In many ways, Christmas as we know it was designed by the Victorians. Although the day had been celebrated for centuries in Britain, it was the Victorians who popularised many of the traditions associated with Christmas in Britain today. Industrialisation, the growth of the middle class and new consumer markets of the 19th century meant that Christmas was no longer just for the rich, and it was not a small affair.
In 1848, a picture of Victoria, Albert and their children, the quintessential family, appeared in the Illustrated London News, gathered around their decorated Christmas tree. This was the beginnings of the widespread Christmas tree tradition in Britain.
The first Christmas cards were sold by Sir Henry Cole, the first director of the V&A, in 1843. Crackers were invented by Tom Smith, a London sweet maker, in 1846; he first wrapped his sweets in twisted paper and later added a bang!
Santa Claus, like the Christmas tree, was a tradition that arrived in England from Europe; he was known as Sinter Klaas in Holland, a nickname for Saint Nicholas. Clement Clarke Moore’s 1822 poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ helped to propagate the image of Santa as a jolly portly figure accompanied by a sleigh and reindeer.
Moore’s poem also describes ‘stockings hung by the fire with care’, suggesting that the tradition of hanging stockings in preparation for Father Christmas was already popular by the Victorian era.
In Queen Victoria’s diaries, she records the traditions that the royal family held each year. In 1832 she describes, “…two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the tree.” They dined with family and, when young, Victoria describes having a table of her own, while the others ate together. She lists all their presents given and received including a collar that she gave her dog Flora and a music book for her governess. Victoria collected fans of all kinds, and frequently describes being given new and old fans as gifts throughout her diary.
Victoria also gave away her clothing to servants and acquaintances throughout her life, including to Samuel and Eunice Bagster. Samuel was honoured by the Queen for his compilation of ‘Bagster’s Comprehensive Bible’ and Victoria also knew his wife and visited Eunice at her cottage in 1877. Among the clothing that the Bagsters received was a pair of cream silk stockings embroidered with crowns and the initials VR. Eunice Bagster’s care of the stockings that she was given by the Queen accounts for their survival until today.