The Nativity of Christ has been celebrated for centuries and yet most traditional customs were of pagan origin. There then followed a period where Christmas celebration was almost non-existent due to the condemnation of pagan customs and superstitions during the Protestant Reformation. The Puritans then abolished all public celebrations after the Civil War and Christmas revelries declined.
The Christmas revival really began during the reign of Queen Victoria in the 19th century. Her husband, Prince Albert introduced many of his native German customs into Britain, including boosting the popularity of the Christmas tree in every home rather than just for royalty and the very rich.
The new-found wealth created by the Industrial Revolution meant that this was a time of great change and innovation and this affected every aspect of life, including Christmas celebrations. New traditions and customs were embraced and we are still influenced my many of these today.
A good example is the emergence of the Christmas greeting card. The greeting card was not a new convention and in fact it is believed that the early Chinese sent tidings of good will for the New Year and. there is also evidence to show that the ancient Egyptians wrote greetings for others on papyrus scrolls. In the 15th century the Germans printed New Year wishes using woodcuts and Europeans exchanged handmade paper Valentine greetings.
There is some debate over who created the first Christmas card for general distribution. It may have been William Egley Jr., a 16 year-old British boy whose card measuring 3 1/2-inches- by 5 1/2-inches is preserved in the British Museum. It depicts four Christmas scenes and “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” greeting with blanks after the word “To” on the top and “From” at the bottom. The problem is that the date on his card is unclear and it could be either 1842 or 1849.
The second contender is Sir Henry Cole, a Postal Service worker who commissioned the artist John Calcott Horsley to design and paint a card in 1843 showing the feeding and clothing of the poor. The central panel portrays a happy family embracing one another whilst sipping wine and enjoying the festivities. The card was met with criticism because showing a child enjoying a sip of wine was considered to be “fostering the moral corruption of children.” There is a printed greeting: “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You”. 1000 of these cards were printed, the controversy surrounding the design no doubt contributing to their popularity! The Penny Post meant that these could be posted cheaply and their popularity grew and grew!
Cards designed by people like Kate Greenaway, the Victorian children’s writer and illustrator; became favourites in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. These were generally very elaborate, often decorated with fringes and luxurious materials such as silk and satin. Others were crescent or fan shaped; some were shaped like bells, birds, candles and even plum puddings! There were complex ones which folded like maps or fitted together as puzzles, and magical pop-up cards that contained tiny mangers or skaters gliding around a mirrored pond.
Today’s cards might not always be as elaborate but they are certainly more commonplace with millions being posted around the world each year!
Another novel Victorian invention was the Christmas cracker. Many people know that this was the invention of one Tom Smith, a London confectioner but how many of us know exactly how this explosive party piece evolved? It started when Tom worked in a bakers and ornamental confectioners shop in 1830 selling sweets such as fondants, pralines and gum pastilles. He worked hard and was particularly interested in the ornaments and decorations for wedding cakes. In his spare time he experimented and created new, more exciting designs was soon successful enough to start his own business.
Whilst on holiday in France in 1840, Tom discovered the French bon-bon; just a sugared almond, but, at a time when English sweets were sold loose from the trays they were made in, this was wrapped in a twist of waxed paper. This was more hygienic, and quite a novelty so Tom brought the idea back with him to England. He marketed the bon-bons in time for Christmas, and they were an instant success. However, as sales declined after the Christmas period Tom decided he needed another novel idea to promote his bon-bons over and above his competitors who had followed his lead.
Tom had heard about the Chinese New Year Crackers which contained a fortune prediction inside and he hit upon the simple idea of double wrapping the sweets; first a single roll of waxed paper, then a motto and then an plain outer wrapper. The motto was to be a love motto as his sweets were a great favourite with the ladies of the day. He achieved success again but then his competitors followed suit. He needed yet another innovation! His response was to include a small charm or trinket and he put this with the wrapped sweet in a small tube, alongside the motto and then wrapped the whole thing in the outer wrapper. Instant success and the “Christmas Bonbonne ~complete with surprise” -was born!
