Seven Surprising Victorian Christmas Traditions – From Food to Card Designs

What did the Victorians do at Christmas? (Photo: Getty Images/Rex Shutterstock)

Christmas is here, and however you choose to spend the festive season, chances are you’ll adopt many of the customs and traditions we all know and love – from sending festive cards to the turkey (or vegan equivalent) Christmas Pudding and minced pies on the day.

Most people will have grown up with these traditions – many of which have their roots in the 19th century, popularized by Queen Victoria as well as Charles Dickens in his novel A Christmas Carol.

That doesn’t mean some of our festive favorites haven’t gone through a few changes since the Victorian era, mind.

So how did the Victorians spend Christmas – was it all turkey dinners, gifts under the tree and waiting for Santa, or did they do things differently?

Here are some of the 19th century Christmas traditions that might surprise you…


Although we are familiar with a filling of dried fruit, candied bark, sugar and spices in our minced meat pies, it was a different story for the Victorians – whose own minced meat indeed contained meat.

While earlier generations favored meats such as lamb, veal, tongue and even tripe in their mince pies, ground beef was more commonly used by Victorians alongside fruit and spices – albeit at mid-century, meatless fillings have grown in popularity. in certain sections of society.

Three different mince pies against a dark wooden board arranged in a holly pattern and dusted with icing sugar for a snow effect.
Chop pies have changed a bit since Victorian times (Picture: Getty Images)

It’s unclear why this was the case, but it eventually led to the near abandonment of meat in favor of fruit pies in the early 1900s – although many by this time still contained beef tallow .

Christmas presents

Before the Victorian era, gifts were given at New Years rather than Christmas, and were rather modest – usually consisting of handmade decorations and crafts, or nuts, fruit and sweets.

The presents were eventually moved under the tree as they became larger and more expensive – although some etiquette regarding the presents remained.

Christmas Eve
That’s a lot of mistletoe (Photo: Getty Images)

Women, for example, were only expected to give gifts to men to whom they were married or related – and these were to be more practical than intimate in nature, gifts such as shaving kits and boxes tobacco products proving popular.

Gifts for women, meanwhile, would depend on their social status and marital status – and could include anything from soaps and perfumes to jewellery, flowers and sweets.

Christmas card

Two robins lying flat on their backs, possibly sherry, in an eerie 1876 Christmas card image
Dark. (Photo: News Dog Media)

Christmas cards were also a product of the Victorian era, with civil servant Sir Henry Cole introducing the world’s first commercial card in 1843.

But while we might be more used to seeing snowy Christmas scenes, jolly Santas and cute robins on ours, Victorian cards weren’t always so cozy.

Many cards at this time featured bizarre designs, which at the time were considered signs of good fortune or sending superstitions – and were meant to serve as conversation starters during the holiday season.

Which, in practice, meant your festive greeting could feature anything from sullen children and random lobsters to images of ants attacking each other, and Santa as the anti-hero who was in cahoots with the devil.

There was also a tradition of people sending Christmas cards with pictures of dead birds – partly as a reference to the ‘common stories of poor children freezing to death at Christmas’ but also to mark what was known as ‘Wren Day’ in December. 26.

The day – also known as St Stephen’s Day in Ireland – was associated with a traditional bird hunt, as “to kill a wren or a robin” was seen by Victorians as a good luck charm.

Which, in turn, means that if you sent someone a card with a dead bird on it, you were basically wishing them good luck.

christmas dinner

Leadenhall Market on Christmas Eve Engraving 1884
London’s Leadenhall Market on Christmas Eve in 1884 (Photo: Getty Images)

Although the turkey made an appearance on Victorian Christmas tables, it was not as popular then as it is today.

At the time, turkey and chicken were too expensive for many people’s budgets – meaning it was only the Christmas dinner of choice for the wealthy, and it only caught on. after World War II, when better farming methods saw the price of turkeys drop.

Instead, people dined like roast beef for their celebratory meal, while goose was also popular – although it wasn’t cheap either, with many people belonging to ‘clubs’ ‘goose’ – which allowed them to make regular payments into a savings plan which they could then use to buy a goose for their holiday meal.

The goose was prepared at home and then taken to the baker to be roasted, as most people did not have an oven at home.

Of course, Christmas dinner was more elaborate depending on who you were – with Queen Victoria settling in for a celebratory meal that would have included a roast swan or two as well as turkey.

And let’s not forget the traditional plum pudding to top it all off.

Christmas Games

Group of friends playing board games after enjoying Christmas dinner at home
Christmas Day games are quite different these days (Picture: Getty Images)

Without the distractions of the Queen’s Speech or the Strictly Christmas special to occupy themselves, Victorians enjoyed playing board games on Christmas Day instead – although it’s hard to say whether any of them them could spread to the modern era.

One popular game, Squeak Piggy Squeak, saw a player blindfolded and tasked with guessing the person’s identity screaming like a pig – while another, Throwing The Smile, had people sit in a circle and to go as long as they could without smiling. .

Traditional games such as Hunt The Thimble – which involves hiding a thimble around the room and having younger family members try to find it – were also popular on this day.

Although it’s not harmless fun – like another game, Snapdragon, was about filling a bowl with raisins and brandy and then lighting it up – the winner being the person who could then eat the most raisins then that the bowl was still on fire.

Somehow we can’t see this one getting past health and safety these days.

Christmas outings

Award winning cattle, The Smithfield Club Show
What would Christmas be without a trip to see prized cattle? (Photo: Getty Images)

Your average modern Christmas outing might involve a visit to a Christmas market or some festive lights and mulled wine – but the Victorians had a different idea when it came to their own Yuletide fun.

Among the popular pre-Christmas events in the 19th century was the Smithfield Cattle Club show, an agricultural show which featured particularly impressive cattle each year.

The show started at Smithfield in London in 1799 and peaked in popularity during the 1800s, attracting a peak of 135,000 visitors in 1862. It also remained popular into the 20th century, with the last performance taking place in 2004.

Of course, if the cattle didn’t float your boat, there was also a festive outing to the theater to consider instead – with the Victorians responsible for the rise in popularity of Christmas pantomime as we know it.

Pantomimes traditionally opened on Boxing Day – hence the association with Christmas – and were often lavish spectacles – according to the Victoria and Albert Museum they could last up to five hours and be filled with stage deceptions and huge character casts.

Christmas customs

Antique illustration - group of people outdoors browsing apples
Wassailing took many forms (Picture: Getty Images)

As if lighting a fire or sending cards with dead birds wasn’t quirky enough, Victorians had their fair share of unusual Christmas customs too.

The practice of ‘wassailing’ was one of them – with two types, the house-visiting wassail and the orchard-visiting wassail, traditionally celebrated on Twelfth Night.

The home visit wassail would see participants go from house to house singing and partying, as well as sharing drinks from the ‘wassail bowl’ – the drink in question being a hot, spiced punch often made with cider.

Orchard-based wassail was popular in fruit-growing regions such as Kent and Derbyshire, and would see farmers toasting trees before pouring wassail over the roots in the hope that it would lead to a good harvest.

The practice of wassailing dates back to Anglo-Saxon times, and wassailing events – complete with disguises and, of course, the drink itself – still take place today.

MORE: Five reasons why your real Christmas tree is falling

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Mika R. Pyle