1. The Christmas Card
For well over 200 years, there has been a tradition in English culture to send friends, loved ones, neighbors, and acquaintances your Christmas or New Year letter. This was an opportunity to share events that made the past year memorable, express gratitude for one's blessings, and to wish good fortune and health in the new year to all your recipients.
In the middle of the 19th century, it seemed that certainly everyone got in on the tradition, with special thanks to the affordable and accessible postage at the time. In 1840, England, the first commercial stamp was made available for purchase at the price of 1 penny, thus the term Penny Post1 being coined...pun intended, ha.
Fun fact: Back in 1840, 1 penny had the purchasing power equivalent to what would be about 30 cents' purchasing power today!2
A few years later in 1843, one particular gent named Sir Henry Cole realized from first hand experience just how accessible the Penny Post was. Being quite the socialite, patron of the arts, and public servant, it's needless to say he was a popular recipient of countless letters, and found the obligation of corresponding to so many highly intimidating (after all, in Victorian England, unanswered mail is considered quite the offence).3 So Sir Henry Cole came up with a clever solution:
"He approached an artist friend, J.C. Horsley, and asked him to design an idea that Cole had sketched out in his mind. Cole then took Horsley’s illustration—a triptych showing a family at table celebrating the holiday flanked by images of people helping the poor—and had a thousand copies made by a London printer. The image was printed on a piece of stiff cardboard 5 1/8 x 3 1/4 inches in size. At the top of each was the salutation, 'TO:_____' allowing Cole to personalize his responses, which included the generic greeting 'A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year To You.'”4
Sir Henry Cole breezed through his many responses with this sign-and-go method of correspondence. Whatever cards were left over and unused, Cole either gave to friends or sold at an affordable price. Retail shops quickly noticed the opportunity to make a business of this clever idea and began creating their own versions of Christmas cards en masse.
2. The Christmas Tree
Sir Henry Cole and his creative diversion from handwritten correspondence might be the catalyst in the advent of the popularized Christmas Card, though what about the other traditions?
As for the Christmas tree, there is much documentation which proves that evergreens have been used long before the modern era, as a symbol and decoration during winter to represent everlasting life. For instance, even the song "O Tanenbaum" (a type of evergreen fir tree) is said to date back over 500 years, with the most known version of its lyrics dating to 1824 by composer Ernst Anschütz.6
However, it wasn't until the Victorian Era that this common decoration and symbol of everlasting life was heralded as a steadfast tradition for generations to come.
Indeed, it wasn't until the Queen Victoria was in reign, and married German-born Prince Albert, that the Eastern/Central European tradition of Christmas trees took hold of society as the quintessential holiday centerpiece.
"In 1848 the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the royal family celebrating around a decorated Christmas tree, a tradition that was reminiscent of Prince Albert's childhood in Germany. Soon every home in Britain had a tree bedecked with candles, sweets, fruit, homemade decorations and small gifts."3
3. The History of Caroling
Ah, one of our favorite traditions! Singing in chorus with your friends and loved ones to celebrate an occasion is a positively ancient form of entertainment, but when did the practice of walking about to greet your neighbors with song come into play? And when did such a practice begin to be so closely tied with Christmas? Let's look at the history behind the words...
The world carol originates from the medieval French word carole, meaning a kind of dance in a ring of people, accompanied by the singing of the dancers.7
The word wassail originates from the medieval Norse phrase, ves heill, meaning good health".8 This well-wish gradually turned its focus on New Years:
"Anglo-saxon tradition dictated that at the beginning of each year, the lord of the manor would greet the assembled multitude with the toast waes hael, meaning “be well” or “be in good health”, to which his followers would reply drink hael, or “drink well”, and so the New Year celebrations would start with a glass or two, or perhaps even a drop more! It is likely that such celebrations were being enjoyed many years before Christianity began to spread throughout Europe from about 600 onwards." Historic UK, Wassailing.9
As for the merging of the two traditions, that of toasting Christmas or the Near Year and combining it with singing to your neighbors dates only as early as the late 18th century. With the commercialization of Christmas that the Victorian era brought forward, one of the first books of carols was published. Titled "Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern", William Sandys' book came about in 1833 and sparked the new wave of composers to publish their own versions of classic tunes to be revitalized in new, Victorian Christmas fashion.
4. The Tradition of Hanging Mistletoe
A sprig of mistletoe hanging in the doorways of your home during the holidays is a tradition of romance, often mischief, and mystery. It's hard to pinpoint a clear origin for this tradition as we know it, for the plant mistletoe has been prized for its medicinal and spiritual purposes for thousands of years.
Technically speaking, mistletoe is a parasitic plant found to grow commonly on apple and oak trees, where it latches onto the host plant and extracts nutrients and water. Pliny the Elder, a roman naturalist, was in awe of this plant and it's medicinal properties, stating that it could be used in a "balm against epilepsy, ulcers, and poisons."10
According to Pliny himself, Celtic druids may be responsible for the more romantic side of the plant's history, for they coveted it as one of the few plants that would bloom in the dead of winter, supposing it to symbolize fertility and new life.10
Another origin might be of Norse mythology, describing Thor's grandson Baldur dreaming nightmarishly that every animal and plant which grew on the earth wanted to kill him. To save his life, his mother persuaded every animal and plant that grew on the earth to spare him, neglecting the mistletoe since it's form of growing is a bit more peculiar and not 'of the ground'. Loki, realizing this overlook, then made a weapon infused with this plant to end the life of the beautiful Baldur. Loki succeeded, and Baldur's mother cried pearlescent tears in mourning that became the milky white berries of the plant.10 This could have reasonably led to a more mystical relationship with this plant, possibly seizing it as a good luck charm against bad omens.
But what about the kissing?! I hear some of you may be asking (I myself would like to know!) The concept of kissing under this glorified plant wasn't actualized until the Victorian era, when interest in reviving mysticism and druidic practices was on the rise. Perhaps inspired by the Celts' belief in the plant's symbol of fertility, or the epic tragedy of Baldur, Victorians found themselves incorporating mistletoe as a mystic charm during the winter season...warding off malevolence, and even to promote fertility among young women.11 Ever seeking entertainment in the long nights of winter, families and friends would hang up this symbolic plant under door ways, pinned to lapels or held in bunches to prompt a good-luck kiss between party members, young and old.
5. The Invention of Christmas Crackers
Around 1840, London sweet-maker Tom Smith took an inspiring visit to Paris where he delighted in the pretty, colorfully wrapped bon bon so popular in French sweet shops. He returned to England with an idea to wrap sweets in colorful paper but do the French one better by also including a small motto or riddle. Sadly, these confections did not initially sell well.12
As the story goes, the solution to Tom's financial loss came to him one winter night as he mulled over ideas beside his fireplace. When the surprising sound of a log crackling shot through the air, Tom knew how to make his candies more exciting for his entertainment-hungry, Victorian audience. He cleverly incorporated a small friction-activated chemical explosion to achieve the surprising popping noise that made these treats exciting and fun for people of all ages.13
You can still buy Christmas crackers from Tom's heritage company today! Find them at their website.
Here at Adored Vintage, we love any reason to celebrate the changing seasons and we love learning about history. We hope you enjoyed reading up about this holiday and some of it's more memorable and fun traditions. Let us know what you think, if we missed some interesting fun fact, got something wrong, or if you'd like to contribute!
We'd love to hear what traditions you celebrate during the winter season!
- Met Museum, various stamps and history
- BBC Victorian Christmas
- German Way
- Merriam Webster
- Historic UK
- Why Christmas
- Old English Crackers
This post was written by Devon Rawlings