Tom wanted to capitalize on this short seasonal period of success and racked his brain to think of yet another novelty for his bonbonne. Legend has it that whilst exasperated at his lack of a new idea, he kicked a smouldering log which then crackled and spluttered into life and he had his unique idea! Two years later Tom had perfected a safe means of perfecting this bang by using saltpetre pasted between two thin strips of card to create a crack. Thus, in 1860 Tom Smith’s “Bangs of Expectation” were launched; the forerunner of our modern cracker. They were small and known as “Cosaques” after the cracking of the whips of the Cossack horsemen as they rode through Paris during the Franco-Prussian Wars. Paper hats were added later as a part of the fancy dress popular at Twelfth Night parties.
The best loved Victorian Christmas tradition surely has to be Santa Claus, the friend of children everywhere! His origins were in Viking lore, brought to Britain when these invaders arrived and conquered in the 8th-9th centuries. They brought their god Odin who was the father of the gods, and had twelve characters. The character for December was sometimes known as Yalka or Jul and his month was known as Jultid. From this, we get Yuletide. During December it was believed that Odin would come to earth on his eight legged horse, Sleipnir. He would be disguised in a long blue hooded cloak, and carrying a sack of bread and a staff.
Odin was supposed to sit with people around their fire and listen in to hear if they were content or not. Sometimes he would leave a gift of bread for the poor. Think of the similarity with the hooded figure of Father Christmas who arrives secretly and leaves gifts.
Britain at the time was a largely Saxon stronghold and the Saxons celebrated and welcomed King Frost, or Father Time, or King Winter. Someone would represent him and be given a fine hat or crown to wear, and brought to sit at the fireside. They hoped that by in welcoming this deity, winter would be kinder to them and not so cold!
Nicholas (who later became St Nicholas in the 19th century) was popular in Europe long before he was in Britain. Born in Turkey he became Bishop of Myra. In 1087 a group of sailors moved his bones to Bari, Italy where he lived in public consciousness as “The Grandmother” or “Pasqua Epiphania”, a deity who used to fill children’s stocking with gifts.
The Dutch name for the equivalent counterpart of Nicholas was Sinterklaas – easy to see how this mutated into the name “Santa Claus”. This name was used by the novelist Washington Irving- (most famous for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”), in his 1809 satire on Dutch culture entitled “Knickerbocker History”. The story refers to Santa Claus with his white beard riding his flying horse.
The satire was read by Dr.Clement Moore and in 1822 he published his now famous poem based on the character Santa Claus:
“Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in the hope that Saint Nicholas soon would be there…” His character flew through the air with eight reindeer and entered houses via the chimney.
Victorian illustrators often showed Father Christmas as either a pagan figure with icicles or ivy around his head; or, with the influence of the new religious movement, as a stern and forbidding saint, as likely to punish as to reward children. This all changed when Bavarian illustrator Thomas Nast created the modern picture of Santa Claus.
From 1862 to 1886, Nast drew more than 2,200 cartoon images of Santa, based on Moore’s poem, for Harper’s Weekly. Before Nast, Saint Nicholas had been pictured as everything from a stern looking bishop to a gnome-like figure in a frock. Nast also created a home at the North Pole, a workshop filled with elves and the list of the good and bad children in the world.
The only thing missing was Santa’s red outfit and this was provided not by the Victorians but by the Coca Cola Corporation when they contracted the Swedish commercial artist Haddon Sundblom to create a coke-drinking Santa in 1931. Sundblom modelled his Santa on his friend Lou Prentice, whom he chose for his jovial, chubby face. The corporation insisted that Santa’s fur-trimmed suit be Coca Cola red and Santa as we know him was created.
Sylvia Edwards is site editor at gift retailer Prezzybox.com and has harboured a passion for gifts ever since she was a young child when she would make Christmas presents for all of her dolls. She’s carried this passion through her entire career and now enjoys sharing this wealth of knowledge with everyone who will listen!
About Brian Gallagher
Brian is the International Social Media Specialist for Ancestry, working closely with our United Kingdom, Sweden, German and Australian teams.