Gaskell House Blogs

Victorian Christmas Decorations

8th December 2017
in blog, Collection, Events, Gaskell House Blogs, People

Before Queen Victoria‘s reign started in 1837 nobody in Britain had heard of Santa Claus, no Christmas cards were sent and most people did not have holidays from work. The wealth and technologies generated by the Industrial Revolution of the Victorian era changed the face of Christmas forever. Christmas celebrations evolved during the Victorian period from a largely non-existent festival amongst the populace into something which all classes in society were able to participate in to some degree by its close.

A Victorian Christmas was a resplendent pageant of opulence, warmth and generosity, a family celebration. The medieval custom of Christmas carols was revived, and gift giving elevated to new levels. We could do worse than sticking to Dickens’s Christmas Carol with its rich imagery.

The Christmas tree moved from the table to the floor in the Victorian period (Queen Victoria had one at Windsor by 1848, whereas in the early 1830s they were still table top adornments.) It was brought into the house on Christmas Eve. Tree decorations including the following;

  • Angels/cherubs, fruit, Dresden silver paper stars
  • Spun glass fairy angels (from 1870s)
  • Lacquered Father Christmases (not Santas) – initially gaunt and wearing a brown hooded cape, later green, black or blue, crowned with sprigs of holly and travelling on foot or astride a white goat.
  • Gifts such as wind-up trinkets, tin soldiers, whistles, homemade gifts
  • Chocolate wreaths
  • Gilded apples
  • Silver cornucopias dripping with silken tassels
  • Glazed cherries and sugar plums
  • Gingerbread men
  • Marzipan animals, angels, musical instruments etc
  • Nuremberg angel at the top of the tree – crinkled gold skirt, spun-glass wings, wax or clay face, sometimes carrying a silver scroll “Peace on Earth”

Evergreens such as  holly, spruce, balsam, laurel, cedar, ivy, and mistletoe were spread throughout the house (from mid-December). Staircases, banisters, sideboards, picture frames etc were covered by twisting boughs around them. Garlands and wreaths added to the decoration.

Christmas tree origins –  (Taken from Joy to the World: A Victorian Christmas by Cynthia Hart, John Grossman and Priscilla Dunhill (published in USA, 1990; in UK by Ebury Press, 1991)

In Northern Europe in the 1300s, performers strolled the streets carrying huge pine boughs laden with apples, representing the Garden of Eden in a play of Adam and Eve performed on church steps on December 24th. Gradually, the “paradise tree” transmuted into a tree of life, the Christ child’s tree.

One of the first written references to a Christmas tree was in Strasbourg in 1605, where a visitor reported seeing a tree decorated with apples, gilded candies (for children), paper roses (the symbol of the Virgin Mary) and thin wafers (the host of Holy Communion).

Victoria and Albert are often credited with the introduction of the Christmas tree owing to the Illustrated News etching published in 1848 showing the Royal Family gathered around their Christmas tree at Windsor. (In Victorian London society the middle and upper classes now saw the Christmas tree as being fashionable and so bought trees for their own homes.) However its worth noting that it was Queen Charlotte (1744 – 1818), the wife of King George III, who established the Christmas tree as a tradition in the UK, setting up the first known English tree at the Queen’s Lodge, Windsor in December 1800.

Whereas the Christmas tree was only put up on Christmas Eve, other decorations could be put up earlier. No decoration should be taken down before Twelfth Night, although traditionally the date for their removal was no later than February 1st.

German trees tended to be table top, whereas the English placed them on to the floor when they became widely adopted.

This blog has been written by Adam Daber, Volunteer and curator at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House (he is also one of the volunteers who is responsible for the Christmas decorations at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House including our very beautiful tree)


New cooks always want their own peculiar little odds & ends for cookery

Elizabeth Gaskell 1863