05 January 2019

The Real Victorian Christmas

A Victorian Christmas Treasury, edited by Moira Allen
Many people are fascinated by Victorian Christmas customs because so many of our modern customs derive from the Victorian time: the Christmas tree, turkey dinners, the Father Christmas/Santa Claus custom, the season being devoted to children (instead of wild partying and drinking as had been customary before that), etc. We chiefly get our ideas of a "real Victorian Christmas" from modern magazine articles that explore the origins of these customs, but it's quite different reading the material that was actually written at the time. Thus this book, which is a collection of 250 articles long and short (and a couple of short stories) from 1853-1898 mostly British magazines.

In one way it's not much different from modern magazines: every third article seems to be recipes for Christmas food, so there are a lot of recipes for plum pudding! However, if you are not used to reading Victorian-era prose, beware that it's wordy and effusive, and most of the time in teeny-tiny type, and illustrated not in color, but with black and white engravings. If that doesn't faze you, dive in and enjoy the customs that didn't make it to today: steamed puddings made of stale bread, "bran pies" with gifts in them, elaborate plays being staged for charades, the wandering mummers' parade about St. George, for just a few examples. There are accounts of Christmas celebrations in foreign lands (Italy, France, Germany, even a Canadian spending Christmas in England) and Christmas spent in unexpected places, like a hospital. There are accounts of how to make authentic Victorian decorations, like mottoes (glued together with flour paste) and greenery dipped in epsom salts and ground glass to simulate frost or snow, accounts of young people making money selling Christmas greens, accounts of Christmas past and the history of Christmas, a long and fascinating narrative of how a medieval Mystery play was produced and what it would be like, Victorian children's letters to Santa Claus, interviews with famous Christmas card verse writers (which produces the astonishing fact that back then religious cards were not very popular), articles on "sledging" and skating (and one on oranges), even a long story about a Christmas in Provence.

Even with the ever-present recipes, this is a fascinating sample of how Christmas was really celebrated, and the now-quaint vocabulary and unfamiliar words only adds to its mystique. Students of Christmas history should enjoy!

Anyway, I did something astonishing this year: I finished all my Christmas books! I usually pick up three or four during the year at used book sales, and pick up three or four new ones, but end up still having a tidy pile of around ten books at the end of the season. This year I read a "new" (to me) book every other Rudolph Day and re-read an old one down in the library, and still had enough books for the Christmas season with the three or four I usually re-read every year, and completed all of them, except the new book about Hanukkah I bought which I will save for December. This means I can do some happy re-reading this year.

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