The Christmas Archives

The Victorian
Misdirection of Christmas

Andrew Hubert Von Staufer

E   blame Christina Rosetti:


‘…In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, in the bleak midwinter, long ago….’

Trouble is, Christmas was never like that, ask anyone who has ever spent Christmas in Bethlehem. True I do know of one chap who sprained his ankle skidding on wet snow upon entering the Church of the Nativity in the late 1940s – but records show that this is by no means common! The snow in that freak event only lasted a couple of hours before melting, so it really has no place in the iconography of the Nativity.

So why does Christmas conjure a picture of snowy Nativity scenes and, for that matter, a lot of other accepted Christmas imagery that has no basis in fact?

Unlike Germany and New England ( USA), where much of what we think of as ‘Victorian Christmas Imagery’ was designed and printed, the last really consistent series of snowy Christmases over most of the UK occurred in the century before Christina Rosetti’s birth. Human memory is a very inconsistent thing, for instance how many people are convinced that they had snow at Christmas often in their childhood? The winters of 1963 and 1947 are often cited in answers but the truth is that for most of the UK both of those snowy episodes began after Christmas.

True, the late adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in line with the rest of Europe in 1752, did move Christmas day back by 11 days taking it out of what would have been today, January 5th which tends to be colder anyway.

Folk memory is even more unreliable than individual memory because people tend to agree a common line without realising it. As Dr. Goebbels and others have infamously said: ‘…a lie often repeated becomes the truth’.

So where exactly do those snowy nativity themes come from and why? Furthermore, how does a snowy nativity lead to images of Robins on snowy branches and Santa flying across white rooftops?

In terms of the snowy nativity scenes, some of the reasons go back almost to the Reformation in the UK and to the subsequent migrations of Europeans to the USA in the 19th Century.

There was a mass migration from the Old World to the New World which coincided with a massive expansion in the urban population across the Northern hemisphere during the 19th Century. With the exception of opening up massive new ranches and farms in the American Midwest, the countryside in many places was in the process of becoming depopulated.

Increased mechanisation was obliged many people to undertake activities that were to some extent dehumanising with the result that a collective nostalgia for a rural idyll arose – a yearning for what were imagined to have been softer attitudes and certainties.

The nostalgia included what one might call: ‘It was so much nicer in Granny’s time’ syndrome.

This happened alongside a genuine fear among the intelligentsia, politicians and churchmen that societies across what we would now call ‘the Western World’ were being disconnected from a combination of their history, social values, cultural and religious roots: what Karl Marx labelled ‘the alienation of labour’.

Well meaning leaders, amateurs and social historians, most notably in a very 19th Century patrician class, sought to defuse what many perceived to be a spirit of revolution among the working classes. Inevitably there were successes and failures with Corn Laws, extended suffrage, Chartists, emergent Socialism, the Oxford Movement, Catholic Emancipation, European Pogroms and calls for Irish Home Rule all contributing to a maelstrom of activity that resulted in an ebb and flow of initiative. Regression, disenfranchisement and enhanced social responsibility were among the conflicting consequences.

In the early part of the Victorian era, the desire to recapture some sort of stability through reconnection to previous religious and cultural customs was rarely expressed outside occasional articles in the Illustrated ‘London News’ or ‘The Graphic’ that bemoaned the lack of festive feeling. Some quite amusing and occasionally critical articles were penned by such luminaries as Thackeray and of course Dickens - who became known as a champion of Christmas.

However the idea of the white Christmas being applied to the Nativity has an origin in the way that Christianity was brought into Northern Europe. Early missionaries were encouraged to take milder pagan customs, particularly those related to goodwill, and build a Christian message on their foundation. Evidently the imagery for such earlier cultures was borrowed and adapted.

Pope Gregory, known as ‘The Great’ (540-604 AD) encouraged his missionaries to build on existing goodwill, places of worship and family festivals amongst the pagan tribes. The consequences of his statement: Non enim pro locis res, sed pro bonis rebus loca amanda sunt – "Things are not to be loved for the sake of a place, but places are to be loved for the sake of their good things…." are very relevant to our story.

