Victorians: the inventors of Christmas

PUBLISHED: 15:14 05 December 2016 | UPDATED: 15:14 05 December 2016

Henry Cole's first Christmas card

Henry Cole's first Christmas card

© Mary Evans Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

Emily Shepperson, assistant curator at Hitchin’s British Schools Museum, explores the Victorian traditions that made Christmas the celebration we know today

A Victorian Christmas treeA Victorian Christmas tree

Many of our much-loved Christmas traditions have a long history stretching back to Anglo Saxon times. Back then, Christmas was a communal, outdoor celebration bringing light into the darkest time of the year. But for the roots of the family celebration we enjoy today it is to the Victorians we must look.

During the 1800s the industrial revolution caused many families to be separated by work for the first time as people moved to new towns. Two leading figures in Victorian society saw Christmas as an opportunity to bring families back together and to celebrate Christian values in a haven, away from the trials of everyday life. These two were Prince Albert and Charles Dickens, and they created the British love affair with the traditional family Christmas.

Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in under six weeks in 1843. Originally called A Ghost Story for Christmas, Dickens’ used the tale to spread his ideas about Christmas being a time of giving and celebrating with family. The story hit a chord – it was hugely popular both then and now.


Victorian Christmas decorationsVictorian Christmas decorations

The tradition of Christmas cards was started in 1843 by Henry Cole, the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Cole asked artist John Horsley to design a festive card he could send to family and friends. He must have had many because he had a run of 1,000 printed.

The idea of sending festive greetings to loved ones quickly gained popularity, helped by the new universal penny post, which made sending mail much cheaper. Victorian Christmas cards often had designs of bright flowers or red robins to match the red uniforms postmen wore.

By 1881 the Royal Mail already had to ask people to send their cards early. Last year there were 1.12 billion Christmas cards sent in the UK.

Decorated orangesDecorated oranges


Christmas crackers are also a Victorian invention, created by the sweet maker Tom Smith. On a trip to Paris, Smith was struck by the French trend for sweets wrapped in twists of tissue paper. Bringing the idea home, he trialed the wrapped sweet, but found it was not very popular. 
It was sitting by his fire in 1847 that Smith heard a loud crack from the embers and had the idea of putting a ‘snap’ into his paper twists. Crackers were soon a Christmas staple.

Keeping it in the family, it was Smith’s son Walter who introduced paper hats and small toys to the crackers. The jokes started much later!


EDJPA2 Old box of Victorian Christmas crackers featuring an illustration of birds in the snow carrying - and pulling - the crackers. Image shot 1890. Exact date unknown.EDJPA2 Old box of Victorian Christmas crackers featuring an illustration of birds in the snow carrying - and pulling - the crackers. Image shot 1890. Exact date unknown.

Many people believe it was Queen Victoria who brought the German tradition of Christmas trees to England through the influence of her German husband, but it was her grandmother Queen Charlotte who first had a tree in her home. The idea of decorated fir trees really took off in England though after Prince Albert had a picture painted of his family at Windsor gathered around a tree decorated with candles and coloured papers. Everyone wanted to copy the fashion, not only of the tree, but the idea the image represented – an intimate family Christmas at home.

As well as using greenery to decorate their homes, the richest Victorians could afford another German idea – a new invention called baubles. The earliest baubles from the 1870s were made of thin, brightly coloured glass blown into the shape of fruit, pine cones or flowers. These delicate ornaments were hung from Christmas trees and glittered in the candlelight.


A87PJD Mince Pies, anthropomorphic Christmas greeting card circa 1875. Image shot 1875. Exact date unknown.A87PJD Mince Pies, anthropomorphic Christmas greeting card circa 1875. Image shot 1875. Exact date unknown.

Victorians left us many festive traditions for decorating our homes, but they also enjoyed a good Christmas dinner. Turkey was already eaten by many, following the bird’s introduction from America in the 16th century. The Norfolk black is one of the oldest breeds and during October the birds were walked from East Anglia to London to be sold. The birds would have their feet covered in tar to protect them during the long journey.

Stuffing was also very popular as the herbs and onions acted as a natural antiseptic, helping to preserve the bird for Christmas Day without refrigeration.

Many of our other Christmas foods have much earlier origins, but were adapted by the Victorians into the forms we enjoy today. Mince pie recipes have been found dating to the 1300s when they included five different types of meat and were made into large, ornately-shaped pies. The Victorians refined these recipes, removing the meat and making the pastry into individual round pies.

Christmas pudding began in the Victorian period as a simple, often sloppy dish. But by the end of the era it was steamed into elaborate moulds, set alight with alcohol, and eaten with ‘hard sauce’ – the Victorian version of brandy butter. Little trinkets were also added to Christmas puddings for the first time – the item found told your fortune for the coming year, a sixpence meant riches and a ring marriage.

Step inside a traditional Victorian Christmas at the British Schools Museum Victorian Christmas Fair. There will be food, decorations, carols and stalls on December 2-3. For times and full details, see

Dickens & Herts

Charles Dickens based his 1861 Christmas story Tom Tiddler’s Ground on a character, James Lucas, known as the Hermit of Hertfordshire or Mad Lucas who lived near Titmore Green on the edge of Stevenage. Dickens’ moral tale told how how withdrawing from society led to brooding and suspicion of others.

Charles Dickens and Edward Bulwer Lytton, novellist and owner of Knebworth House, had a mutual admiration that grew into a lifelong friendship. Dickens changed the ending of Great Expectations following advice from his friend. Dicken’s visited Knebworth House on several occasions. In 1850 he produced and performed three productions of Ben Johnson’s comedy Every Man in his Humour, the performances taking place in the Banqueting Hall.

To walk in the great man’s footsteps, join actor Jeremy Swift for a reading of A Christmas Carol in the Banqueting Hall on December 10 and 11. See the house website for details.

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