How Christmas was celebrated in Saffron Walden and how the Victorians changed the holiday

Victorian Christmas

Victorian Christmas - Credit: Archant

The Victorians put the colour into Christmas and, the turkey, cards and crackers were made possible by their other inventions. As Audley End invites us to enjoy a Victorian Christmas over the next two weekends, ANGELA SINGER looks at how we got from parlour games to iPads.

Victorian Christmas

Victorian Christmas - Credit: Archant

Christmas at the start of Queen Victoria’s reign was green and simple. By the end, it was red and sparkling.

In 1837 when Victoria came to the throne, the day was just another working day for most working people. If servants had a Christmas dinner it would have been at New Year. We see in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol that the butcher’s shop is open on Christmas Day. Servants at Audley End had their special dinner on Boxing Day.

At the beginning of the reign, there were no cards or crackers. The gifts would have been small, the decorations were ivy and mistletoe brought into the house and the table’s centrepiece was a pie.

The first Christmas card was made in 1843. It was the idea of Sir Henry Cole, an early director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, who worked with Prince Albert on The Great Exhibition of 1851. It was a time when Britain was immensely proud of itself.

Victorian Christmas

Victorian Christmas - Credit: Archant

The story goes that Sir Henry didn’t have time one year to write the letters people usually sent to each other at Christmas.

He asked the illustrator John Callcott Horsley to design a card. It showed people eating and drinking and having a good time and there was some criticism because there was nothing religious about it.

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Children started making their own cards, especially after the royal youngsters did. In the 1850s and 1860s only a few commercial Christmas cards were sent but in 1870, the post office said cards in an unsealed envelope could be sent for a halfpenny stamp, the same price as a postcard. This, with a railway network to every town in Britain and the cheaper cost of paper brought mass production. By 1880, 11 million cards were printed.

The Christmas cracker began as a wrapping for sweets. Tom Smith, a confectioner in London’s Clerkenwell, liked the idea of the French bon bon, wrapped in a twist of paper. First he started placing mottos in the wrapping. Then, inspired by seeing a log crackle on a fire he began experimenting with chemicals that would cause a pop when the sweet was opened.

Victorian Christmas

Victorian Christmas - Credit: Archant

As Dr Andrew Hann, who leads the team of historians for English Heritage, said, technology changed everything.

“At the start of the reign, turkeys would have been very expensive. They had to be walked to market by which time, they would have lost weight and had to be fattened again. Once they could be transported by train they started to replace the traditional goose.”

The Christmas pie would be made of four birds – duck, chicken, partridge and pigeon – all boned and placed one inside the other then topped with bacon so when the pie was sliced everyone got a piece of each. The pie crust would be elaborately decorated with delicate pastry leaves to the level of a work of art.

Records from Audley End for Christmas in 1855 show 88 people, including guests and servants, were fed with 103lbs of beef, 37lbs of mutton, 10lbs of pork, one fowl and one turkey. In 1868, the list included hares, rabbits, pheasant, partridges and woodcocks.

Although the decorating of Christmas trees was actually introduced by Queen Charlotte, the German wife of George III, Albert enthusiastically continued the custom.

In 1848, the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the royal family around a festive tree. Dr Hann said: “It wasn’t that the royals invented the new ideas, it was that they took them up and set a trend and people wanted to follow what the royal family did.”

He added: “Gifts would have been small, usually nuts and fruits. Children would make gifts to hang on the tree for their parents. The tree would have been decorated with sweets and candles. