*Disclaimer: This focuses on American Christmas practices, and is meant to be a brief overview!*
The Victorian time period spans a massive 64 years. Beginning in 1837 with Queen Victoria’s crowing and ending in 1901 with her death, the era encompasses a wide range of American history (like the Industrial Revolution, gold rushes, westward expansion, Civil War, and Reconstruction, just to name a few), and accounts for a period of immense change for American citizens.
One of those changes can be found in the way that American’s began to celebrate Christmas. For the first time American’s – and Brits, for that matter – were engaging in universal Christmas customs. By participating in collective practices traditions were established and a ‘Christmas culture’ took root on American soil. Today, the influence of the Victorian era permeates nearly every Christmas tradition we have – from putting up the tree and trimming it with ornaments and skirts to Santa Claus and caroling, there are ties to the 1800’s.
The Beginning of the American Christmas
Although Christmas is a cultural phenomenon today, it was not always celebrated. Puritans and Quakers both denounced the holiday, and early settlers were frowned upon for taking the day to relax, rest, or play. Historically, Christmas (along with many other currently celebrated holidays, such as Halloween) was considered a Pagan holiday. Birthday celebrations were Pagan as well, and since Christmas was considered a celebrations of Jesus Christ’s birthday, it was met with disapproval. Not knowing exactly when Jesus’s birthday actually was only added to the stern demeanor of many religious groups in regard to Christmas. In “Christmas in America” Penne L. Restad notes, “It fell to Puritan reformers to put a stop to the unholy merriment…The Bible, they held, expressly commanded keeping only the Sabbath. In taking offence against Christmas-keeping, Puritans distributed colorful diatribes against the excesses of the holiday.”
As immigrants from a myriad of countries began to pour into the United States, Christmas celebrations slowly became more acceptable. By the beginning of the Victorian time period Christmas had become firmly rooted in American culture, but it was celebrated much differently than it is today. Decorations, meals, and gifts exchanged on the day largely depended on a family’s geographic location and culture.
German immigrants, from whom we borrow many of our traditions, were the most closely aligned to what Christmas would become. Cutting and decorating a Christmas tree was an immensely popular tradition in Germany, and German immigrants maintained the tradition in America as early as the mid-1700’s. Christmas trees were largely unwelcome to Americans, however, until the late 1840’s as they were considered Pagan symbols and a deviation from a purer holiday celebration.
Several factors contributed to the rise of Christmas trees in America. German immigration to the United States and American travelers visiting Germany on European tours laid the foundation for tree trimming traditions. German immigrants maintained their Christmas customs after arriving in America by cutting and trimming evergreen trees. Grandiose Christmas parties were well-liked opportunities for the upper classes to socialize, and many wealthy families with German lineage surprised their guests, much as a child would be surprised on Christmas day, by flinging open the parlor or drawing room doors to reveal an elaborately decorated tree. Impressed by the beauty and elegance of a decorated tree, and intrigued by the idea of surprising their children, families of many different cultural backgrounds began to trim trees in their drawing room. Parents and older children would work late into the night on Christmas Eve to ensure that younger children were gleefully surprised by what they found in the morning.
The Christmas Tree custom was solidified by the royal family – specifically Prince Albert. Prince Albert brought the first Christmas tree to the palace, and a picture of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their children standing around the Christmas tree was sketched and distributed in England. The same picture soon made its way to the United States, but royal indicators like crowns and medals were removed to give the print a more American feel. In addition, Godey’s Lady’s Book, a wide read magazine in the period, published extensive instruction on how to decorate a tree, whether it was a tabletop evergreen, tabletop feather tree, or full size evergreen. The combination of these factors earned Christmas trees a permanent spot in American Christmas customs by 1850.
Lighting the Tree
The decorations that went on the tree were just as important, if not more important, than the tree itself. As soon as Christmas trees became a part of mainstream Christmas culture, so did Christmas tree trimmings. Although one might not associate a historical Christmas with capitalism and industry, tree trimmings were an integral part of both. The British Industrial Revolution, in full swing by the time that Queen Victoria was crowned, allowed Christmas decorations to be massed produced. Shortly after, the American industrial revolution caught up, and America began to mass produce Christmas decorations as well.
Christmas lights for trees started the same way that all lights did – as candles. The wealthier a family was, the more candles they could afford to put on their tree. The picture of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their children around a Christmas tree that jump started the American tradition of Christmas trees features glowing candles on each branch. Due to the dangerous nature of an open flame on a dried tree, candles were typically lit only twice, once on Christmas Day and once on New Year’s Day. Even then, the candles were usually lit for only a short period of time before being extinguished.
Candles dripped wax as they burned, leading to the invention of another popular Christmas item: the tree skirt. Tree skirts were initially created to catch the dripping wax and prevent damage to flooring. Now tree skirts are used purely for decoration and serve as a reminder of Christmas’s past.
By the latter half of the Victorian era electric lights had been invented for Christmas trees. Surprisingly, the same distrust that a modern Christmas decorator would place on candles was given to electric lights. Families that were well used to dealing with the dangerous nature of candles felt that electric lights would be the bigger gamble. In addition, electric lights were incredibly expensive and well out of budget for all except the upper class.
Another mass-produced spectrum of tree trimming was ornaments. For most Christmas trees scrap ornaments and popcorn strings were common adornments. Decorations would be made from bits and pieces of leftover handicrafts, newspaper or magazine clippings, or any other variety of re-purposed material. Popcorn, berries, and other treats would be hand strung to create a garland.
The upper classes, however, were able to enjoy more lavishly decorated trees. Glass and crystal ornaments were being produced as quickly as possible and sold in general stores (as well as newfangled department stores). Instead of stringing popcorn, wealthy families could purchase elaborate strings of glass and crystal beads. In the most extravagant of cases stylish ornaments were imported directly from Europe (usually Germany). By the turn of the century more and more store bought decorations were introduced to trees across the country.
Perhaps the most important contribution of Victorian society to Christmas traditions is the development of Santa Claus. Many cultures prior to the Victorian time period had a form of Santa Claus; a benevolent, magical being that delivered gifts and well wishes in the night. As would be expected, each country assigned Santa Claus different job descriptions, characteristics, and personality traits. Although the American Santa Claus was introduced to America culture prior to the Victorian time period in the form of poetry (as well as group gatherings to celebrate Saint Nicholas, the inspiration for Santa Claus), he was without form. There was not yet a widely-recognized version of Santa Claus.
Thomas Nast, celebrated illustrator for “Harper’s Weekly” and the first person to associate donkeys with the democratic party and elephants with the republican party, was the man responsible for creating a nationally accepted Santa Claus. According to a historical editorial about the Civil War, “Nast’s cover art for the January 1863 Harper’s Weekly, “Santa Claus in Camp,” was actually completed by the artist in 1862 and is considered the first modern image of Santa Claus. Until that time, images of Santa Claus varied widely around the world.”
The rosy red cheeks, large belly, and prominent beard were all solidified in the hearts and minds of American children through his artwork, which he centered around Christmas at the end of every year. Nast is also credited with choosing Santa Claus’s home, the North Pole. Developing the image of Santa Claus led to the largest unification of Christmas traditions in the Victorian time period, and continues to unify Christmas celebrators as Santa Claus has become a universally recognized symbol.