On last week’s episode of ITV’s Victoria, Doctor Who companion Clara Oswald (who has been guised as the Queen in this several-series length spin-off, presumably since The Doctor abandoned her in 19th century ITV-land) found that the divide between rich and poor was becoming tricky for Vicky. Her Maj chose to have a ball to support London’s poor merchants; London’s poor merchants thought she was having a laugh. Her realisation that regal pomp clashed with the impoverished everyday lives of millions was a very real historical issue, with outcomes that paved the way for the welfare state and charitable causes today.
So as I clumsily blog about Christmas history when it’s not really Christmas (still very awkward as I write in September – but I do have a book that’s now available and I wish to urge you to buy by reading these blogged words), I thought it might be good to zoom in on the wealth gap and ensuing charity that came in during Victoria’s reign, which then swiftly attached itself to the festive season.
A year prior to taking the throne, Victoria was so moved by a visit to a gypsy camp that she urged her mother to send for provisions and blankets. She later established a Christmas tradition of handing out hampers at Windsor Castle, providing a ton of bread and half a ton of plum puddings, as well as plenty of beef, potatoes, and coal.
But when she dined, she didn’t skimp on portions herself. Ignore the size of actress Jenna Coleman – Big Vic Regina was a big eater, and a fast one too. Her Majesty could put away a seven-course dinner in just half an hour. Unfortunately for her guests, custom was that once the Queen had finished a course, everyone’s would be cleared. So hundreds of guests attended, only to find that many weren’t even served their food before the Queen (served first) had finished eating hers. In such a vast hall, inevitably many didn’t eat. There was a side table at least, for anyone peckish between courses (if you had courses at all), plus a public gallery where any public could watch this gorging spectacle. But do we really want to just watch someone else eat? Let them (watch me) eat cake…
The Victorian era changed Christmas more than any other period of history. And the biggest influence? Not Dickens, nor crackers, cards, charity, Christmas trees, Victoria nor Albert… but industrialisation. It created a middle class, and it made people flock from country to city. There were a million Londoners in 1800 and nearly 7 million by the end of the century, making London the world’s largest city. City life has benefits in terms of employment, but at the cost of community spirit – so our olde Englishe Christmassy customs – wassailing, orchard blessing, mummers touring the village, the parish priest blessing each family home – all were under threat, and largely absent from city life. In the country, more effort went into decorating the village church; urbanites instead decorated where they lived – with whatever their low incomes could afford. Public feasting became private feasting.
The home itself, rather than the house, was becoming a new phenomenon of its own. While the workhouse was in no way a good place to be, advancements in heating, plumbing, and eventually electrics soon meant that for many, evening and winter had the potential to be enjoyable like never before. (Just wait until radio and television.) The domestication of Christmas was the festival’s biggest leap for a millennium. Now customs didn’t belong to the community but to the family.
With the workforce gravitating towards cities, there developed the idea of returning home for the family Christmas. In the past, villagers had but a short walk to see relatives; now hordes of city-dwellers made that seasonal exodus back home, like the holy family for the census. New modes of transportation made this possible: trains, or even the omnibus. As the railways spread, people could move further from their birthplace to find work, meaning that a Christmas family reunion was something to anticipate, compared with a stroll over a field to say hello to Mum. To this day, we’re still moving – as recently as the 1990s, the average Brit lived five miles from their birthplace; at the time of writing, that’s now 100 miles.
With a new middle-class (thanks to new technology and employment) came aspiration. Before it was serfs and royals – now the middle-class could look to the Queen, while the working-class could look to those middle-class types looking to the Queen. Social mobility wasn’t easy – but it was at least an idea.
Then along came Dickens. More of him and A Christmas Carol on another blog post – but suffice to say his trump card was painting Scrooge as the hardest of hearts, showing that even he could become the humanitarian of the book’s finale. This ushered in a new charitable connection to Christmas, his contemporaries quick to recognize that this was one of the few books to improve the behaviour of those who read it. Just a few months later, The Gentleman’s Magazine attributed a boom in charitable giving to A Christmas Carol. One American factory-owner read it on Christmas Eve and closed his factory the next day, instead giving a turkey to each employee. Vanity Fair author William Makepeace Thackeray noted that, “A Scotch philosopher, who nationally does not keep Christmas Day, on reading the book, sent out for a turkey, and asked two friends to dinner – and that is a fact.”
Charity had been associated with Christmas for many years. In 1667 Samuel Pepys reported in his diary that he “stopped and dropped money at five or six places, which I was the willinger to do, it being Christmas”. For many years churches had rattled their boxes and monarchs had rewarded their poorer subjects. Bosses emptied their charitable boxes to employees the day after Christmas – though this custom faded away in the later Victorian years, just as she encouraged ‘Boxing Day’ as an official holiday – so at least it would be a day off for workers, if not ready cash in a box.
Whether inspired by Dickens or not, four years after A Christmas Carol Victoria ensured extra funds for Christmas dinners at workhouses across the country. So that’s nice. Hopefully she didn’t turn up too – otherwise she’d finish them all off in thirty minutes, knowing her.
Another time, we’ll look at her husband Albert’s festive contributions (from the Christmas tree to paper decorations and German markets), and another time still, far nearer Christmas, we’ll get all Dickensian.
For now, buy the book. Thanks.