Mid VictorianChristmas cards and crackers
'If there is one thing inseparable from Christmas in general and the little ones' seasonable gatherings in particular, it is - a cracker. With what a delightful look of expectation they have waited for it to go "bang", and how they have screamed as they scrambled after the surprise which came in response to the explosion ...'.
So observed a Victorian writer about one of the two real Christmas innovations of the period: the Christmas cracker.
The story of the Christmas cracker is really a testament to one man's ingenuity and determination. Tom Smith was a confectioner's apprentice in London in the early 19th century. On a trip to Paris in 1840, he admired the French sugared almond bon-bons, wrapped in coloured tissue paper, and decided to introduce them in London. These bon-bons were popular, but not quite as Smith had hoped.
For seven years he worked to develop the bon-bon into something more exciting, but it was not until he sat one evening in front of his fireplace that his great idea came to him. Watching the logs crackle, he imagined a bon-bon with a pop. He made a coloured paper wrapper and put in it another strip of paper impregnated with chemicals which, when rubbed, created enough friction to produce a noise. He knew that bangs excited children (and were said to frighten evil spirits) - and the mottoes and poems he inserted inside the crackers amused adults.
The combination of innovation and tradition which is a hallmark of the Victorian period also marked another creation of the 1840s - the Christmas card, an altogether more pragmatic 'invention' than the cracker.
Sir Henry Cole, burdened by the amount of seasonal correspondence he felt obliged to write, first conceived of a dedicated Christmas card in 1843. His idea was to print a seasonal greeting card which would save hours of handwriting, and he engaged his friend, the artist John Horsley, to design nearly 1000 hand-coloured lithographs.
The standardisation and lowering of postage rates in 1840, which made letters easier and cheaper to send, contributed to the rapid spread of this new custom. Designs featured Christmas scenes, including Father Christmas, robins, evergreens and snow scenes but also a range of non-Christmas designs, much like Valentine cards.
Late VictorianFather Christmas
'He was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot, And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot ... His eyes how they twinkled! His dimples how merry! His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry ... He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.'
The lines above are from a poem called A Visit from St Nicholas written by Clement C Moore in1822, although it did not become well known until it was depicted in a series of engravings by Thomas Nast in the 1860s. By the Edwardian period, it was almost universally accepted as the definitive description of this important representative of Christmas.
But do these words describe Saint Nicholas or Father Christmas or Santa Claus? There were several forerunners to this chubby, elderly gentleman with a snowy beard. The Norse God Odin was one of the early figures, who rode through the winter world, bringing either gifts or punishments, as appropriate.
Odin wore a blue-hooded cloak, and had a long white beard. Because he was able to read hidden thoughts and watch from afar the behaviour of those he visited, he was both loved and feared. A much later figure was the 4th-century Bishop of Myra, also known as Saint Nicholas, famous for his kindness to children and generosity to the poor. After the Bishop died, the legend of Saint Nicholas grew and he is still remembered in some countries on 6 December.
In medieval England and for centuries afterwards, the figure of Father Christmas represented the spirit of benevolence and good cheer. In the 19th century, his role changed to something more like that of the European Saint Nicholas. At about the same time, Dutch emigrants took the story of a legendary gift-bringer called 'Sinterklaas' to America, where he eventually became known as Santa Claus.
The names may be different, but there were enough similarities between all these symbolic personages to allow, by the early 20th century, Father Christmas, Santa, St Nick and others to merge. And the resulting 'right jolly old elf' is now the universally recognised symbol of Christmas.
Early 20th CenturyGifts and shopping
Gifts have been exchanged at Christmas and New Year for many centuries. By the early 20th century, the availability of a huge range of gifts for both children and adults had increased dramatically. The streets of London thronged with shoppers in the days up to Christmas, and the shops were open and ablaze with a riot of light and colour even on Christmas Eve.
Manufacturers and shopkeepers both large and small were keen to capitalise on the commercial potential of Christmas. Gamages, a vast department store in Holborn, offered nearly 500 pages of gifts in their Christmas Bazaar catalogue of 1913.
Children's gifts proved a particularly lucrative market, and the sheer variety of games, toys and other gifts thrilled Christmas shoppers. Some gifts were considered suitable for both sexes. These included rocking horses, wooden farmyard animals, board games, picture and adventure books, magic tricks, Noah's Arks and mechanical or stuffed animals.
In 1911, Gamages filled its window with stuffed animals made by Steiff, including the teddy bears which were hugely popular and became a symbol of the period. Other toys and games were targeted specifically at one sex or the other. For girls, skipping ropes and, of course, dolls were available in huge variety. Boys could expect toy soldiers and train sets.
Some of these gifts were left under the Christmas tree, but small treats could be left in a stocking to be filled by Father Christmas. This custom was derived from a Dutch tradition, whereby children fill their shoes with straw as a gift for Saint Nicholas's horse, in the hope that sweets will be left as a reward for their thoughtfulness. If they were deemed to have been naughty, they received nothing.
Stockings were generally hung by the fireplace but were also left at the end of beds, as one boy living in Shoreditch, in East London, described in 1881:
'Woke up early in the morning ... found a crammed stocking hanging helplessly over the side of my bed, for the next 10 minutes busily engaged in ransacking its contents which were 2 bags of sweets, a pocket knife, oranges, almonds and raisins, packets of sweets and 2 jockie's caps ...'.