VICTORIAN CHRISTMAS TEA
I would like to take this opportunity to tell you a little about a traditional Victorian Christmas. I have enjoyed learning how past generations celebrate Christmas, my favorite holiday. The Victorian era was from around 1837-1901 when the royal family of England was Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. That was a time in which no one was forgotten. It was a time for caring about the sick, the poor and the lonely. Gift giving was something that was planned months in advance and long lists prepared to include all on the list. Within their own homes gifts were often used as ornaments on the Christmas tree and were placed under the tree. Even then there was a great concern about the holiday becoming too commercial. Gifts were store bought, ordered from a mail order catalog or made at home. Another good source for presents was a charity bazaar. Making presents served a twofold purpose: it helped make money for a worthy cause, and it was a form of entertainment. Needlework, since it was so time-consuming, was worked on constantly; but in between needlework projects, other objects were put together. Gifts of food were also popular – preserves, conserves, jams, & jellies that had been made in the summer, and candy, which could be made any time. Presents of plants were very welcome, as the Victorian era loved living things.
I wanted to share some of the gift ideas that were published in the Victorian time. Suggested presents for the lady of the house might be doilies, silver tea balls, and tea strainers for the hostess’ table; and for the parlor, there were photograph frames in silver, fabric, or leather. For the bedroom, dressing-table mirrors were suggested, and boxes, fans, vases, and jewelry. Gifts for men included cigars, cigarette cases, scarves and mufflers, a good whip or a carriage robe would be good items. Advice on men’s jewelry stated that such personal items should be rare or grotesque, rather than fine and pretty. Umbrellas were also a popular item. For grandmothers who enjoyed knitting, a “wonder Ball” headed the list. A wonder ball was a ball of yarn carefully unraveled and rewound with many little gifts hidden inside. The gifts were revealed as the yarn was gradually used up in knitting. Add a footstool, a pot of primroses, a folding fruit knife, and a screen against draughts and the Victorian grandmother would have a merry Christmas. Boys of Victorian times were said to enjoy receiving tool boxes, boxing gloves, sleds and skates, stamps and stamp albums, lanterns, jackknives, books of adventure, cap pistols and marbles. Little girls enjoyed gifts that imitated those of older sisters: a party fan, a bit of jewelry, a sachet, note paper with a monogram, books, a canary, and always a doll or two. Everyone expected and usually got an orange in the toe of the Christmas stocking. Clothes were always included as presents for young and old alike, and much time was spent knitting mittens, mufflers, and socks, as well as stitching up aprons, waistcoats, etc. Other gifts to make might be sachets, needle cases, pen wipers, and pomander balls. There is no more lovely custom than that of presenting gifts at Christmas time, a tradition brimming with poetry and sentiment. Parents’ methods of giving gifts to their children varied slightly. Generally, however, Santa Claus brought smaller gifts in the stocking and on the tree; but larger gifts, under the tree, were understood to come from “Mama and Papa.” Children hung their stockings on the mantelpiece or at the foot of their beds, to be filled with an orange, nuts, and smaller presents. In the South after the war, some families could not afford a Christmas and so the children were told that the Yankees had captured Santa Claus. Dutch descent children put carrots and straw in their wooden shoes and placed them by the hearth, along with a bucket of water for Saint Nicholas’s horse. The more important presents were opened after breakfast. Once this happened the tree was bear except the candy and cookies which were left until the tree came down. Often games were played. For example a pie made from gifts and grain or sawdust. After the meal everyone would receive a piece of pie!
DECORATING THE HOUSE:
Decorations for the house could be as simple as a green wreath at each window facing the street or elaborately decorated from room to room. Evergreens most commonly used were hemlock, spruce, laurel, cedar and ground pine. Ivy and ferns, especially those that had been pressed, were used for trimming curtains. Hollies of all kinds were mainly used for table decorations. Other plants used were: strawflowers, cockscomb, and statice. Grains were used, both in natural color and dyed. Bittersweet, rose hips, and holly berries were added to give variety. All of the materials mentioned were made into letters, greetings, wreaths, and garland.
THE CHRISTMAS TREE:
The American Victorian tree was developed by the combined influences of economic circumstance, taste, geographical location and family heritage. The Christmas tree is Germanic in origin. Feather trees were invented during the mid-19th century, when Germany became concerned with the loss of the forests in Europe and hence created the first artificial tree. They attached dyed goose and turkey feathers to wire branches, wrapped the branches around a slender trunk, and then set the tree in a painted wooden base. Prince Albert’s Christmas tree was always a young fir about 8′ high, with 6 tiers of branches. On each branch, dozens of candles were arranged. Hanging from the branches were elegant trays, baskets, and other containers for candies. Fancy cakes, gilt gingerbread, and eggs filled with sweetmeats were hung from the branches by colored ribbons. The tree skirt was white damask and was covered with toys and at the top of the tree stood the small figure of an angel.
Christmas Eve was tree-trimming time; garland with bright red holly berries on cord, fastened from the boughs. Tiny candles with long pieces of wire passing through the taper at the bottom; which were clasped over the stem of each branch and twisted underneath. Small bouquets of paper flowers, strings of beads, tiny flags of gay ribbons, stars and shields of gilt paper, lace bags filled with colored candies, and knots of bright ribbon all decorated the tree. The candles were light Christmas morning and possible only during the party. A bucket, holding a stick with a sponge on one end, was placed behind the tree in case of fire.
The table has been set with the finest of linens and china, and table decorations have been added. Evergreens were the majority of these decorations. The meal might consist of:
Boned Turkey Beets Lemon Pudding
Stuffed Ham Cole Slaw Cranberry Pie
Stewed Oysters Fried Celery Fruit, nuts
Turnips Candied Sweet Potatoes Coffee
Mashed Potatoes Plum Pudding
Victorian parties were held during the 12 days between Christmas Day and January 6, or “Little Christmas.” Parties were more geared to groups of the same age. Younger children usually had their parties between 3:00 and 6:00. Games such as the fish-pond, piñata, or even a marionette show were the entertainment. For teenagers cards and magic tricks were popular, or maybe taffy pull. Young adults might play “Literary Salad” in which a green salad is made from green tissue paper with literary quotations and the object was to read the quote aloud and guess the author’s name. Another popular game was pantomime, or “The Trades.” For an adult informal evening party a visiting card was sent out. Dancing, conversation, recitations, or music was the form of entertainment. The women were allowed quite evening dress but the men were expected to come in full evening dress.
Afternoon tea in England is a sociable interlude. Tea was usually enjoyed at weekends or in holiday leisure. Simple and delicious scones, cakes and buns are favorites of all. Drinking tea in England became popular in 1650, but afternoon tea, as we know it now, was started around 1840. I hope that all of you have enjoyed listening to me. I have brought some decorations to give your an idea at how simple yet pretty some of their decorations can be, and I have compiled a handout with recipes, decorations and party suggestions. I have many people to thank for the use of their decorations: Texas Trail Museum of Laramie County, my many friends and family. Good luck to those of you who are ambitious enough to decorate your home with Victorian decorations.