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Victorian Christmas

December 23, 2013

At the beginning of the 19th century Christmas was not widely celebrated. In fact many businesses did not even deem it a holiday. This began to change in 1840 when Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, who is often wrongly credited with bringing the Christmas tree to Britain. In fact, both (being first cousins) had similar family traditions for celebrating Christmas, including having a decorated tree.

Prince Albert certainly helped to popularise the tree as well as Christmas itself, making it a tradition for all classes. Each year he would donate many trees to schools and army barracks. Also credited with bringing Christmas spirit to Britain was Charles Dickens and his 1843 novel A Christmas Carol.

Many things we now see as Christmas staples originated in the Victorian period, one of which is crackers. In 1848 Tom Smith, a British confectioner came up with a new way to sell sweets. He invented Christmas crackers after a trip to Paris where he was inspired by sugared almonds wrapped in a twist of paper. He thought to enlarge the paper and fill it with confectionery. Over the Victorian period the filling gradually evolved into a small gift and paper hat which we would expect to find in crackers today.

Also a Victorian invention is the Christmas card. In 1843 Henry Cole commissioned an artist to design a card with a Christmas message. Cole sold these cards for a shilling each, quite expensive at the time. However, the idea caught on and soon children (including Victoria’s own) were encouraged to make them by hand. Soon production processes changed and cards were more easily mass-produced, bringing the cost down and making handmade cards less popular.

At Cragside we have only one Victorian Christmas card in our collection. The card was sent by Joseph Swan, a friend of Lord Armstrong’s who produced the first incandescent light bulbs used to light Cragside. The card (see below) has a photograph of Swann and his family sitting in the inglenook of a fireplace, his electric light bulbs a main feature.

SwannChristmasCard

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