A Timeline of Christmas through the Victorian Era

   Posted by: craig   in History

The Royal family enjoy the first Christmas tree at Windsor Christmas was hardly celebrated in Britain, nor in the States, in the early 19th century. It only became popular mid-century which many attribute to Queen Victoria’s marriage to the German-born Prince Albert. In 1848 the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the royal family celebrating around a decorated Christmas tree according to the ways of Prince Albert’s childhood in Germany. Because of this, the German tradition of a candle-lit tree adorned with sweets, fruit, homemade decorations and small gifts quickly spread throughout Britain. This supplanted old traditions of gift-giving at New Years. Gift-giving also became more important during the Victorian era, morphing from small, homemade gifts being hung on the tree, to larger, shop-bought gifts being placed under the tree. At around the same time, the mailing of Christmas cards became a new tradition, one made possible by the industrialization of color printing and by the economies of the postal system such that postage only cost half a penny. A myriad of new practices and refinements grew from there. For example, the Victorians revived and popularized the singing of carols, putting old words to new tunes and forever associating them with Christmas. Also, in Victorian Britain it was established that Christmas was time for family reunions — and that’s when it was determined that a roasted turkey was the perfect size to serve such a family gathering, rather than roasted goose. And then there was Charles Dickens. While A Christmas Carol did not invent the Victorian Christmas, it certainly helped to spread the traditions and to focus the celebration of Christmas on the notions of happiness and peace, family togetherness, charity, and goodwill.
325 AD
  • Saint Nicholas (born sometime during the 3rd c. in the ancient Lycian seaport city of Patara) attends the first Council of Nicaea under the rule of Emperor Constantine the Great.
336 AD
  • Christmas first celebrated in Rome.
6th c.
  • Roman emperor Justinian I builds one of the first of many thousand churches dedicated to Saint Nicholas at Constantinople (now Istanbul).
8th c.
  • The Christmas tree tradition begins with Saint Boniface, who converted the druidic German people to Christianity.
  • Italian sailors steal Saint Nicholas’ alleged remains from Myra and take them to Bari, Italy.
through 1553
  • An official known as the King of Misrule, or the Abbot of Misrule, managed the Christmas festivities held at the late medieval and early Tudor court and in the houses of great noblemen. The official served anywhere from 12 days to 3 months and arranged all the festivities and entertainment. Scotland’s counterpart was the “Abbot of Unreason”.
  • Frumenty evolves into plum pudding, having been thickened with eggs, breadcrumbs, and dried fruit and given more flavor thanks to the addition of ale and spirits, and begins to be a customary “Christmas pudding.”
16th c.
  • Martin Luther is credited as being the first person to put candles on a tree to represent stars.
  • English parliament passes a law making Christmas illegal. Christmas festivities were banned by Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell, who considered feasting and revelry on what was supposed to be a holy day to be immoral.
  • The Puritans lose power in England and the ban on Christmas celebrations is lifted.
  • Puritans ban Christmas pudding as a “lewd custom,” describing its rich ingredients as “unfit for God-fearing people.”
  • The first candy canes (sugar sticks bent to resemble shepherds’ crooks) were handed out by the choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral to keep the young singers quiet during the long Living Creche ceremony.
17th C.
  • Ginger snap cookies gained favor in Colonial North America as Christmas tree decorations.
  • George I re-establishes Christmas pudding as part of the Christmas feast.
  • A wooden Cup and Ball Toy is commercially advertised in the New York Journal.
  • Isaac Weld, Jr. writes in his travelogue about being served egg-nog by his American and Canadian hosts.
  • “Hansel and Gretel,” a well-known fairy tale of German origin is recorded and published by the Brothers Grimm. This popularized the gingerbread house, which soon became a favorite Christmas decoration.
  • The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent is a collection of 34 essays and short stories by American author Washington Irving, published serially throughout 1819 and 1820. The two best-known stories were The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and ‘Rip Van Winkle,’ but many of the others described English traditions around Christmas. Those stories directly contributed to an American revival of Christmas celebration.
  • Clement Moore is credited with having penned A Visit from St. Nicolas, better known as The Night Before Christmas for the enjoyment of his family and friends.
  • Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first Mexican ambassador from the United States, imports “poinsettia” plants from Mexico.
  • The first significant collection of carols was published.
  • Prince Albert has a Christmas tree set up in Windsor Castle for his wife, Queen Victoria, and their children.
  • Charles John Huffman Dickens (b. 1812) writes A Christmas Carol.
  • The tradition of mailing printed Christmas cards started in London (and three years later in America) when Henry Cole commissioned an artist to design a card that showed a group of people around a dinner table and a Christmas message. Most Victorians could not afford those original cards priced at one shilling each, so they used home-made cards by their children, instead. Eventually, the industrial revolution brought printing costs down and commercially printed cards became the norm.
  • A German-Swedish immigrant named August Imgard of Wooster, Ohio, is credited with being the first to decorate a Christmas tree with candy canes.
  • An image of the British royal family with their Christmas tree at Windsor Castle created a sensation when it was published in the Illustrated London News. A modified version of this image was published in the United States in 1850. By the 1870s, putting up a Christmas tree had become common in America.
    The Royal family enjoy the first Christmas tree at Windsor

