Victorian Rituals

Holiday Celebrations and Traditions

Evergreens were the most popular way to decorate during the holiday season. Garlands of greenery were framed over doorways, wrapped around pillars, draped over mantels, hung in swags and even used to frame pictures on the walls.

The holly's up,
the house is all bright,
The tree is ready,
the candles alight:
Rejoice and be glad,
all children tonight!
-From a German carol by P. Cornelius

The most significant greenery used were holly, ivy and mistletoe. According to legend, holly, with its thorns, and ivy were revered for their protection against witches and the forces of evil. Mistletoe had it's protective powers too. According to folklore, a cutting of mistletoe hung in a baby's cradle would keep a child safe from fairies.

Wassailing was a country tradition. On Christmas Eve it was custom to drink toasts to the trees in the orchard assuring bountiful future harvests.

Spirited wassailers recited lyrics such as this one to increase their merriment:

Apples and pears, with right good corn
Come in plenty to every one;
Eat and drink good cake and hot ale,
Give earth to drink, and she'll not fail.

In 1843 England, the first mass produced Chrismas cards were designed by the English painter John Calcott Horsley (1808-1882), for his friend Henry Cole. Henry wanted 1000 cards to mail to family and friends as he didn't have the time that year to write the usual Christmas and New Years letters. It wasn't until the 1860's that Christmas cards were being commercially mass produced and soon became a victorian ritual. This lithographed card, displaying a family celebration, caused quite a controversy among Victorian society because it prominently features a child taking a sip from a glass a wine.

The custom of decorating Christmas trees with apples, and, as time progressed, candles, flowers, paper novelties, pomanders and candies and cookies, became a Christmas tradition in Germany in the 1500's. Queen Victoria and her husband, the German Prince Albert (1819-1861), had a decorated tree every year. Once it was a royal imprimatur, Christmas evergreens spread their boughs in homes throughout the country. The first glass ornaments were made by a glassblower in Lauscha, Germany who created a collection of small glass balls to hang on his family's tree.

Another custom of celebration was the Yule log. The Yule log was a symbol of good luck for the coming year. It had to be large enough to burn or smolder on the hearth for the full 12 days of Christmas.

The Victorian dinner table was a kaleidoscope of special effects, with utensils provided for every imaginable purpose. Beside the ordinary basic table setting, most tables were equipped with asparagus tongs, oyster forks, fruit knives, spoon warmers, butter coolers and knife rests. The finger glass was filled with warm water and arrived with dessert. A guest was to wet a corner of their napkin and wipe their mouth then rinse their fingers.

Gift giving wasn't what it is today. In many cases the greeting card was prized as a gift and was usually framed or kept as a token of Christmases past. It was more likely that the rich exchanged store bought gifts, but for the most part it was a Christmas letter, or a piece of sheet music, flowers or handmade gift, that was inexpensive but well planned, that made the most gracious gift of all.