Snowed under volumes of 19th-century research for my novel-in-progress, I wonder if you would like to learn with me about how Christmas was celebrated in the Victorian era.
Oh, you would? Very good! You won’t regret it.
As Tea & Scandal is a literary blog, we will be looking at this from a librarian’s perspective, as it were. If you wanted DIY crafts and recipes, you’ve come to the wrong blog. Carry on then until you find what you’re looking for, with my blessing.
For the rest of you, without further ado, may I present…
Six Storybook Ways to Make Your Christmas Victorian:
Give a Book
When giving gifts at Christmas became popular, book publishers and authors anticipated the commercial potential. Ever since Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, others have followed suit, printing new books at the end of each year in time for the Christmas market. In Victorian times, these might be specially priced for more sales.
Then and now, a book is a splendid present. For modern gift-givers, a Kindle gift card or Audible credits keep the stories coming into the new year; but if you want to be more in touch with your Victorian side, give the gift of a real book with paper pages.
One picturesque Victorian tradition involved fireside reading. Families or friends would gather around the parlor fireplace to hear excerpts read aloud. A family might choose the Gospel story of the first Christmas, but ghost stories, fairy tales, and romances were read more often than not.
Gather your family around the fire this year for a reading. Might I suggest Luke 2:1–20 for your religious text? Moreover, the second chapter of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is a charming description of a Christmas Day in 19th-century New England. Lest we not forget, of course, Dickens’s A Christmas Carol—it takes about an hour to read aloud according to howlongtoreadthis.com.
Sing a Carol
Carol singing is timeless, but the Victorians made the tradition fashionable. Carolers traveled from door to door in England, often receiving food from each house. But carols were also sung in many a Victorian parlor, where the pianoforte was stationed, after Christmas dinner.
Some of the Victorian favorites included “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Silent Night,” “Jingle Bells,” and “Away in a Manger.”
As previously mentioned, publishers took advantage of the book giving season, and this included printing carols in magazines and collections, such as Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern from 1833.
Recite a Poem
Poetry was all the rage in the 19th century. During those fireside gatherings, members of the family would recite poetry, as well as prose.
“A Visit from St. Nicolas,” or “The Night Before Christmas” as we know it, is one of the oldest and most recited Christmas poems. But I would also suggest reading “Christmas Bells,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1863), and “In the Bleak Midwinter,” by Christina Rossetti (1872)—both of which were turned into carols.
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
“Christmas Bells,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Take High Tea
All right, so this hasn’t anything to do with books. However, we are Tea & Scandal, so here is a bit of both. Don’t forget to include tea when you perform your hearthside reading/caroling and book giving.
High tea was created during the Victorian era for the working-class, to be taken between four and five in the afternoon. High tea is a more substantial offering than the more elite “afternoon tea” to stave off hunger before dinner.
My local tea-drinking establishment, the Anne Hathaway Cottage Tea Room in Staunton, Virginia, offers a lovely English Victorian high tea with finger sandwiches, sweets, scones with jam and clotted cream—my favorite!—and, of course, tea. A most sublime Christmas experience, in my humble opinion, and you can purchase a tin of imported tea, which is another noteworthy Christmas gift.
I do believe books and teas and fires contribute delightfully to the winter holiday.
Watch a Film
Yes, you caught me again. No, Victorians did not watch Christmas movies, because movies did not exist. But The Man Who Invented Christmas is about none other than our favorite Christmas author Charles Dickens. You can stream it for free with your Amazon Prime Video subscription. You will thank me, and you are most welcome.
“And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!”
—A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
A very merry Christmas to you and yours!