1. The first Christmas crackers were known as ‘Bangs of Expectation.’
Crackers came about because confectioner Tom Smith required a way to market French-style sweets wrapped in paper. He was inspired to add an explosive component by the sight of a log crackling on the fire. But in truth, it was his brother who came up with the idea, perhaps inspired by magic tricks he’d seen while working in the music theatres.
Launched in the late-1840s and known as ‘Bangs of Expectation’, Tom Smith’s crackers sparked a whole new Christmas tradition, later developing to incorporate jokes, hats, gifts and jewellery. The company still exists now and supplies crackers for the royal family every Christmas.
2. Victorian Christmas cards were the stuff of nightmares
Henry Cole invented Christmas cards in 1843, and by the end of the century, everyone was giving them. But the festive illustrations chosen by the Victorians were greatly more wild and bizarre than the penguins and snowmen on our cards today.
Artists created such disturbing images as a dead robin, children riding flying bats, a bear, attacking a man, a mouse riding a lobster, and two children being harassed by an enormous wasp. The cards were works of art, presented in exhibitions and even critically reviewed.
“May yours be a joyful Christmas” – unlike the dead robin’s
3. Beer was once a popular gift for young boys
The tradition of Christmas gift-giving seriously took off in the Victorian time. Whereas before presents were the preserve of the privileged, in the 19th century, everyone got in on the act. The most popular gift among Victorian adults was fruit. They also gave each other books, sparking a surge in seasonal publishing from authors keen to boost their sales.
For kids, the rise of mass production implied that toys as Christmas gifts were now marketed to families of any levels, not just the rich. Alarmingly, in the early 19th century, beer was also a common gift for young boys. Presents would be put in stockings, left under the tree or by the fire, but weren’t wrapped in paper until the 1870s and 1880s.
4. Our Christmas tree tradition came from Germany
Christmas trees became especially popular during the Victorian era and often linked with Prince Albert, who enthusiastically welcomed the tradition. However, the idea first came to Britain from Germany with Queen Charlotte, the spouse of King George III, who hung baubles and gifts on a yew tree.
One thing the Victorians did provide us is the custom of putting a star or an angel on the top of the tree. People in the 19th century also used to decorate their houses with foliage such as holly and ivy. This may have been in response to the industrial revolution, which had pushed millions away from the countryside.
5. The idea that Coca Cola first dressed Father Christmas in red and white is a myth
Father Christmas has been part of British culture and traditions for centuries, appearing in various forms as a jolly festive character, representative of feasting and celebration. Over the years, he’s been depicted in almost every colour, brown, green and yellow to reflect nature, to purple and gold. In the Victorian era, he was often in red and white. So, while Santa Claus may appear in red in early Coca Cola ads, this isn’t where it originated.
6. Mince pies were initially shaped like coffins
Victorian mince pies had a minimal similarity to the sweet pastry treats we enjoy today. Filled with a mix of meat, fruit and spices, they were oval-shaped to represent either a coffin or the manger of the baby Jesus.
7. Queen Victoria’s Christmas dinner was sent to the Isle of Wight by train and the royal yacht
The royal family’s festive meal was as sumptuous as you’d expect, including beef, a boar’s head, turkey, goose, plum pudding and mince pies, all served on gold dishes. Strangely though, the food was all cooked in Windsor before being sent for three hours by special train and yacht to Osborne House – Queen Victoria’s holiday home on the Isle of Wight. If it was still hot when it reached them, we don’t know.
8. A temporary London kitchen fed 22,000 people on Christmas Day
The concept of being kind to others at Christmas was significant to the Victorians. With millions of people living in poverty in larger cities, temporary kitchens sprung up to give food and comfort to the poor and homeless. In London in 1851, volunteers took over Leicester Square, enriching it with flags, flowers and festive lights. They set up a large Christmas kitchen that dished out food including roast beef and rabbit pies, goose, potatoes, bread, biscuits, chestnuts, tea and coffee. It fed 22,000 people and got through 5,000lbs of plum pudding.
9.The gift from Norway
Have you seen the giant Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square? That is a gift from Norway – they have sent Britain a Christmas tree every year since 1947 as a gift for the help Britain gave them during World War II.
10.”Christmas” is a shortened version of “Christ’s Mass”.
The name “Christmas” is a shortened version of “Christ’s Mass”.
Christmas is sometimes written as Xmas – do you know why? In Greek, the letter X is the first part of Christ’s name.