In this Yule Log and Egg Nog season, I thought it would be nice to explore of history of Christmas. By that, I don’t mean the story of Christmas itself – oh no, that FAR pre-dates Lady B’s Ballroom. But rather the history of how we do Christmas – the tree, the presents, the sweaters with embroidered reindeer on them. And not surprisingly, a lot of the traditional ways to celebrate the holiday dates to the 19th Century.
Although the Christmas tree’s origins could be found in the Renaissance era, if we are to blame someone for its popularity, let’s blame Queen Victoria. What once was a German tradition that spread through European nobility rapidly at the end of 18th Century, decorating and lighting a tree with candles was cost-prohibitive for the masses. Thus, it didn’t really catch on until Victoria married her German Prince Albert, and then, simply everyone had to have one. (I suppose the rise of the middle class during the Victorian era helped a little too.)
The Christmas Card
Christmas Cards as we know them today are almost wholly an invention of the Victorian Era, and the mass-printing and publishing industry that thrived during that time. The first Christmas cards didn’t feature winter or holiday themes – instead favoring pictures of families and flowers. Later of course, this changed to the trees and snow and tinsel we know today. (We can only hope those first cards didn’t have those page-long entries detailing “what happened this year.” As if everyone doesn’t already know via Facebook.)
(side note: are Facebook and email killing the Christmas card? For the first time, I am considering sending out a Christmas email instead of cards. Discuss.)
As much as Sabrina loves her Good King Wenceslas, his 10th century reign wasn’t immortalized in carol-form until 1853, when the lyrics were set to a 13th century tune. In fact, a number of the Christmas songs we sing today are a product of fiddling and refining during the 19th century.
- Silent Night was composed in 1818 in Austria by Franz Gruber – not to be confused with Hans Gruber, who tried to take over Nakatomi Tower in that seminal Christmas classic, Die Hard. (Although, they could be distantly related. You never know.) The English translation was published in 1859.
- Hark! The Herald Angels Sing! was written and composed by Charles Wesley in 1739, but it was really slow and solemn (aka, boring). Thus, the music was changed to the more upbeat, joyous Mendelssohn version we all know in 1855.
- Joy to the World was first published in 1719, but the music was rearranged to a Handel-like melody in 1839, thus making it the Joy to the World we know today. (Coincidentally, this is also the Christmas carol that is the easiest to play. I know this from my tortured youth as a piano student. It’s just a descending scale! Marvelous!)
So, in conclusion, I hope you are spending this season wrapped up in a blanket, staring at a fire (or a fire on a TV screen), egg nog in hand, enjoying the lights on your tree, and the carols on your stereo. And as you do, I hope you remember to blame Queen Victoria for all of it. Because she deserves it.
What other holiday traditions can we blame Queen Victoria for? And how are you celebrating? Post a picture of your tree, your house lights, your favorite ornament, your least-favorite fruitcake! Anything that says “the Holidays are here”!