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Edwardian Christmas celebrations ranged from the simple and home-made, seen by candle and oil lamp, to the middle and upper classes celebrations seen by electric lighting with shop bought decorations and gifts. Christmas was growing into a commercial celebration though its roots go back to the much older traditions and customs from feudal society.
It was Prince Albert’s enthusiasm for Christmas that popularised the celebration through the press. Early trees were placed in pots on tables and presents left unwrapped under the tree, or on the tree with little tags to identify the recipients. By the 1880s the Norway Spruce was being used as a large floor standing tree. Popular authors of the day such as Charles Dickens idealised these Christmas celebrations.
Osborne House Christmas Tree illus. in Godey's Lady's Book, December 1850.
Decorations were often homemade. Paper chains and greenery were used to decorate many homes and businesses. The quantity and quality of decorations was very different between the wealth of, for example, the Dentist in the Town and the Pit Village cottages. The Dentist has electric lighting and a floor standing Christmas tree, with all the trimmings of shop bought toys. The pit village families have a small table top tree, with homemade decorations and gifts. The pit cottages rely on oil lamps and candles for light, you can understand why people had to make the most of the day-light hours!
The simplicity of Victorian Christmas decorations, greenery around the light and above the pictures on the mantelpiece.
Hedworth Lane Infants School, Boldon Colliery, 1905. Hanging from the ceiling are bunches of mistletoe and at the back of the hall, left of the rocking horse, is a wreath ready to hang up.
As electricity was still new in 1913 Illuminations were in their infancy during the Edwardian period. The famous Blackpool Illuminations begin in 1879, before even Edison’s electric light bulb was invented. By 1912 the first of the modern style displays were opened by Princess Louise with ‘festoons of garland lamps’ using 10,000 bulbs. This proved so popular that it has continued ever since. The display in the Beamish town street may appear small to modern eyes, but with the use of electric bulbs still a new and exciting experience, the display would have been very impressive and exciting to the Edwardian eye. The Masonic Hall won awards for its illuminations for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.
Father Christmas was a universal figure by 1910 in his red suit, though before this time he could be seen in a blue, green or red outfit as he is a merging of two figures - Father Christmas and St Nicholas.
Father Christmas had been a figure in English history since medieval times. He was the personification of the Christmas spirit of goodwill, but he did not bring gifts. He came from Odin, with a blue-hooded cloak and white beard with a wreath around his head.
St Nicholas, as the Christian saint visited Dutch children on Christmas eve and children would leave out straw filled clogs which he would then fill with sweets. If the children were bad a birch rod would left instead of the sweets.
Other traditions were well established by the Edwardian period. Christmas cards were first commercially produced in 1843 by Henry Cole, and by the 1860s the custom had spread through the upper and middle classes. By the 1870s cheap rate postage led to a dramatic increase in the sending of cards, so during the Edwardian period card giving was a well established custom. Carols too had gained popularity in the mid 1800s and were widespread by the Edwardian period.
Between 1900 and 1920 Christmas became increasingly commercial; there was a dramatic increase in the giving of gifts to children and people having Christmas trees. The ‘Book of the Home’ explains how to decorate a Christmas tree in the early 1900s, with bon-bons, toys, dolls and baskets of sweets. Christmas stockings first appeared in the mid-1800s as an American adaptation of a Dutch tradition, with stockings being hung on the bed or hearth. In 1881 one magazine describes a little boy's stocking as having 2 bags of sweets, pocket knife, oranges, almonds, raisin and 2 jockey’s caps.