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What the Victorians Read at Christmas

Christmas Card, designed by J.C. Horsley for Sir Henry Cole, 1843. Museum no. L.3293-1987

Christmas Card, designed by J.C. Horsley for Sir Henry Cole, 1843. Museum no. L.3293-1987

The Emergence of Christmas

The commercialisation of Christmas, which many today consider a bane of modern life, in fact has its origins in the 1840s. Henry Cole sent the first Christmas card (now in the Word & Image department of the V&A) in 1843. Prince Albert introduced various German Christmas traditions into England in the 1840s, including the decorated Christmas tree (although it was originally an English cleric, St Boniface, who ‘founded’ the idea of a Christmas tree and carried it to the Germans, along with the Gospel, in the 8th century).

An increasingly technologically advanced publishing industry began at this time to exploit the fact that people were prepared to spend a few more pennies at Christmas. Until the 1840s spring had been the peak season of book production. With the emergence of our modern idea of Christmas, October (i.e. the run-up to Christmas) became the peak season in the publishing calendar (as is still the case today).

While the well-to-do had always bought gift-books and keepsakes at Christmas, in the 1840s publishers were able to produce cheaper special Christmas reading material for the aspiring middle classes - Christmas supplements and special editions of serials and magazines.

Authors, too, developed an acute sense of a new Christmas market. Charles Dickens wrote stories for special Christmas editions of magazines such as Household Words and All the Year Round. He published A Christmas Carol in 1843. By the 1870s the Christmas market was firmly established and people from all walks of life had a wider choice of new Christmas texts to read.

‘A cheerful company assembled round a glowing fire’

Christmas was a time for Victorian family get-togethers. The average Victorian household, unable to afford the luxuries of such public entertainment as the theatre or musical concerts, would spend cold winter evenings entertaining themselves at home. The hearth became a symbol of family unity. It was where families ate, kept warm, conversed and entertained themselves with singing, parlour games, miming and acting. Reading aloud and story-telling were favourite occupations on cold winter evenings.

What sort of texts did people read at the fireside? Dickens provides some clues in The Battle of Life (1846):

Grace, Marion and the doctor 'sat by a cheerful fireside. Grace was working at her needle. Marion read aloud from a book before her. The doctor, in his dressing-gown and slippers, with his feet spread out upon the warm rug, leaned back in his easy-chair, and listened'.

Marion reads a ‘story-book’ with words so sensational they ‘seem all on fire’ – perhaps a love story or ghost story.

A new genre of fireside books appeared, such as Elizabeth Sheppard’s Round the Fire Stories (1856), Mrs Ellis’s Fireside Tales for the Young (1849) and William Martin’s Fireside Philosophy, or Home Science (1845).

Popular Christmas texts

Pantomimes
Pantomimes had been in existence for centuries but in Victorian times they became associated with Christmas and were read or performed at home, such as Alfred Crowquill’s Pantomime to be Played at Home (1849).

A Christmas carol: in prose: being a ghost story of Christmas, Charles Dickens, illustrator John Leech, engraver W.J. Linton, published by Chapman & Hall, London, 1843

A Christmas carol: in prose: being a ghost story of Christmas, Charles Dickens, illustrator John Leech, engraver W.J. Linton, published by Chapman & Hall, London, 1843

Fairy tales and ghost stories

Fairies and goblins exploded into Victorian artistic and literary life with the publication of Edgar Taylor’s first English translation of Grimm’s Fairy Tales in 1823. As well as these traditional tales, there were new fairy and fantasy stories from Charles Kingsley, Christina Rossetti and Lewis Carroll. Dickens wrote the most famous Christmas ghost story, A Christmas Carol (1843), and also a Christmas fairy story intended to be read aloud on winter evenings, The Cricket on the Hearth: A Fairy-tale of Home (1846).

Christmas stories

Cheap reprint editions of such favourite classics as The Pilgrim’s Progress, Robinson Crusoe and the novels of Walter Scott would have been read alongside newer texts written especially for Christmas, such as Lady Barker’s A Christmas Cake: in Four Quarters (1871) or Juliana Ewing’s Snap-dragons, a Tale of Christmas Eve (1888).

Periodicals

Chapman & Hall published special Christmas editions aimed predominantly at the middle-classes. These contained Christmas stories by Dickens, such as Somebody’s Luggage, and extra Christmas editions of Household Words. There were also Christmas editions of children’s magazines.

'Christmas Carols, new and old', Henry Ramsden Bramley, music by John Stainer, London, Routeledge, 1871

'Christmas Carols, new and old', Henry Ramsden Bramley, music by John Stainer, London, Routeledge, 1871

Poetry and Songs

In A Christmas Carol, Dickens describes a family ‘assembled round a glowing fire’, with the old man ‘singing them a Christmas song - it had been a very old song when he was a boy - and from time to time they all joined in the chorus’. New printing technologies made it easier to print musical notation and publishers brought out books of verse and Christmas carols to be sung around the hearth, such as Henry Vizetelly’s Christmas with the Poets (1869) and Henry Beeching’s Book of Christmas Verse (1895).

Religious texts

Christmas was a lucrative time of year even for religious societies such as The Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge and The Religious Tract Society. They seized the opportunity to publish special Christmas tracts and texts such as Little Peter: A Christmas Morality for Children of Any Age (1887) and A New Christmas Tract, or The Right Way of Rejoicing at Christmas (1830).

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