How the Victorians engineered Christmas

13 December 2020


13 December 2020


Discover some Victorian Christmas traditions. Explore festive firsts and more to discover how today’s traditions began.

The 1840s was an important time for both the celebration of Christmas and for the SS Great Britain.

1843 in particular saw the launch of the ship, which would go on to shape modern marine engineering, alongside both the publication of A Christmas Carol and the creation of the first ever Christmas card. We look at these festive firsts and more to discover how today’s traditions began.



Kissing under the mistletoe has its roots in Celtic tradition. Hanging mistletoe above the entrance to the home gave protection from evil and brought good luck to the household. Mistletoe is a symbol of fertility in the myths of many ancient cultures, and during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there was a revival in pagan traditions, with mistletoe becoming a popular part of Christmas celebrations.



‘Stir up Sunday’, the fifth Sunday before Christmas, is a Christian tradition which became popular during the Victorian period as the day for making the Christmas pudding. Each family member would take their turn to stir the mixture, enriched with dried fruit, suet and eggs, to bring good luck in the coming year. The pudding was boiled in a cloth to give it a spherical shape, then served with a sweet custard or ‘hard sauce’ (most often brandy butter).



Brunel’s brother-in-law, John Callcott Horsley, designed the first ever Christmas card in 1843 for his friend Henry Cole, an inventor and prominent civil servant. Cole reformed the British postal system, making it quicker and cheaper to send letters, and this encouraged the sending of seasonal greetings that we continue today.



When Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843, the first print run of 6,000 copies sold out in days. In the same year, the SS Great Britain launched from her dry dock in Bristol. Be sure to visit the Shakespeare Room within Being Brunel to find a first edition copy, beautifully-decorated with illustrations of holly on its hard cover. Dickens and Brunel were both members of the Athenaeum, a private members’ club in London, so it seems likely they would have shared their success stories!



Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert, led the country in bringing a Christmas tree into their family celebration. The popularity of decorated trees grew quickly, and with this came a market for tree ornaments in bright colours and reflective materials that would shimmer and glitter in the candlelight.



Sweet shop owner Tom Smith first invented the cracker in the 1840s. He was inspired by seeing bonbons (French sweets wrapped in paper) during a visit to Paris. Smith’s first crackers were love tokens, containing sweets and a motto. Later, their contents included jokes and trinkets, which ranged from whistles and miniature dolls to jewellery, with the characteristic ‘snap’ or ‘crack’ also coming along a few years after Tom Smith’s first creations.

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