Someone once said that Christmas was invented by Charles Dickens. What they meant, of course, is that so much of the look and feel of Christmas as we celebrate it today – from the tree to the turkey, from the presents to the parlour games – owes more to the author of A Christmas Carol (1847), and to Victorian customs generally, than to anything that went before.
But how true is that? What did the festive season look like before the Victorians set their indelible stamp on it? How did they celebrate Christmas in an earlier age?
In some ways, very differently indeed. For a start, before the nineteenth century, Christmas was more of a season than a two-or-three-day event. It lasted at least twelve days, from Christmas Day to Twelfth Night (5th January); though could equally, in some parts of the country, go on for the entire calendar month that began on St Nicholas’s Day (6th December).
Marked out mainly by a visit to church, Christmas Day itself would have been a relatively quiet interlude in what, by the Georgian and Regency eras, had become a period of sustained party-going and open houses. Presents were exchanged throughout the season – beginning on St Nicholas’s Day and culminating on Twelfth Night.
That was for the wealthy, of course. But, even for the less well-off, Christmas still meant an extended holiday (farm workers, for example, not returning to the land until ‘Plough Monday’ in the second week of January). And there was a strong tradition, among landowners and employers, of seasonal largesse: gifts and ‘boxes’ of money would be distributed on Boxing Day and, less commonly, banquets laid on for the parish poor.
In great and humble houses alike, decorations (before the Victorians introduced coloured glass and tinsel) were simple boughs and wreaths of greenery brought in from the outdoors: holly, ivy and mistletoe, obviously, but also rosemary, laurel and bay. These were an ancient tradition – symbolising life continuing through the depths of winter – that had continued unbroken since pagan times.
No Christmas trees, though: at least not for most people. That Christmas trees were entirely unknown in Britain before the Victorian period is in fact a bit of a myth. One had, in fact, been a fixture of the royal festivities since George III’s glamorous queen consort Charlotte had put a decorated yew on display at Windsor in 1800. It was not, though, until a fir instated by Prince Albert was featured in The Illustrated London News of 1848 that the Christmas tree caught the popular imagination.
Actually, there wasn’t much about Christmas in the eighteenth century that didn’t hark back to a much older age. The leisurely pace of the season, the great parties in great halls, the observance of charitable acts, were all continuations of customs that dated back to medieval times at least.
Many of the minor traditions are almost completely lost to us now. People still went wassailing up until the nineteenth century (at which point it began to feel uncomfortably heathen, and Christian carolling took its place). On Twelfth Night, high-spirited bands of wassailers would carouse through a parish from house to house, generous with song and festive wishes but firmly expectant of cider and pudding in equally generous return.
Mummers’ plays were a similar sort of phenomenon. These were folk dramas performed by travelling players – again, typically in order to drum up rewards of food or coin – who, costumed as animals and figures from fable, would act out legendary stories. Some such narratives even featured a Father Christmas character – though at this date he had no fixed appearance (the now iconic image of a white-bearded, red-robed jolly gentleman became standardised only in book and magazine illustrations from the 1840s onwards).
And in the great houses, helping to pass the time through the protracted partying, hundreds of now-half-forgotten games would be played. Some of these used playing cards or dice; others were of the blind-man’s-buff or grandmother’s-footsteps type. There seems to be have been an early version of Charades. And Snap-dragon, a favourite on Christmas Eve, involved trying to pick up raisins that had been set afloat in a bowl of flaming brandy.
Christmas dinner was as special an occasion before the nineteenth century as it was later, though the centrepiece would have been more likely a goose than a turkey, usually accompanied by other roast meats, mostly game, and fish fried or boiled. Plum pudding and mince pies were traditional fare too, though mince pies did actually contain minced meat until the Victorians reinvented them as entirely sweet.
But, again, Twelfth Night was as high a holiday as Christmas itself and was commemorated with its own special cake: a glittering, boozy fruitcake frosted with elaborate white sugar decorations. This, as Twelfth Night lost its importance over time, was somehow brought forward in the calendar to become what we today would recognise as the Christmas cake.
As the decades went on, and by the end of the eighteenth century, the old, drawn-out way of celebrating Christmas came to suit fewer and fewer people. Great country families, certainly, were no longer so ready to embrace the season’s considerable demands on their hospitality and charity.
More to the point, perhaps, ordinary people were increasingly living in towns and cities, where the old customs of the country couldn’t easily follow. And the demands of industrial labour were all-powerful. The 1833 Factory Act allowed just two full days off a year: Good Friday and Christmas Day. From that point on, Christmas was always going to be all about a more intimate, more intense and much more family-centred 25th December.
In that respect at least the Victorian Christmas set the modern template. Before that, the festive season signalled a much older, slower, more rural and essentially more feudal way of life; one that today is all but gone for good.