Victorian London played a massive part in how we celebrate Christmas today.
William Sandys published Christmas carols and Christmas plays; Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol; Sir Henry Cole invented Christmas cards; Thomas J Smith invented the Christmas cracker; and Prince Albert encouraged us all to put Christmas trees in our homes, like good Germans. It is a custom we all practise today.
[T]hroughout the Middle Ages a midwinter festival associated with Christmas was celebrated with feasting, dancing, games, boozing and general merriment. Things ran into difficulties from the Reformation, particularly with Puritan elements, whereby many Protestants saw Christmas as being either a pagan or Popish celebration. Christmas was actually banned by a Puritan-dominated parliament in 1647. Protests and riots followed, notably in Canterbury.
Matters improved throughout the Georgian period, but by the early 19th Century, Christmas as a celebration was once again in decline.
Then, in 1833, London solicitor and antiquarian William Sandys published Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, comprising 80 carols which included classics such as The First Noel and God Rest You Merry Gentlemen. He published an updated version, called Christmas-tide, Its History, Festivities and Carols, With Their Music, in 1852. In addition, Sandys wrote several Christmas plays and other Christmas-related works.
Charles Dickens. As we all know, he wrote A Christmas Carol, which was published on 19th December 1843. The effect of the book on the revival of Christmas cannot be underestimated. Apart from adding to the language of Christmas, with scrooge, bah, humbug and all the rest of it, the book revived the Christmas tenets of family, good cheer, feasting, gift-giving and charity. The phrase Merry Christmas was pretty much invented by Dickens.
Christmas cards were first produced in London by Sir Henry Cole in 1843, the same year as A Christmas Carol was published. Sir Henry was instrumental in introducing the penny post a few years previously, so we can see where the shrewd fellow was going with this one. Themes on early cards were celebratory rather than religious.
Christmas crackers were invented by a sweet manufacturer called Thomas J Smith of London in 1847. Whereas we now have a toy inside the cracker, Smith originally used one of his sweets. He came up with the idea of the message inside and the explosion on pulling the cracker.
The Christmas tree is a German innovation which was introduced to Britain by Queen Charlotte, consort of George III. Prince Albert further promoted the use of Christmas trees, since when they became a fixture in the British home. The spruce Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square is a thank-you gift to the people of London from the people of Oslo for British assistance in defeating Germany in World War II. The tradition began in 1947. The plaque reads:
This tree is given by the city of Oslo as a token of Norwegian gratitude to the people of London for their assistance during the years 1940-45.
Christmas Day was always a customary as opposed to a statutory holiday having the same rest-day status of Sundays. It only reached the statute books under the Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971. Boxing Day was established as a public holiday a full century earlier under the Bank Holidays Act of 1871 and is a peculiarly British tradition, only really celebrated in Britain and Commonwealth countries.
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My thanks go to Mike Paterson for permission to reproduce Christmas History Trivia which appeared on his London Historians blog. London Historians was launched in August 2010 as a club for Londoners who’d like to learn more about their city’s history. They will be organising visits, talks, walks, social events and discounts to selected historical attractions and exhibitions. The site features a ton of useful information to give you a single launch pad to everything you want to find out about London’s history. Members are invited to contribute information and reviews to the site, if you like reading about London’s history you won’t be disappointed by following this link.