Today, when we think of a ‘traditional’ Christmas, it is a Victorian-style celebration we are envisioning. Christmas trees, crackers, pantomimes, cards – all these now-familiar seasonal things were either invented or popularised by the Victorians. There are, however, three people in particular who are now considered mostly responsible for the creation of what is today seen as a very British, very Victorian take on Christmas – although, strangely enough, only one of them was actually a Brit!
The first of this trio was a member of the royal family. The introduction of the Christmas tree to Britain is traditionally thought to be down to Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert. However, it is more likely that it was George III’s German wife, Queen Charlotte, who brought the first tree to Britain – Albert merely popularised them.
In the early years of their marriage, Victoria encouraged German Christmas customs to make her husband feel more at home in Britain, and approving press coverage meant that it wasn’t long before the Christmas tree became wildly popular with the British people. The middle classes, in particular, were soon copying this royal idea in their own homes, decorating their trees with candles, small toys and gifts, cards, sweets and other goodies (like sugar plums – see below).
The second of these seasonal re-inventors was a a New Yorker. Clement Clarke Moore was a university professor specialising in divinity and theology, who had written a number of very dense (and probably very dull) academic texts before he became famous for another style of writing entirely.
Said to have been written at Christmas 1822 for his children, Moore’s most popular work is the memorable poem known as either A Visit From St Nicholas or ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas - and its importance lies in the fact that it was one of the earliest, and certainly the most successful, of all the depictions of Santa Claus that defined him in an instantly recognisable modern style.
Moore was, apparently, reluctant to publish the poem, fearing its ‘frivolous’ subject matter would damage his academic reputation, but it was leaked to the media anyway and the rest is, as they say, history. Ironically, his concerns for his reputation appear to have been well-founded – it is the only thing Moore is remembered for, although remembered and much loved it is.
Much parodied over the years, and recently the subject of a controversial but possibly correct re-attribution (to one Henry Livingston Jr), the original poem is still a festive favourite on both sides of the Atlantic, evoking nostalgic and sentimental images of the classic Victorian Christmas celebration.
The final member of this festive trio (and the only Brit) is, of course, Charles Dickens. His hugely popular and vividly realised seasonal writings, particularly A Christmas Carol, hark back to an almost imagined past to define Christmas as a cheerful, snowy time of family, generosity and forgiveness.
But there was always realism amongst all the sentiment. The themes of poverty, class and redemption run though A Christmas Carol, and it very clearly demonstrates the differences between a Victorian middle class Christmas and that celebrated by the vast majority of the population.
As Dickens so vividly and colourfully describes in this classic tale, most of the Victorian working classes had to work for at least part of Christmas Day; shops were still open, deliveries still made and sweatshops still toiled – and, despite Bob’s day off, the Cratchit family were no exception to this:
‘Here’s Martha, mother!’ cried the two young Cratchits. ‘Hurrah! There’s such a goose, Martha!’
‘Why, bless your heart alive, my dear, how late you are!’ said Mrs Cratchit, kissing her a dozen times, and taking off her shawl and bonnet for her with officious zeal.
‘We’d a deal of work to finish up last night,’ replied the girl, ‘and had to clear away this morning, mother.’
‘Well! Never mind so long as you are come,’ said Mrs Cratchit. ‘Sit ye down before the fire, my dear, and have a warm, Lord bless ye.’
Despite an ever-growing consumer market, many Victorian women, like Mrs Cratchit, would have made (through choice or necessity) their own Christmas gifts, decorations and treats. Sugar plums were a particularly popular sweet treat during the 19th century, and were often made to be hung on the Christmas tree or to be placed into a decorated box and given as a gift.
Apart from the ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ in Tchaikovsky’s ever-popular and very Christmassy ballet The Nutcracker (first performed in 1892 and reinvented numerous times since) and a brief mention in ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas, modern references to these seasonal goodies are few and far between these days – but it is still possible to make them, as this slightly modernised recipe shows:
You will need:
1kg/2lb 2oz of sugar
1 jar of whole plums preserved in syrup
1) Drain the plums. Put the sugar in a large bowl. One by one, roll the plums in the sugar until they are fully coated. Place the plums on a baking tray and put them to one side for half an hour. Then roll each plum in the sugar again.
2) The Victorians would have put the plums on a hot range to gently dry out over the course of several days, but drying them in a modern oven is just as effective. The plums should be put in the oven on its lowest setting and left there for a couple of hours until all the juice has seeped out of them.
3) Take the plums out of the oven and coat them in sugar again. Transfer them onto another, clean baking tray and put them back in the oven as before. Then you’ll need to repeat the whole sugar coating and oven drying process another three or four times over the next couple of days, placing the plums on a clean baking tray each time to catch any juices.
4) When the plums are completely dried out and the sugar is nice and crispy, these sweet treats are ready to eat – or to decorate with. If you want to hang them on your tree, simply thread them onto cotton using a needle. Place them in a pretty gift box or a Victorian-style keepsake box if you’re giving them as a present.