The Holly and the Ivy: A Victorian Christmas – Part 1

DATED: 30.11.15

It wasn’t all doom and gloom for London and the rest of Britain in the Victorian era, there were times for celebration and family, in amongst all the disease and murder. Before Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837, Christmas celebrations in Britain were scarce. There was no holiday, no cards, no crackers and nobody had even heard of Santa Claus. With the Queen’s European ties, however, and the industrial trade booming, this had all but changed by the mid 40’s and Christmas, as we know, it was born.

Here at, we are intrigued and fascinated by the Victorian era as much as the next historian, so we’re going to take a peek at how they lived and celebrated the festive period in two parts. The first will look at how the holiday has evolved, gifts and decorations. The second will focus on the roots of Santa Claus, and the day itself. So, without further ado…

Taking roots from pagan traditions – much like Halloween, Christmas was very much an amalgamation of various mid-winter festivals and religious celebrations. With the release of Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ in 1843, the rich were inspired to donate generously to the poor and cherish their loved ones with presents and a big family meal.


The economic boom afforded businesses the luxury of allowing staff an extra two days holiday to celebrate with their loved ones – which was in the form of Christmas Day and Boxing Day, respectively, paving the way for new traditions. New and improved rail links meant people could travel to see their families on this special day, too.

Gift Giving

In the early days of her ruling, most toys were handmade and expensive, meaning that any toy gifts that were given were mostly within the middle class and richer families. However, mass production in factories allowed lower class families to indulge in games, books and smaller toys. The poorest families would give fruit and nuts to their loved ones.

Cards and Decorations

The decorated tree was introduced to Britain by Prince Albert and the German tradition of decorating a tree with sweets, candles and tinsel took hold of Britain with gusto. Decorating the house with holly, ivy and evergreen foliage was commonplace and certainly added to the festive spirit.

Cards were unheard of before the introduction of the penny post in 1840. The concept really took off in 1843, taking the place of the Christmas letter, and by the mid-1970s the price dropped to a half-penny post, which made this gesture a lot more accessible to most.

That’s all for this first look at the Victorian festive season; be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the second part, coming soon.

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