I think it’s fairly well known that many of our present-day Christmas customs were invented in the 19th century, mostly in England by Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria and her family. These have been ‘supplemented’ by some European ones (like Christmas outdoor markets) and many more American ones.
It’s also common knowledge that mediaeval and Elizabethan Christmases were fairly riotous affairs; and that the Puritans banned Christmas under Cromwell for that reason.
I don’t want to repeat what’s already been written by others about the Georgian Christmas celebrations, which seemed to focus on special meals, generally taken with family and friends, and decorations based on evergreens; plus small gifts for family and servants. What interested me was to discover what actually appeared in my favourite primary sources: local newspapers. Did they mention balls, routs, assemblies, theatre performances, pantomimes or anything else festive specifically linked to Christmas? I did a careful search of East Anglian newspapers, decade by decade, and looked at what I found.
For 1700 to 1750
Nothing. Nix. Nada. Not a word.
The only mentions of Christmas — and they were very few — used it as a convenient date for things like taking possession of a house or demanding payment on debts. Nothing festive at all.
For 1750 to 1799
Mentions of Christmas-specific activities were still few and most came from the very last years of the century, strengthening the idea that Christmas celebrations started to grow in popularity in Regency times, then picked up under Queen Victoria. We know George III’s Queen,
Caroline Charlotte, first imported the idea of a decorated fir tree from her native Germany (NOT Prince Albert, as usually stated), but Christmas then was still not much more than an excuse for a good meal and some private, family giving of small gifts. The only other custom involved giving monetary ‘tips’ to servants and those shopkeepers with whom you did the most regular trade — though some tradesmen did the reverse and rewarded loyal customers with small gifts and giveaways.
Fun Reading for Children at Christmas?
NEWBERY’s new PUBLICATIONS,
For the Instruction and Entertainment of Young
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In the CHRISTMAS HOLIDAYS will be published
the following :
1. THE HOLIDAY SPY, Price 1d.
2. The Entertaining Traveller, Price, 2d.
3. Virtue and Vice, Price, 3d.
4. Juvenile Biography, Price, 3d.
5. The Adventures of Master Headstrong, and Miss Patient, Price 3d.
(The Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday, 23 December, 1780)
Christmas Gift Delivery
Note there is no suggestion any people will travel, which might be something to think about today. It also strikes me as odd that presents go to London, but only lamb is mentioned as returning. Was there no lamb in Norfolk?
SWAFFHAM, December 7, 1779,
For CONVENIENCY of delivering GAME, PRESENTS, &c. in LONDON against CHRISTMAS and NEW-YEAR DAYS next.
A MACHINE will set out from Mr. WILLIAM TIFFIN’s, grocer in Swaffham, on Wednesday the 22nd and 29th instant, at Six o’clock in the evening, to be at the Four Swans, Bishopsgate-street, very early on Christmas and New-year eves.
(Ipswich Journal, Saturday, 18 December, 1779)
Lynn and London Post-Coaches,
(By way WISBEACH, St Ives, &c.)
For CHRISTMAS and NEW-YEAR’s DAYS,
SET out from the STAR INN, LYNN, on Friday the 24th and 31st days of December 1790, at Ten o’clock in the forenoon, for the conveyance of presents, &c, to be at the GEORGE and BLUE BOAR INN, HOLBORN, early on Christmas and New Year’s Days respectively.
And from the said and GEORGE and BLUE BOAR, on the Same mornings at the above hour, for the conveyance of lamb, &c. to be at the Star Inn, Lynn, early on the above mornings.
To those country gentlemen whose friends reside in the upper part of the town, the proprietors wish to remark, that as no other coach from this neighbourhood, goes so high up as Holborn, the saving in porterage will be considerable, which when aided by a speedy and careful delivery, they hope will merit their attention.
(The Norfolk Chronicle, 23 December, 1790)
We hear that Joseph Windham, Esq. Sheriff for the county of Norfolk, has ordered a dinner on Christmas day, of plumb [sic] pudding and roast beef, with a quart of strong beer, for each prisoner confined in the county gaol at Norwich.
(Ipswich Journal, Saturday, December 23, 1797)
A Last Minute Present?
A genteel CHRISTMAS PRESENT
For a YOUNG LADY.
This Day is published, price One Shilling,
Or 1s. 6d. with Clasps or Straps,
(Neatly bound in red leather, with pockets for notes ; embellished with Two Ladies in the most elegant Full Dresses of the Year; likewise a beautiful Engraving from Darwin’s admired Poem of Eliza — taking her last Farewell of her Babes : both plates designed by Mr. Stothard, and exquisitely engraved by Skelton)
The SECOND EDITION of RACKHAM’s SUFFOLK LADIES MEMORANDUM BOOK; or, Polite Pocket Museum for the Year 1794. The contents of this publication are fully inserted in this paper, NOV. 23, 1795.
Bury : Printed and sold by J. Rackham ; sold also by all the booksellers in the counties of Suffolk, Norfolk, and Essex.
(Ipswich Journal, Saturday, 21 December, 1793)
I wish all my readers a happy holiday and a healthy and prosperous New Year!