Christmas Supplement

About this Supplement

Over the next few weeks I shall again be posting up material with a Christmas and New Year holiday theme, including pages restored from the archive, with interesting and unusual items like the 1860s recipe for a suet-less mince-pie.

Victorian Magazines -Christmas & New Year Issues
Some periodicals made a special point of having seasonal items in their December and January issues, and in special cases, such as  competitions, as early as November. Others produced more elaborate special supplements (see below). A special print - sometimes in colour - might be included in a seasonal issue. Women's magazines favoured this enticement to readers, and the metropolitan weekly newspapers, the London Illustrated News and the Graphic became well-known for their handsome colour prints in the latter part of the century. Since monthlies were often published towards the end of the previous month it is not unusual to find a poem or article on Christmas in a January issue. Readers of Victorian magazines today are usually reading the issues in the bound form and this practice can be somewhat startling. (Occasionally I suspect, an item arrived too late for the previous issue, or, particularly in the case of short poems, that they conveniently fitted an awkward space at the end of a feature.)

Decorating with holly and mistletoe. Fans were also recommended to brighten a sombre wall. This (inset) image is from an article in the Girl's Own Paper in the early 1880s

Victorian Christmas Traditions
The modern idea of a "traditional Christmas" festive celebration in Britain includes several features, which were introduced, or developed into the form we now recognise, during the nineteenth century: the feast of a roast bird, Christmas pudding and mince pies, the Christmas tree, Christmas cards, Christmas crackers, the Christmas pantomime, and indeed Father Christmas himself. At the same time the Victorians were conscious of maintaining ancient traditions, for instance in the carols sung at Christmas services, in the decorations of evergreens, and were aware of older versions of the Christmas feast. Nostalgia for 'old-fashioned' ways of celebrating was certainly not unknown.
One of Mary Braddon's Christmas stories from the late sixties summarizes an ideal of domestic festivities in the nostalgic picture of her distant family home conjured up by a lonely young wife facing eviction on account of her husband's debts....

    ..the bright winter flowers, and ever-blossoming chintz curtains; the fires glowing red on every hearth; the noble Worcester punch-bowl brought forth from its retirement; the chopping and mincing, and cake and pastry making, and bustle of preparation in the housekeeper's-room; the gardener coming into the kitchen with holly and mistletoe, laurel and bay; the odour of Christmas that pervaded the house; and the dear friends with whom she might never spend that holy festival again.
"I do wish mamma had contrived to send me a hamper, with a home-made pound-cake, and some mince pies, and one of our famous geese..."
(from "Christmas in Possession" )

In the spirit of Christmas stories there is, of course, a happy ending, involving that sentimental stereotype, the unexpected inheritance , but not before the broker's man, the 'Man in Possession' with his warrant to take over the house, has belied his fearsome appearance  proving himself not only generous and  compassionate, but a dab hand at soothing a fractious baby. Through fiction and features with a "Christmas" theme, and through their advertisements, Victorian popular magazines helped to construct as well as record the Victorian Christmas celebration. Christian charity and consumerism go hand in hand, though their marriage of the spiritual and secular is more overtly religious than one would find today.
The articles on this page and others in this Supplement illustrate some of these traditions and aspects of their development.

FOOTNOTE. The image of Father Christmas in an elaborately patterned robe with his sack full of mistletoe and holly is a (reduced) caption ( ill. Nellie Erichsen) from a poem of that name published in the Windsor Magazine in 1895. In the poem by Norman Gale he is referred to as "Father Noel". For a rather different version of the figure see the account of Christmas in Hospital. The flaming Christmas pudding and the punch bowl on the festive table are typical icons of the Christmas feast.
 Christmas Shopping -Victorian Style

A brightly illuminated shop window attracting Christmas shoppers in the early 1870s.
Taken from an illustration in the Young Ladies' Journal.

The Christmas Tree
The Christmas tree, introduced from Germany by the Prince Consort, seems to be well established by the second half of the century. "[It] is now almost naturalised in England" claimed an article in the Ladies' Treasury [1860}, though the writer did not fail to describe it.
    The tree itself, it is hardly necessary to state, is usually a branch of fir, pine, or cedar, of a pyramidal form, which is planted in a large flower-pot or vase, and decorated with small flags and wax tapers; whilst from the branches are also suspended bonbons, sweetmeats, oranges, apples, bunches of raisins, pincushions, and every conceivable variety of pretty trifles for presents.

If this account of the German custom in middle-class households sounds relatively modest, trees on a dramatic scale were clearly thought suitable for some Treasury readers. An earlier article suggested that 'if your rooms are large and lofty' a 'regular, thick-foliaged fir ... that would rise about eleven feet above the stand would exactly suit you.' It would be fixed in a large wooden tub 'filled with mould' covered with moss, the tub itself being clothed in green baize.

    Besides the little tapers (in appropriate candlesticks sold for the purpose) the tree should be adorned with such flowers as the severity of the season has spared, and with strings of beads and berries.

The author, however, cautioned that only the mistress of the house or at least 'a grown-up person' should light the tapers 'and the only safe plan is to begin at the top of the tree, and light them gradually downwards. From pursuing the opposite course a frightful and fatal accident occurred but lately.' Another safety rule was to forbid children from eating any of the berries ...'the holly, the mistletoe, or the ivy, they are all poisonous.'
For a party small gifts for guests might be hung on the tree - this writer suggested hanging them by silver cord rather than ribbon - and numbering them so that guests drew numbered tickets for them.

Victorian Christmas Issues & Annuals
The Girl's Own Paper, from which more than one item appears in this Christmas Supplement, had special summer and Christmas issues, both intended to be enjoyed over the holiday, but the weekly issues were also collected and attractively bound as the Girl's Own Annual so that it could be bought as a gift. The gilded image of a girl  reading on the Literature Page is taken from the cover of one such volume. Another children's magazine, aimed at a younger age group, Aunt Judy's Magazine, was issued bound twice-yearly as "Christmas" and "May Day" volumes specifically, so readers of the Introduction to the first volume were told, 'to adapt them the better for presents, prizes or birthday gifts'.
The marketing of bound periodicals as gifts in this way drew on the earlier example of the illustrated annuals of the 1820 and 30s, though these latter were generally much more expensive than later imitations, and lacked the emphasis on the festive season to be found in the special issues. They typically carried engravings of beautiful women and picturesque landscapes with accompanying poetry or tales, and were marketed as ideal gifts for ladies, so were often referred to collectively as "Keepsakes" or "Books of Beauty"  (two popular titles). In the near future there will be examples from from one such annual posted on the Travel Page.
Christmas annuals were
certainly not limited to the young. Mary Braddon's monthly Belgravia, for example, had a special Christmas annual in which the story (quoted above) "Christmas in Possession" appeared. For more about her annuals see the feature Victorian Christmas .

To be continued..

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©  Barbara Onslow 2007 Page published November 2008  Last updated November 8th 2013