christmas Day entertainment. Family members and visiting friends would recite poems, read lively stories, offer songs or pick up an instrument for a musical solo. Children would practice for weeks in preparation. Parlor games were also played including charades and the reenactment of historical events. All the while, a bowl of wassail or mulled spiced cider was on hand for refreshment.

Make the Most of Christmas Day

Victorians would often venture out on Christmas Day to visit relatives and close friends, deliver dinners to the poor and infirmed, or attend candlelit church services. Those remaining at home would often enjoy Bible readings recounting the nativity story in addition to the numerous festivities of the day.
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