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How Dickens and the Victorians Shaped Our Christmas

By rob taylor  |  Posted: December 20, 2012

Inside Bantock House.

Inside Bantock House.

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WHEN it comes to conjuring up the perfect Christmas, Charles Dickens knew a thing or two. Between 1843 and 1848, the famous author wrote five Christmas novels, and it’s from these works that we get so much of our Christmas imagery. Above all, in ‘A Christmas Carol’ he celebrates the ideal family gathering, where rosy cheeked children eagerly await the arrival of the Christmas bird and Plum Pudding.

2012 has marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Dickens. And, during this festive season, an exhibition at Wolverhampton’s Bantock House Museum, explores how the Victorians shaped the Christmas traditions and imagery we know so well, today.

In Dickens’ novels we get illustrations of happy revellers dancing in rooms decked with Yuletide greenery. We also see Bob Cratchit’s family cheering as Mrs Cratchit brings in the flaming, brandy soaked pudding: “Mrs Cratchit entered – flushed, but smiling proudly – with the pudding ... bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.” (‘A Christmas Carol’) Charles Dickens was creating his ideal Christmas, a season of peace and goodwill, with children at the centre. One of the author’s sons recalled that, at Christmas, “my father was always at his best, a splendid host, bright and jolly as a boy and throwing his heart and soul into everything that was going on.” The Victorians also followed the lead of their Royal Family when it came to Christmas customs. Victoria’s beloved Prince Albert brought his own festive traditions with him from Germany, namely the Christmas tree. Alongside the wonderful Dickensian Christmas scenes, the Victorians also took note of a drawing that appeared in the Illustrated London News, in 1848. This showed the royal couple and children gathered round a Christmas Tree. From now on, these scenes would be the ones everyone wanted to create in their own homes.

Before Prince Albert introduced the Christmas tree, people decorated their homes with greenery, the main focus being a “Kissing Bough”. This was made of two hoops joined together to make a globe.

The globe was decorated with sprigs of greenery, including mistletoe. Eventually, the fashionable, new Christmas trees replaced the old kissing boughs. But, thankfully, we still enjoy a quick smooch under a sprig of mistletoe.

The early Christmas trees were quite small, and planted in pots. They were usually placed on small tables, and, strange as it may seem to us, surrounded by unwrapped gifts. The fashion for larger fir trees didn’t arrive until much later. Gifts were left unwrapped during the early Victorian period, as no-one had really thought of producing commercial wrapping paper. That came later, when commercially produced Christmas cards took off.

Gifts In many homes, gifts were often hand-made, as mothers and daughters used traditional domestic skills to make small gifts like hankies, bookmarks and penwipes for each other. These gifts may have been small, but often displayed exquisite embroidery and other craft skills. At Bantock House Museum, you’ll see a tiny pair of children’s slippers, worked in beading.

There is also a beautifully stitched sampler and a satin embroidered wallet.

The Bantock family were well to do, and some examples of typical Christmas “gifts for her” include: A copy of ‘Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management’, a beaded Tea Cosy, a silk fan with lace trim, an ivory fan with ribbon trim, a tortoiseshell comb and hat pin, beadwork purses, an engraved gold locket, and a pair of hand screens in silk and lace appliqué, with ivory handles. These were essential for protecting ladies’ complexions from scorching coal fires. Typical Christmas gifts “For him” include: Matchboxes, decorated snuffboxes, brass bookmarks, a silver stamp box, cigarette cases and visiting card cases.

As the Victorians became more enamoured with reinventing Christmas, they developed the whole paraphernalia we know today.

They started wrapping their gifts in coloured paper or fabric, decorating them with ribbons and bits of lace. They also began collecting seasonal images to stick onto boxes and gift bags. And, by 1890, a new printing technology called Flexography made printed wrapping paper a more available must have.

Commercially produced gift wrapping paper followed on the heels of the new trend of sending Christmas Cards. During the early Victorian period, people sent little notes with Christmas greetings to each other. These often contained hand drawn sketches, or some extra decoration such as ribbon or lace trims to make them more festive. The greetings card industry was still some way off, so home - made cards were the order of the day. But, in those days, tradesmen and businesses often gave out business cards just before Christmas, decorated with a few seasonal images. It was good business sense and people enjoyed received them.

In 1843, a businessman called Henry Cole commissioned illustrator, John Calcott Horsley, to produce a festive card he could give to friends family and business acquaintances.

This was the first commercial Christmas card, and it caused quite a stir. Horsley’s design had three panels, two of which depicted charitable deeds, with the centre panel featuring adults and children enjoying seasonal food and drink.

The Temperance movement was outraged, claiming the card would lead more people to the demon drink. But, Cole was undeterred and produced 1,000 of these cards. It was to prove a shrewd move, as Cole had helped to introduce the Penny Post three years earlier. The Christmas card was destined to become an integral part of the festive season. By 1880, their manufacture was big business. Before long, Victorians were able to buy matching gift wrap and Christmas cards.

Festooned Unlike us, however, the Victorians didn’t start decorating their homes until Christmas Eve. At Bantock House, the hallway and staircase is festooned with holly and ivy, just as it would have been when the Bantock family lived there.

On the front door a massive holly wreath welcomes visitors, and a luxuriant Christmas tree lights up the drawing room. The Victorians liked to make home-made decorations for the tree, such as garlands laced with nuts and chestnuts. Scented cinnamon sticks, tied into small bundles, made fragrant tree ornaments. As did dried orange slices, and dried oranges stuffed with cloves.

And, when the Bantocks’ guests or carol singers came calling, no doubt they received a cup of something warm and cheering, as this recipe from the museum suggests: Ale Posset Boil one pint of new milk with a slice of toasted bread. Pour a bottle of mild ale into a punch bowl, sweeten and add spices and pour boiling milk onto it.

For wealthy families like the Bantocks, Christmas Dinner was a sumptuous feast, with many courses. A sample menu shows they tucked into raw oysters, Fried smelts in tartare sauce, sweetbread pates, Roast Turkey with cranberry sauce, rice croquettes, crackers and cheese, Parisian salad and a splendid pudding. All helped down with punch.

If you’d like to experience “A Dickensian Christmas”, the exhibition is on at Bantock House Museum, Finchfield Rd, Wolverhampton WVE 9LQ, tel: 01902 552195 until 13th January 2013.

Free admission. Opening times are Tuesday – Sunday, 12-4pm.

Or visit the website at: www.wolverhamptonart.or g.uk/visit/bantock Wishing all of you a very Merry Christmas.

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