    The Royal family enjoy the first Christmas tree at Windsor — illustration from ‘The Life of Victoria’ by Alice Corkran.

  • London confectioner Tom Smith conceives of Christmas crackers whilst sitting in front of his log fire.
Pulling a Christmas Cracker

Illustration of children pulling a cracker from The Graphic Christmas, 1878

  • The Wonderful Toy Shop is published by Philip J. Cozans in New York. Hand-colored wood engravings feature a variety of toys (available to affluent children) of the period. Mostly made of wood, wax, tin, and rubber, they included: dolls and doll houses, games, puppets, musical instruments, guns, rocking-horses, soldiers, bows and arrows, blocks, tools, kites, and wagons.
  • John Pierpont writes Jingle Bells, intending it to be a Thanksgiving song.
  • Harper’s Weekly runs a series of engravings by Thomas Nast. From these images come the concepts of Santa’s workshop, Santa reading letters, Santa checking his list and so on.
  • Macy’s begins the practice of remaining open until midnight on Christmas Eve for last minute Christmas shopping.
  • Christmas is formally declared a United States Federal holiday and signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant.
  • The first window displays with a Christmas theme at Macy’s.
  • Abram C. Mott & Hermann Albrecht patent the Christmas tree stand (in the United States).
  • Johannes C. Eckardt patents a spring-wound, revolving, musical Christmas tree stand.
  • French snow globes are a fashionable gift throughout Europe.
  • Woolworth’s sells the first manufactured Christmas Tree ornaments.
  • An American telephonist invents the electric Christmas lights.
  • The first White House Christmas tree was modest, merely decorated with candles and toys. It was placed in the room used as a family parlor for President Benjamin Harrison and his family.
  • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) writes The Nutcracker, which is first performed on March 19th, in St. Petersburg.
  • The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle was the seventh Sherlock Holmes story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to appear in The Strand. In it, Sherlock Holmes puzzled out how a certain Christmas goose had come to swallow a purloined gem.
Father Christmas

A late Victorian representation of Father Christmas

  • The the young daughters of President Grover Cleveland enjoyed the first Christmas tree in the White House to be decorated with electric lights.
  • Francis P. Church, an editor for the New York Sun, replies to a letter sent in by eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon. The famous line, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” appears at the beginning of the second paragraph.
  • Alfred Wagner patents a motorized Christmas tree stand with a base for water.
  • Joshua Lionel Cowen invents an electric motor small enough to use in model train engines.
  • A Clifford Berryman political cartoon about President Roosevelt is said to propel the teddy bear into a national obsession.
  • The world’s first Christmas Seal (non-postage stamp) was issued in Denmark. It bore the likeness of the Danish Queen (Louise of Hesse-Kassel) and the word “Julen” (Christmas). Over 4 million were sold in the first year at DKK 0.02 per seal, with the proceeds going to fight tuberculosis, a greatly feared disease at the time that seemed particularly cruel for its harmful effects on children.

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