Ways to Celebrate a Victorian Christmas

Winter Holiday Customs and Traditions of Yesteryear

Family decorating Christmas tree
Westend61 / Getty Images

Sometimes we think about life more than 100 years ago and imagine simpler times. But when it came to Christmas, the Victorians really did it up right. Decorating, feasting, and sharing songs, music and gifts with others were all the order of the day. I was recently reading one of my favorite Christmas books, Joy to the World by Cynthia Hart, John Gossman and Priscilla Dunhill, for a refresher on Victorian Yuletide customs. If you want to experience a nostalgic holiday, take these suggestions to...MORE heart. You might, however, find they’re not so different from your family's own favorite holiday traditions.

  • 01 of 08

    Send Christmas Cards

    Santa Postcard Wearing Purple Suit, early 1900s
    Santa Postcard Wearing Purple Suit, early 1900s. Photo by Pamela Y. Wiggins

    Continuing the Valentine tradition, Victorians extended the custom of sharing holiday greetings to Christmas. While Valentines were reserved primarily for those young and in love, Christmas cards were sent to everyone far and wide. During the Gilded Age, they became more and more frilly and adorned. The late-Victorian era yielded Christmas postcard greetings like the one shown here. These postcards were wildly popular for sending and collecting moving into the early 1900s through the 1920s. Many...MORE homes held albums to save favorite greeting postcards, which helped to preserve them for future generations.

  • 02 of 08

    Go Caroling

    Victorian Carol engraving from 1864 magazine
    Victorian carolers engraving from 1864 magazine. Getty Images / JonnyJim

    Victorians revived the centuries old custom of singing carols to celebrate the season, which included adding new life to the 400 year-old song “The First Noel.” They not only went door to door singing for friends and neighbors, they enjoyed carols in parlors at home and during beautiful candlelit worship services in local sanctuaries. And where there was song, there was sheet music. Nicely illustrated pieces with Christmas themes from the early 1900s are not only beautiful, they are quite...MORE collectible today.

  • 03 of 08

    Prepare a Feast

    Plum Pudding Illustration on Vintage Postcard
    Plum Pudding Illustration on Vintage Postcard. Pamela Wiggins

    The English tradition of the wassail bowl and serving plum pudding transitioned to America in many areas. The plum pudding (the round dessert illustrated here) held charms holding symbolism for the person who ended up with that particular piece of dessert – a ring for marriage, a coin for wealth, and a silver thimble for a happy yet single life.

    Being a German delicacy at the time, carp was often enjoyed by Victorian families served on special china sets decorated with fish imagery during...MORE Christmas feasts as well. Many American homes also enjoyed turkey, ham, jams, jellies, pickles and several types of potatoes along with oyster dressing, pudding and stew. Not so different than some of the items we feast on during the holiday season today.

  • 04 of 08

    Decorate a Tree

    Victorian Christmas by artist unknown, 1876
    Victorian Christmas by artist unknown, 1876. Getty Images / SuperStock

    A photo of Queen Victoria, who was quite the trendsetter in her day, near a bedecked Christmas tree with her family sparked a tree-trimming frenzy in Victorian households. The German custom of tabletop Christmas trees was taken to new heights by Victorians who placed them on the floor in their homes. They adorned their beloved evergreens with flickering candles, fancy paper Santas, glistening angels, chocolate wreaths, gilded apples, silver cornucopias holding treats decorated with tinsel...MORE tassels, and dozens of other beautiful ornaments.

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  • 05 of 08

    Haul Out the Holly

    Early 1900s Santa Postcard
    Early 1900s Santa Postcard. Getty Images / SuperStock

    In addition to decorating a handsome Christmas tree, Victorians also adorned the sideboard, mantle, banisters, and most any other wooden surface available with rope upon rope of evergreen garland. Fresh mistletoe made its way into town as well, and hung in bountiful balls around the home. The olden tradition of warming the hearth with a specially cut Yule log continued on to foster continued good health and prosperity as well.

  • 06 of 08

    Make Your Own Gifts

    Handmade Victorian Christmas Greeting
    Handmade Victorian Christmas Greeting. Getty Images / Transcendental Graphics

    Women’s magazines during the late 1800s encouraged making holiday gifts rather than buying them ready made. According to Joy to the World, in 1890 editor Emma Hopper wrote: “An article one makes is certainly more complimentary than one bought, for we weave with every stitch sweet wishes for the recipient.” Homemade gift suggestions included knitted mittens, embroidered bed slippers and handkerchiefs, stenciled lampshades, hand-painted button boxes and perhaps a hand-stitched black apron for the...MORE lady in mourning on a Victorian gift list.

  • 07 of 08

    Plan a Christmas Program

    A Christmas Carol: Mr Fezziwig's Ball, 1843. Artist: John Leech
    A Christmas Carol: Mr Fezziwig's Ball, 1843. Artist: John Leech. Hulton Archives / Getty Images

    In the days before radio, television and movies, entertainment was spun closer to home. In fact, the Victorian parlor where a piano or organ often stood was center stage for Christmas Day entertainment. Family members and visiting friends would recite poems, read lively stories, offer songs, or pick up an instrument for a musical solo. Children would practice for weeks in preparation. Parlor games were also played including charades and the reenactment of historical events. All the while, a bowl...MORE of wassail or mulled spiced cider was on hand for refreshment.

  • 08 of 08

    Make the Most of Christmas Day

    Children on early 1900s greeting postcard
    Children on early 1900s greeting postcard. Pamela Wiggins

    Victorians would often venture out on Christmas Day to visit relatives and close friends, deliver dinners to the poor and infirmed, or attend candlelit church services. Those remaining at home would many times enjoy Bible readings recounting the nativity story in addition to the numerous other festivities of the day.