This building on ancient foundations even went so far as to affect the liturgy of the mass and elements of this may be seen today in the singing of carols rather than high church music at Midnight Mass. This is frequently assumed to have come about when Augustine asked whether he should use Roman or Gallican customs in the mass in England. By way of an answer, Gregory said, in paraphrase, that it was not the place of origin that was more important to be pleasing to the Almighty. They should pick out what was "pia", "religiosa" and "recta" from any community whatever their tradition and set that down before the English minds as practice.

A few centuries later, it was St Francis of Assissi who popularised the idea of depicting the Nativity both in church and in the home, following the success of conjuring a vision of the Nativity in the course of his homilies. Prior to that there were occasional tableaux of a local maiden being led up the aisle on an ass and of course in many churches there were wall paintings of the Nativity cycle, some of the best survivors being found at Hardham in West Sussex, but no Nativity scenes at home. Indeed some of the imagery such as the denunciation of the Virgin Mary (for being an unmarried mother) by the women of Nazareth and the fall of pagan idols as the Holy Family made their way on the Flight into Egypt are very unfamiliar Christmas elements of the Christmas story for us today.

Over several later mediaeval centuries, what may be regarded as ‘Graven Images’ of the Nativity migrated north and were reinterpreted by local artists on the way; so by the time there was any consistency in the popular depictions of the Nativity, much of the imagery had been reproduced in an artistic vernacular using frames of reference that were contemporary with regional folk art. This is why in the Mediterranean lands one sees the Nativity set among classical ruins often with contemporary dress, while further north other folk costumes and bitterly cold scenes had become the setting.

That goes some way to explaining why one would expect to see snowy nativity scenes in Germany, Poland and further north. It also explains their appearance in the northern states of America after German and Scandinavian settlers started emigrating there. But the trail leading to British Christmas imagery and their effects on other preconceptions of Christmas is a little more convoluted.

The idea of a unique British nativity art movement in the UK was in its infancy at the beginning of the Renaissance when the unique politics of the British Reformation and its subsequent isolation from mainland Europe were beginning to shape both religious observance and art.

With the Nottingham Guild of Alablasters (sic) in the 15th Century, some fine examples of Christmas iconography had appeared, only to be snuffed out during the Reformation. There had been odd rough carvings of the Holy Family to be found hung outside many northern homes, frequently held within hoops of greenery among which would be mistletoe, a ‘magical’ plant that must have come from Heaven because it only grew high amid the trees.

The custom was to give a kiss of peace under the holy family and leave any weapons by the threshold, which probably was a refinement of the earlier Norse custom of not bringing weapons into a banqueting hall. (Not a custom that helped the Welsh Princes who were weaponless and massacred by William de Braose during a Christmas banquet at Abergavenny Castle in 1175.)

That is the origin of the custom of kissing under the mistletoe. It has nothing to do with ancient fertility rites! Even this was not to survive the Calvinist driven desire to cleanse the Church of any Pagan and idolatrous influences in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Calvinist machinations actually backfired in their attempt to give Christmas a greater Christian significance.

In January 1642, shortly prior to the outbreak of the Civil War and the subsequent execution of Charles I, the celebration of Christ’s birth on 25th December was ‘lost’ when it was ordained that the last Wednesday of the year should be a fast day. As a result, in 1644 Parliament met and worked on December 25 – although in the following year Christmas Day itself fell by serendipity on the last Wednesday of the year. Throughout the Parliamentarian regime that followed, the celebration of Christmas was effectively abolished until the Restoration of Charles 2nd in 1660.

There was among ‘the Godly’ a great desire for what became known as Puritanism. Anyone cooking Christmas fare or trying to maintain old folk customs could find themselves brought up before a magistrate. In Canterbury there were riots against this when attempts were made to recruit troops with large noses to sniff out any aromas from mince pies! Any attempt to celebrate anything resembling a high mass would be stopped, often by armed interruption, and Samuel Pepys refers to such incidents in his diaries.

The net effect of this hiatus in celebration, which had built on a previous century of reform and the abandonment of ‘graven images’ and adornment, was a disruption of any continuity of Christmas custom and a rapid decline in other calendar customs, many of which were founded on the old Church Festival Calendar.

This disconnection with tradition happened throughout a period of rapid change involving the agricultural enclosures, mechanical improvements and an increasing lack of social responsibility among many of the landed gentry that became obvious in the late 17th Century and carried on throughout the 18th. The few of the wealthy who really strove to take care of their increasingly urban workforce were in the main part Quakers who did not subscribe anyway to old church customs.

