As we sit down to write our Christmas cards, balance the fairy on the tree or battle through the crowds to find the best turkey, it’s hard to imagine that none of these festive traditions existed until one special lady became Queen. For many of the cherished things we today think of as the epitome of Christmas are in fact down to the trailblazing Victorians and their feisty, formidable monarch, whose life we’ve become fascinated with, thanks to Jenna Coleman’s recent portrayal of her in the landmark series, Victoria.
Here are just five things the Victorians gave us for Christmas.
It was Queen Victoria’s beloved Prince Albert who introduced Britain to the lavishly decorated Christmas tree we know today. Having grown up with the custom of a spectacular Christmas tree in his native Germany, Albert set one up at Windsor once he married Victoria. When the Illustrated London News published a sketch of the Royal Family around a decorated tree in 1848, the tradition caught on.
Soon, every home had a tree with lighted candles, sweets, fruit, homemade decorations and small gifts.
We first started sending Christmas cards in the 1840s when the Penny Post allowed people to send a card to anyone for one penny. The world’s first commercial Christmas card was designed in 1843 and showed a well-to-do family eating Christmas lunch alongside charities feeding and clothing the poor. By 1880 there were 11.5 million Christmas cards produced.
Mince pies go back to Tudor times, but the Victorians mercifully changed the ingredients from meat to sweet pastry and fruit!
Over the period, the Victorians also switched from goose or beef on Christmas Day to the traditional turkey. The introduction of steam railways meant turkeys could be transported quickly to the markets, so bringing the price down.
The favourite of a plum pudding, served alongside savoury dishes, later become our mouth-watering Christmas pudding.
The Victorians loved music, so it’s no surprise they were responsible for reviving many medieval carols and composing new ones.
Some of the best include O Little Town of Bethlehem, Away in a Manger, and O Come All Ye Faithful.
The Victorians also brought back the custom of carol singing in return for a hot mince pie or money to be donated to the needy.
Today, we think of corny hats and even cornier jokes when we think about Christmas crackers, but originally they were all about sweets. The cracker was invented around 1847 when a British confectioner, Tom Smith, came up with the idea of a package filled with sweeties that snapped when pulled apart. He called them Cosaques after the Russian Cossack soldiers who would fire their guns in the air while on horseback. In the late Victorian period, these sweets were replaced by gifts, paper hats and even love letters.