Ghosts of Christmas Past

Many of the things that the British and Americans associate with Christmas - the tree, the greetings cards, giving presents - have their origins in Victorian Britain. Lets go back in time and see what Christmas was like for an average family living in London in the mid-eighteen hundreds.

In 1850, the East End was the centre of the clothes industry in London. A warren of small ‘sweatshops’ existed around the Docklands area by the River Thames, where ships brought in raw materials, such as cotton and spices, from all corners of the British Empire. Most tailors worked from home, and men, women, and even children worked 14 hours a day, for very low wages. One worker could only expect around 7 shillings (40 pence in today’s UK currency) for a week’s hard graft - not much when you consider that a loaf of bread cost 1 shilling.

Christmas time for these people was a brief respite from the relentless grind of poverty. But for the poor, as can be seen in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the holiday was not as it is today. Giving presents was not common among the British working class. If they were lucky, kids could expect a gift from their parents such as an article of clothing, or just a piece of fruit.

Christmas, today, is thought to be a time for children. In Victorian times, however, they used to say, “Children should seen, not heard.” It was thought that giving a child too much love and attention would make him, or her, spoilt. Children were small adults, thought the Victorians, so they should be treated as such.

But a change was slowly occurring in the upper classes’ attitude to children in general, and Christmas in particular; and these ideas slowly drifted their way down to the rest of society. The most important influence in this change of attitude came from the Royal Family.

Changing times

Queen Victoria, and her German husband, Prince Albert, were very affectionate in public to their children. Slowly, parents started to think again about how they treated children when they saw, in the new newspapers and magazines of the day, how the Royals treated their kids, especially at Christmas.

The rich also began to give each other lavish gifts on December 25, which could be bought from the newly opened department stores. Wives could buy their husbands a nice silver tobacco box, for instance. Husbands reciprocated with pig-skinned leather goods costing up to 10 pounds - a massive amount of money in those days. Rich kids could expect doll’s houses in their Christmas stocking, or even one of the very new clockwork toys, such as a walking elephant, or a pig that jumped out of a box!

It was also Prince Albert who introduced the German practice of putting up a tree at Christmas and decorating it with baubles and brightly coloured trinkets. The very first Christmas tree in the UK was put up in the grounds of Windsor castle in 1841.

The sending of Christmas cards also has its origins at this time. The first ever commercial card is thought to have been printed in 1843. It was designed by British painter, John Horsley, and it pictures a family party in progress. Underneath the painting was written, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.”

Stuffing themselves

After opening presents around the Christmas tree, rich families sat down to a huge Christmas dinner. A first course of raw oysters would be followed by a fish course, such as whitebait. Then, instead of turkey, which only became popular in the twentieth century, most posh families ate goose, served with a sage and onion stuffing. And finally, if the rich Victorians had any more room in their bellies, the meal would end with a flaming Christmas plum pudding.

But for most of the working population Christmas dinner was less extravagant. The average diet for Victorians was not very nutritious. Men, who were seen as the head of the family, only managed to eat around 2,000 calories a day - manual workers today need around 3,700 calories to stay healthy. But the main breadwinner ate most of the bread, so women and children had even less to eat.

The food on Christmas Day for these people would not have been very different from what they ate during the rest of the year. Meat - if they could afford it - was of very poor quality. Victorian writer and journalist, Edgar Wallace, wrote about a stroll he took down the Old Kent Road in south London, a very poor district in those days. He wrote of working class families shopping for, “tainted meat, and those odds and ends of meat, the by-products of the butchering business.” While the rich got fat on Christmas Day, poor children could only look forward to maybe tripe, shrink (prematurely born calves!) or something called broxy (diseased mutton). This mouth-watering food would be washed down with tea or beer.

But better times were on their way. By the late nineteenth century, the economy in the UK had improved. Factories started to mass-produce goods, and life became a little easier for the average person in London. By the time Queen Victoria died in 1901 Christmas celebrations were more as we know them in the twenty-first century. Christmas was becoming primarily a time for consumption, and eating and drinking to access. Though the spiritual element of the holiday was in decline, the time when people had to eat diseased meat on Christmas Day was, thankfully, becoming a thing of the past.

So when people tell you about the “good old days”, surely they can’t be talking about Christmas time in Victorian England.

Peter Gentle


warren - an overcrowded area, maze (labirynt)
sweatshop- place of work where people work long hours for little money (zakład wyzyskujący siłę roboczą)
raw material - unprocessed goods (surowiec)
shilling- coin worth one twentieth of a pound till 1971 when the country changed to a decimal system (szyling)
graft- work, labour (harówka)
respite- short interval of rest from sth (wytchnienie)
grind- hard, boring, oppressive work (mordęga, harówka)
spoilt- harmed by overindulgence (rozpuszczony, rozpieszczony)
lavish- extravagant (hojny, szczodry)
department store - large retail shop with merchandise and services organized in different and separate departments (e.g. Harrods) (dom towarowy)
(to) reciprocate - give in response to sth (odwzajemnić)
bauble- small decoration (świecidełko, błyskotka)
trinket- ornament (ozdóbka)
oyster- type of shellfish (ostryga)
whitebait- very small fish eaten whole as food (mała smażona szprotka lub śledzik)
posh- characteristic of upper class (z wyższych sfer)
goose- large white bird (gęś)
sage - a herb used to flavour food (szałwia)
belly - stomach, abdomen (żołądek)
flaming- burning brightly (płonący)
breadwinner- one who earns the primary source of income for a family (żywiciel rodziny)
stroll- a leisurely walk (spacer, przechadzka)
tainted- decayed, putrefied (brudny, skażony)
odds and ends - miscellaneous items, remnants (tu: skrawki, resztki)
by-product- sth made as the result of making sth else (produkt uboczny)
tripe- the stomach of a cow or sheep eaten as food (flaki)
prematurely- ahead of time, too soon (przedwcześnie)
calf- baby cow (cielę)
mutton- old sheep meat (baranina)