A sense of disconnection from the Hanoverian royalty that succeeded Queen Anne resulted in a strange dichotomy where at court some semblance of the celebration of a traditional German Christmas took place without the English getting involved. Elsewhere, frequently resentful and dismissive of the Royals, the public at large disliked them and took very little notice of any of their customs, because many of the royals did not even bother to speak English with any enthusiasm.

This was not helped by a series of foreign wars of succession that seemed to have little relevance to domestic needs. In Scotland, enclosures, repression and exile for many dissidents (especially after the 1745 Jacobite rising) brought about even more social impoverishment in what few rural communities survived. The sum total of this was that other than as a time of eating and drinking, based on the need to slaughter livestock that could not be fed in the winter months and for perishable crops to be eaten, Christmas was not observed in any sense that we would recognise today.

The scene was set for a well intentioned ‘revival’ of the Christmas festival by part time scholars and well intentioned amateurs working from relict folk memory, a few old written accounts and a tendency to draw links and comparisons that would not really stand up to any serious research into the historical and archaeological evidence available today.

Before either Charles Dickens or indeed Christina Rosetti appeared on the scene there were local attempts to rediscover lost customs. Ultimately these would result in the likes of Lady Augusta Llanover (1802-96) who revived, in a bowdlerised and mildly reinterpreted form, quite pagan ‘theatre’ such as the Mari Llwyd, on her Monmouthshire estates.

Like many educated new generation ladies who had interests beyond the entirely domestic, she had developed an interest in Welsh art, literature and music at a time when they were in very serious decline.

Although she was very much in the temperance and Methodist mould, she was symptomatic of a change in the country involving a widespread and genuine attempt being made to revitalise religious life. There was a general fear that without the stabilising effects of religion, the whole country could collapse into anarchy. Some sort of spiritual revival was considered vital to the survival of the status quo after the Peterloo Massacre (Manchester 1819) then further armed interventions in Bristol (1831) and the Chartist Riots in South Wales in the late1830s and 40s.

A leader among those attempting to stimulate a religious revival and social stability was, as suggested earlier, the Oxford Movement which could be said to have its origins with the Tractarian Movement in the 1830s. In effect this was a movement of High Church Anglicans, whose beliefs eventually developed into Anglo-Catholicism. The movement, whose members were often associated with the University of Oxford, argued for the reinstatement of lost Christian traditions of faith and their inclusion into Anglican liturgy and theology. It was expected that this would raise the general morality and observance among the population at large. Central to their approach was the way they saw the Anglican Church as one of three branches of the Catholic Church. Another of the engines for change would have been the Catholic Relief Act of 1829.

The stage was set to bring about the reinstatement of Christmas as a religious festival centred on iconic imagery and romantic notions of the family, partly as an attempt at social engineering. But nothing really quite goes to plan.

It was at this point that a number of influences came together to popularise Christmas as a social event extending way beyond any influence of The Church. Chief among these were the advent of new technologies that allowed mass production and improvements in what would come to be known as photogravure.

A catalyst was the crowning of a new and popular queen with her handsome and somewhat different Prince Consort, who was intelligent, foreign, capable and charming. After an initial adverse reaction to yet another German, the rise of the popular press, coupled with increasing literacy among the working classes, contrived to raise interest in royal goings on, just as the press have done today with Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge.

It was only a matter of time before an engraving of the royal family around their Christmas tree would be seen in the Illustrated London News (in 1848). Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and the Great British Public, already aspiring to ever higher standards of living, was in the mood to imitate the upper classes, and there was no higher class than Royalty.

Whereas it is tempting to suggest that commercial opportunism spurred the popularisation of Christmas throughout Victoria’s reign, such a summary does not tell the whole story. Commercialism, contrary to popular opinion, did not impose Christmas on the public. It merely reacted to a ready market that was already open to commercial exploitation.

So the British Christmas tradition dates to the Victorian Era and the time of the Industrial Revolution: a time with all the changing incomes, aspirations and social needs that industrialisation involved. These inevitably included nostalgia for things past.

