Here in the UK, many of our Christmas traditions have their origins firmly in the Victorian era, particularly the Christmas tree, Christmas cards and Christmas crackers.
No-one was more influential in popularising the Christmas tree than Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. The Christmas tree had been a German tradition since the 17th century and, when the German Prince Albert came to England to marry Victoria, he bought this tradition with him to remind him of his homeland.
In 1848, the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the Royal Family celebrating at Windsor Castle around a Christmas tree, beautifully decorated with candles, sweets, dried fruits and homemade ornaments. The following year, leading society hostesses vied with each other to produce the most lavishly decorated tree and it wasn’t long before the rest of the country followed suit.
The tradition of sending Christmas cards also has its origin in the Victorian era. The first cards were sent in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole, head of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He was too busy to write the customary lengthy letters, so he commissioned artist John Callcott Horsley to design 1,000 cards, illustrated with a festive scene on the front and printed with the greeting, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You”.
The world’s first commercially produced Christmas card, designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole. The central picture showed three generations of a family raising a toast to the card’s recipient: on either side were scenes of charity, with food and clothing being given to the poor. Allegedly the image of the family drinking wine together proved controversial.
Costing one shilling each, the cards were far too expensive for ordinary Victorians. It wasn’t until 1870, when postage was reduced to one half penny per ounce and cheaper colour printing became available, that the sending of Christmas cards became hugely popular.
The invention of the Christmas cracker is attributed to Thomas Smith, a London sweet shop owner. A very forward thinking man, he often travelled abroad in search of new ideas. It was on a trip to Paris in 1840 that French bon-bons (sugared almonds), wrapped in coloured tissue paper with a twist at each end, caught his eye. He decided to introduce them in London but they were not as popular as he had hoped. For the next seven years, he worked at creating something more innovative. Then one night, while he was sitting in front of his fire watching the logs crackle, he came up with the idea of creating a similar crackle when the fancy wrappers were pulled in half. He made a larger coloured paper wrapper and put in it another strip of paper impregnated with chemicals which, when rubbed, created enough friction to produce a noise. Gradually, the sweets were replaced with small gifts and paper hats in the late Victorian period and remain in this form as an essential part of Christmas today.