Victorian Christmas Traditions

The Victorians adapted and re-invented many old customs to suit their own sentimental and aesthetic taste, taking elements from both the religious and pagan festivals. Most of all, the Victorians turned Christmas into the celebration of family life and values, a tradition that has lasted into modern times. Here we look at the main features of the Victorian Christmas and their history.

Christmas Cards

  • The first Christmas card was printed for busy businessman Sir Henry Cole in 1843
  • By the 1880s 5 million letters and cards were sent at Christmas and the first call to 'Post Early for Christmas' was issued
  • Victorian Christmas cards contained an amazing range of images (which did not necessarily have a Christmas theme). Flowers, jokes, stories and chickens were all popular

Christmas Crackers

  • Christmas crackers were invented in 1840 by Tom Smith, a London confectioner
  • They began as individually wrapped sweets. Chinese fortune cookies then gave him the idea to add jokes and mottoes inside his paper twists
  • Some years later whilst sat by the fire, a crackling log startled Smith and gave him the idea to add the bang to his popular sweets
  • By 1870 he had swapped the sweets for silver lucky charms and by 1900 13 million Christmas crackers were being sold worldwide


  • The custom of bringing in evergreens to use for decoration during midwinter festivals goes back to antiquity. The practice became widespread in the 19th century

  • Ivy was the symbol for femininity whilst holly was seen to be masculine. The combination of the two intertwined promised the household fertility for the coming year
  • Evergreens were strewn on the mantelpiece and made into wreaths to hang on the front door, welcoming visitors. Wreaths, known as ‘Welcome Rings’, consisted of holly, ivy, pine cones and ribbons


  • The Victorian era was really the heyday of the pantomime

  • Pantomime has its origins in the masked mimes of Roman times and in medieval ‘mumming’ plays (a performance in which an entire village would take part)

  • The mixture of song, dance and acrobatics was designed to be enjoyed by adults and children alike

  • The ‘panto’ season traditionally started on Boxing Day as a treat for richer families. Poor people walked the streets wearing boards to advertise them

Thomas Nast's Father Christmas, 1881


Father Christmas as a symbol of the festive season has been around for centuries and has appeared in various forms:

Saint Nicholas - was a 4th century bishop who lived in Turkey and was famous for his acts of kindness, especially towards children.

One day on hearing that a poor man was reduced to selling his three pretty daughters as slaves, Nicholas threw three purses of gold through the door. On another occasion, he threw some gold coins down a chimney and they fell into a stocking (although some say a shoe) which had been put in the hearth to dry. It is thought that this is the origin of our Christmas stockings. After Nicholas’ death, it became custom to give presents in secret on his feast day on the 6 December.

Saint Nicholas eventually came to Holland, where he was known as Sinter Klaas. The children’s saint was accompanied by his faithful side kick Black Peter. Peter kept careful notes about each child in his book and he decided who on the 6 December should receive gifts and who would be chased with a big stick.

Father Christmas - was a player from a medieval old English midwinter festival, thought to be the provider of the feast which all enjoyed. Normally tall and thin, he was dressed in brown or green as a sign of the returning spring. From the 19th century onwards, adapted from the character St Nicholas, he became an integral part of English Christmas.

Santa Claus - is American. The name comes from the Dutch Sinter Klaas – 19th century Dutch settlers in America were misunderstood over the pronunciation.

Santa’s classic appearance was shaped by Clement Moore’s well-loved poem, ‘The Night Before Christmas’, which was first published in America in 1823:

‘He was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes, how they twinkled! His dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow…
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook, when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly,
He was chubby and plump – a right jolly old elf –
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.

The popular image of Father Christmas/Santa Claus was cemented by the illustrations drawn by the American Thomas Nast (see above). Nast drew cartoons for Harper’s Weekly in the 19th century. Nast’s portrayal of Father Christmas resembled a portly character with a large beard, carrying a sack of presents. He originally drew Father Christmas in a tan suit, later drawing him in green then the traditional red we know today. 

Victorian depiction of Father Christmas on a Card

Christmas Trees

  • The success of the British Christmas tree is accredited to Prince Albert, who was instrumental in bringing German Christmas traditions to Britain. Queen Victoria's mother however, was German as well, so the Royal Family did have Christmas trees before Prince Albert made the Christmas tree fashionable
  • Before this many would bring in a branch of a tree or holly or mistletoe, but there wasn't that traditional Christmas scene that we know now
  • A drawing of the Royal Family celebrating around a decorated Christmas tree in Windsor was published in 1848 by The Illustrated London News. The event caused such a flurry of excitement and interest that the custom quickly became fashionable
  • In the 1890s, one Covent Garden retailer supplied trees up to 40ft tall and could boast sales of over 30,000 trees each year

Christmas Tree Decorations & LIGHTS

  • The tree was traditionally decorated the night before Christmas
  • Originally, trees were decorated with fruit, nuts and small gifts. They were often set up on a central table in the main reception room
  • By 1860 the Christmas tree was adorned with many traditional and unusual items such as glass ornaments, decorative sweet containers, children's toys, flags, ribbons, sweets, baubles, nuts and homemade presents
  • Candle-bedecked Christmas Trees were a huge hazard as candles precariously balanced on dry tree branches often set them ablaze
  • The first electric tree lights were seen in the 1880s in America. Electric lights were very expensive, and remained too expensive for most families until after the Second World War