The people wanted a rosy perception of ‘The Good Old Days’. Childhood memory, received wisdom and folk memory are generally highly selective in what they recall. I suppose the modern equivalent is nostalgia for the security of the 1950s with hearth and home, dad in a job and mummy at home baking. The reality of course was fear of nuclear war, lack of household appliances, the bleak after effects of recent rationing, lack of choice in shops, low disposable income, forced adoption of babies born out of wedlock and a general fear of what the neighbours would think. The lovely Yorkshire phrase: ‘All lace curtains and no Sunday Dinner’ could be applied many lives during the 1950s – just as it could, at times be applied to many aspects of the Victorian era.

Charles Dickens, in many of his writings, reflects that desire to see urban Christmas as a time of goodwill, hearty eating and a gentler treatment of the poor – reconnecting with what should have been good about a traditional rural Christmas.

Dickens was not alone in this desire but many of his contemporaries were less committed. Thackeray, for example, wavered between a hearty endorsement of Christmas, such as may be found in his favourable piece on Dickens’ Christmas Carol in Fraser’s Magazine of 1844, to his positively curmudgeonly piece on ‘’Juvenile Parties’ published in ‘The Snobs of England’ in 1846.

Overall, the creeping commercialisation of Christmas was generally approved by the literati, provided that not too much was demanded of the purse in the way of presents!

There was a movement towards using Christmas imagery in the magazines of the day which, surprisingly, was not immediately taken up to any great extent by the earliest Christmas card publishers, who tended to use summer scenes, swallows and children in floral settings with ‘Merry Christmas’ appended almost as an afterthought.

To find the source of the sense of Christmas nostalgia as we understand it today, and of its pervasive influence on Victorian self perceptions, one needs to look no further than the writings of Washington Irving. He was an American diplomat who travelled extensively in Britain and wrote descriptions of a Yorkshire Christmas in his collection of essays entitled ‘Bracebridge Hall’. These were all very well received being much admired by Charles Dickens among others. Somehow he set an early seal on the British perception of what their Christmas should be.

During the expanding pressure of social and commercial interest to leaven the darker months of the year with a sparkling and cheerful Christmas, we begin to see the emergence, particularly against the background of new developments of ‘Bells and Smells’ within the Oxford Movement’s ‘High Church’ liturgy and research into the origins of Christmas, which involved some pretty twisted leaps of logic. Early writings were scoured for references and some pretty fanciful imagery was created showing wassail cups being handed round to grandly attired chieftains such as Vortigern by pre Raphaelite maidens bearing almost no resemblance to what could have been the scene - should such an event have ever taken place.

Engravings bearing such titles as: The First Wassail’ caught the public imagination against a background of romantic imagery of Arthurian times. It must be remembered that Poems such as Tennyson’s ‘Morte d’Arthur’ and ‘Lady of Shallott’ loosely based on Malory’s writings published in 1485, influenced a large number of artists such as Edward Burne-Jones and designers such as William Burges. History was creatively reconstructed to such an extent that the British came to regard themselves as having an unbroken line of Christian and Christmas tradition going back beyond the Dark Ages.

It was inevitable that many would jump on the bandwagon, ‘inventing’ imagery that would capture the popular imagination. Soon other nations were buying into the same ideas. Germany, particularly because its traditions of St Nicholas in Bavaria and the Reformation inspired Christkind further North had survived religious wars, Reformation, Counter Reformation. They quickly employed such imagery as a starting point using their newly developed lithograph techniques.

The British were a bit slow on the uptake. In the mid 1870s they were still selling early Christmas cards and prints showing semi nude nymphs. Even as late as the 1890s we can find some stone lithograph Christmas cards depicting children playing on the seashore. This did not chime too well with what the public were coming to expect from their Christmas imagery, so innovative publishers were soon producing cards with postmen in the snow, children, St Nicholas and snowmen. Floral holly and ivy – and designs featuring robins (always a very popular British bird) – were hard on their heels. Snowy nativity and angel scenes brought up the rear.

Most images were not exactly Christian in any sense of the word, and there was some reluctance to use overtly religious imagery at Christmas time although it was generally still a part of the event. One can still find innumerable samplers and albums with religious references and texts adorning all of them; after all life was still risky, infant mortality was common and life expectancy beyond one’s sixties was remarkable. That said, protests about bringing religion into Christmas are to be found in the annals of many magazines of the period.

Socialism was still growing and with it a desire among many of the disadvantaged to bring down the old order. The aspirational middle classes, by contrast, tended to look up rather than down, imitating what they fondly imagined to be their elders and betters. There was a desire to make a splash at Christmas, outdo one’s neighbours with a fine display of new decorations and to impress family with the quality of presents given.

