Seven surprising Victorian Christmas traditions – from food to card designs

What did the Victorians get up to at Christmas? (Picture: Getty Images/Rex Shutterstock)

Christmas is here, and however you choose to spend the festive season, the chances are you’ll adopt a lot of the customs and traditions we all know and love – from sending out festive cards through to feasting on turkey (or the vegan equivalent) Christmas pudding and mince pies on the day itself.

Most people will have grown up with these traditions – many of which have their roots in the 19th Century, being popularised by Queen Victoria as well as Charles Dickens in his novel A Christmas Carol.

That doesn’t mean some of our festive favourites haven’t undergone a few changes since the Victorian era, mind.

So just how did Victorians spend Christmas – was it all turkey dinners, presents under the tree and waiting up for Santa, or did they do things differently?

Here are just some of the 19th Century Christmas traditions which may surprise you…

Mince pies

While we might be familiar with a filling of dried fruit, candied peel, sugar and spices in our mince pies, it was a different story for the Victorians – whose own mincemeat did indeed contain meat.

While previous generations favoured meats such as lamb, veal, tongue and even tripe in their mince pies, minced beef was more commonly used by the Victorians alongside the fruit and spices – although by the middle of the century meat-free fillings had grown in popularity in certain sections of society.

Mince pies have changed a bit since Victorian times (Picture: Getty Images)

It’s not clear why this was, but it ultimately led to meat being virtually dropped in favour of fruit-filled mince pies by the early 1900s – although many at that point still contained beef suet.

Christmas presents

Prior to the Victorian era, gifts were given at New Year rather than Christmas, and were on the modest side – usually consisting of handmade decorations and crafts, or nuts, fruit and sweets.

Gifts were eventually moved under the tree as they became bigger and more expensive – although some etiquette around present-giving remained.

That’s a whole lot of mistletoe (Picture: Getty Images)

Women, for example, were only expected to give presents to men that they were either married or related to – and these were expected to be of a more practical than intimate nature, with such presents as shaving kits and tobacco boxes proving popular.

Presents for women, meanwhile, would depend on their social standing and their marital status – and could include anything from soaps and perfumes, to jewellery, flowers and sweets.

Christmas cards

Grim. (Picture: News Dog Media)

Christmas cards were also a product of the Victorian era, with civil servant Sir Henry Cole having introduced the world’s first commercial card in 1843.

But while we might be more used to seeing snow-capped Christmas scenes, jolly Santas and cute robins on ours, Victorian cards weren’t always quite as cosy.

Many cards at that time would feature bizarre designs, which at the time were considered signs of good fortune or sending up superstitions – and were supposed to act as conversation starters over the festive period.

Which in practice meant your festive greeting could feature anything from brooding children and random lobsters through to images of ants attacking one another, and Santa as an antihero who was in cahoots with the devil.

There was also a tradition of people sending Christmas cards featuring pictures of dead birds – thought partly to be as a reference to ‘common stories of poor children freezing to death at Christmas’ but also to mark what was known as ‘Wren Day’ on December 26.

The day – also known as St Stephen’s Day in Ireland – was associated with a traditional bird hunt, as ‘killing a wren or robin’ was thought by Victorians to bring good luck.

Which, in turn, means that if you sent someone a card with a dead bird on it, you were essentially wishing them good fortune.

Christmas dinner

London’s Leadenhall Market on Christmas Eve in 1884 (Picture: Getty Images)

While turkey did make an appearance on Victorian Christmas dinner tables, it wasn’t quite as popular then as it is now.

Back then, both turkey and chicken were too pricey for many people’s budgets – meaning it was only the Christmas dinner of choice for the rich, only becoming more widespread after World War II when better farming methods saw the price of turkey drop.

Instead, people would dine on the likes of roast beef for their festive meal, while goose was also popular – although that wasn’t cheap either, with many folks belonging to ‘goose clubs’ – which allowed them to make regular payments into a savings plan which they could then put towards buying a goose for their festive meal.

The goose would be prepared at home and then taken to the bakers for roasting – since most people did not have an oven at home.

Of course, Christmas dinner was more elaborate depending on who you were – with Queen Victoria settling down to a festive meal which would have included a roast swan or two as well as turkey.

And let’s not forget about the traditional plum pudding to round it all off.

Christmas games

Christmas Day games are pretty different these days (Picture: Getty Images)

Without the distractions of the Queen’s Speech or the Strictly Christmas special to keep themselves occupied, Victorians used to be fond of playing parlour games on Christmas Day instead – although it’s hard to say whether any of them might catch on in the modern era.

One popular game, Squeak Piggy Squeak, saw a player blindfolded and tasked with guessing the identity of the person squealing like a pig – while another, Throwing The Smile, required people to sit in a circle and go as long as they possibly could without smiling.

Traditional games such as Hunt The Thimble – which involves hiding a thimble in the room and younger members of the family having to try and find it – were also popular on the day.

Although it wasn’t all harmless fun – as another game, Snapdragon, involved filling a bowl with raisins and brandy and then setting it alight – with the winner being the person who could then eat the most raisins while the bowl was still on fire.

Somehow we can’t see that one getting past health and safety these days.

Christmas outings

What would Christmas have been without a trip to see some prize cattle? (Picture: Getty Images)

Your average modern-day Christmas outing might involve a trip to a Christmas market or festive lights and mulled wine – but Victorians had a few different idea when it came to their own Yuletide fun.

Among the popular pre-Christmas events in the 19th Century was the Smithfield Cattle Club show, an agricultural exhibition which would display some particularly impressive livestock every year.

The show began at Smithfield in London in 1799 and peaked in popularity during the 1800s, attracting a peak of 135,000 visitors in 1862. It remained popular in the 20th Century also, with the final ever show being held in 2004.

Of course if cattle didn’t float your boat, there was also a festive outing to the theatre to consider instead – with the Victorians responsible for the rise in popularity of the Christmas pantomime as we know it.

Pantomimes would traditionally open on Boxing Day – hence the association with Christmas – and would often be lavish spectacles – according to the Victoria and Albert Museum they could last as long as five hours and be packed with stage trickery and huge casts of characters.

Christmas customs

Wassailing took a number of forms (Picture: Getty Images)

As if setting fire to yourself or sending cards with dead birds on weren’t quirky enough, the Victorians also had their fair share of unusual Christmas customs.

The practice of ‘wassailing’ was among them – with two types, the house-visiting and the orchard-visiting wassail, traditionally celebrated on Twelfth Night.

The house-visiting wassail would see participants going from house to house singing and merrymaking, as well as sharing drinks from the ‘wassail bowl’ – the drink in question being a warm, spiced punch often made with cider.

The ‘orchard-based wassail was popular in fruit-growing regions such as Kent and Derbyshire, and would see farmers toasting the trees before pouring wassail over the roots in the hope it would lead to a good harvest.

The practice of wassailing dates back to Anglo-Saxon times, and wassailing events – complete with fancy dress and, of course, the drink itself – still take place today.

MORE : Five reasons why your real Christmas tree is drooping

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