Writers in the Storm

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December 12, 2010

The American Christmas - Victorian Style And Today

Compiled and Edited By Sharla Rae

Historians argue as to when the “Victorian era started. Since Clement Moore’s poem in 1822, A Visit From St. Nicholas, seemed to give all the nationalities of our country a Christmas commonality, this era seems to have birthed the Victorian Christmas.

Because of our original staid Puritan ancestors, we Americans were slower to adopt the Christmas customs known today. Puritans considered the celebration of Christ’s birth frivolous and heathen nonsense. Some stubbornly held onto this belief into the late 1870s. 

Southern states brought their customs over from England and kept them from colonial times through the Victorian era and in some cases they exist yet today. Also, we must not forget the large Dutch population in the Northern colonies, especially New York. The Dutch had no qualms about celebrating the holidays in a jolly manner. They called their Santa St. Nicholas or St. Nick and it is from the Dutch we inherited the Christmas stocking.  

Christmas rituals first got a toehold in New York with savvy merchants who were quick to realize their commercial value. German bakeries began staying open late to decorate their windows with red silk buntings and holly. Holiday shoppers could not resist the cakes, toys and candies displayed under glittering gas-jet lamps. Nor could they ignore the smells of cinnamon kuchens (cakes) and sweet almonds paste. Also, by the 1870s Macy’s department store dressed their windows with great Christmas displays. One window displayed an amphitheater of wax, rag, bisque and hand-painted porcelain dolls imported from Germany, France, Austria, Switzerland, and Bohemia. In another window, scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin were composed in a panorama with steam-driven movable parts. 

By the 1880s Christmas’s conquest of the US was complete. Even Boston capitulated. Victorians now sent chromolithograph Christmas cards or painted their own. They filled silver paper cornucopias with candies. They decorated Christmas trees with apples, tangerines, walnuts dipped in egg white; strings of popcorn and cranberries; gold-foil “Dresdens” shaped as miniature stars and steamships, elves and fish and birds. Candles lit trees and many a muslin dress caught fire! Glass ornaments and icicles were introduced by the Germans around the mid-1880s. Taking the tree down was a fun activity for the children in the Victorian era as they were allowed to eat the eatable goodies on it.

Christmas preparations went beyond the stitching of new dresses, the gathering of holly and mistletoe and the stirring of the pudding. Handmade gifts, labored on months in advance, were often hung on the tree.  There might be a pen-wiper in the shape of a waterlily, a knitting bag worked with silk floss and matching fringe, a red rose potpourri, quince jam, and maybe a pair of embroidered bed slippers. Christmas cards were addressed with nibbed pens and the aromas of scented paper in the stationer’s shop, inks and sealing wax filled the air. Brown or white paper wrappings were used and sealed shut with sealing wax.   

Christmas Eve brought carolers singing Noel, While Shepherds Watched, Good King Wenceslas, Come All Ye Faithful and Silent Night. After singing the carolers came into the hall for hot beer, punch, and pennies. In many homes, Christmas Eve was the time when personal gifts were exchanged, while in others they waited until after church Christmas day. Children hung their stockings by the fireplace or over a bed post.     

Originally, the gifts under the tree were handmade and might include a sled or a carved toy made by father, a rag doll made by mother. A child might crochet the edges of a handkerchief. Commercially made gifts became popular by the 1880’s. A child usually received only one store-bought toy. It could have been a wind-up dancing bear, Logos, an early form of Scrabble, a precursor of Monopoly called Moneta, penny whistles, pull toys or stuffed animals. But the best gift of all was a father’s gift to his entire family. It might be a magic lantern with a four-wick oil lamp and a packet of twenty-five hand-tinted slides. The slides told a spooky story, with images of wicked gargoyles and saintly fairies cast upon a nine-foot-square white muslin screen.    

After the gifts were discovered there was breakfast which was followed by church. The church was decorated with holly but almost never with mistletoe, as it was the badge of the Druid. By the 1880s, poinsettia plants were added to the array. After church, everyone headed back home to a mid-day Christmas dinner.

But first there was the grown-up gift exchange, and a glass of wine and seed-cake, providing this hadn’t taken place the night before. Then it was time to sit at the table with its brightly colored paper crackers, and good eats.  The cracker, enjoyed in England as well, was brightly colored paper wrapped around a small gift and then twisted at each end. When the ends were tugged to open them, they made a cracking noise. Recently these have started to reappear in elite Christmas catalogs and specialty shops.

The main coarse depended upon ethnic background and where one lived.  Anglophiles (popular term at the time describing one who greatly admired English ways) favored sirloin or beef or goose. But most Americans served turkey stuffed with oysters.  There might be a goose and/or ham too, sometimes all. Occasionally there were two turkeys, one boiled, and one roasted. There was also likely to be sausages, bacon, roast potatoes and whatever vegetables were available - turnips, baked squash, or some cabbage dish. Then there was homemade bread, preserves, mince pie or plum pudding.

Later in the afternoon, after a massive kitchen clean-up and the children’s naps, came the long-rehearsed Christmas program. Children in velvet breeches or dresses and high-buttoned shoes recited their memorized recitations. Family members played solos on the violin or piano, or composed plays, depicting scenes from the Bible or events in history. To close this glorious day, the family gathered around the piano to sing Silent Night. Sometimes games would be played such as Blind Man’s Bluff and Hunt The Slipper. In some homes, this is when the mistletoe kissing was done too. 

Some Victorian Menus In Different Locales

1773:  In England -- boiled cod fish with fried soles, and around them oyster sauce, beef and wild duck.

1858:  Miners in the Rockys -- Oysters, Pork, elk, antelope, buffalo, grizzly bear a` la mode, black mountain squirrel, prairie dog and mountain rats. Wine and whiskey was brought by wagon trains.

1863:  South Carolina Plantation -- Oyster soup, boiled mutton, ham, boned turkey, wild ducks, partridges, plum pudding, burgundy, sherry, Madeira.


 It’s easy to see that most of the traditions established in the Victorian era are still well-known today if not always practiced. Lets hope that the message of “peace and goodwill toward men” is one tradition that is never forgotten in the hustle and bustle of today’s modern world. 

0 comments on “The American Christmas - Victorian Style And Today”

  1. I'm loving all y our Christmas blogs! It's fun knowing how our ancestors celebrated the holiday.

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