This was a godsend to the up and coming owners of the new department stores, many of whom were looking with envy at how the Americans seemed to be capitalising on absolutely everything festive, raking in the profits as they did so.

The Christmas market was becoming international with new innovations such as blown glass balls, tinsel and lametta added to the impact of lithography. Many firms such as Raphael Tuck become international, beginning in Germany, opening works in England and eventually either licensing designs & techniques or indeed opening new factories in the USA.

As infant survival rates improved throughout the latter half od the 19th Century, the urban population boomed. Grottoes began to appear in the larger stores, frequently mixing up a large number of foreign customs with a few home grown ones, giving children the thrill of an animated snowy fairyland, imagery that would be exchanged, repeated and developed for the set designs of pantomime productions in the theatres of the day. Elsewhere Christmas spectaculars with ever larger municipal trees, lanterns and eventually electric lights appeared in a number of US cities. These were seized upon and developed here in the UK as soon as import restrictions, technology and manufacturing capacity allowed.

Into this mix came Santa Claus, or as originally described in many Victorian department store grottoes, Father Christmas. He was a figure with a very complex genealogy deserving of a separate study. Somehow morphing into a fur clad figure, he helped the party (and sales!) along, amused the children and before long, gave out presents (for a small fee). However, it would be unfair to dismiss this amalgam of earlier gift-bringers as simply a commercial invention.

Clement Clark Moore’s ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ sometimes described as "arguably the best-known verses ever written by an American",[9] was first published anonymously in the Troy, New York, ‘Sentinel’ on December 23, 1823,. Being a well known academic, Moore did not initially admit to being the author but it was reprinted frequently and Moore finally acknowledged his authorship when he included it in the 1844 anthology ‘Poems’ at the insistence of his children. He constructed the image of his St Nicholas from immigrant Dutch and German traditions in his locality, traditions which had already evolved in a New World context.

His St Nicolas imagery was soon seen in many other parts of the world, illustrated by such artists and engravers as Thomas Nast who added their own interpretation to the look of the figure, including, sometimes half remembered, folk traditions. The variations gave licence to all sorts of other reinterpretations on cards, posters and of course in department store grottoes.

Parents who, despite bringing their children up with a ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ philosophy, really cherished their offspring, were all too happy to buy into this new emergent story, as long as they could afford it.

The Christmas scene was evolving with every decade and innovation was usurping tradition in many areas. The early wassailers and guisers of the market towns were being ousted by carollers singing in the squares raising money for good causes. The salvation army bands brought new, well orchestrated and memorable, tunes to old carols, then rapidly included new Christmas hymns such as ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ – which had been originally penned by Charles Wesley in 1739, then extensively reworked by Felix Mendelssohn a hundred years later. ‘Away in a Manger’ is another example, originally published in the American publication ‘The Myrtle’ where it was claimed to have originally been Luther’s ‘Cradle Song’ which it most certainly was not!

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. People liked it and it became popular, which pretty well brings me back to my starting point.

The Victorians through a desire to mitigate the realities of the industrial age, a need to keep people happy and the strength of their emerging middle class, had eagerly embraced the idea of a warm, well fed, joyous Christmas – despite it being far removed from the realities of the earlier understanding of the Nativity and probably even further away from any factual description of the birth of Christ.

Their new Christmas was also far removed from the Nordic celebrations of Yule despite both including feasting, drinking, wishing health and good cheer. The idea of their kiss of peace under the holy bough was adopted without concern for accuracy in the Victorians’ enthusiastic recreation.

The Victorians took the festival a long way, making a pick & mix selection of tradition as they went. Tradition, including a procession of asses being led up the aisles of vividly painted Saxon and Norman churches, descriptions of idols falling along the way of the Flight into Egypt and of course the saintly figure of St Nicholas visiting children to find if they had learned their bible stories and later Catechism in return for a few sweetmeats were becoming casualties of this new order or were being adapted. It could be said that they bought wholeheartedly into an amalgam of everything, trying in some unrealised way to emulate Pope Gregory in building on that which is good.

Perhaps it has always been a case either of: ‘Nihil Novis sub Solum’ or even: Plus ça change, c’est plus la même chose.

They may have taken us in the wrong direction, confusing many scholars and social historians, but who cares? It’s been fun!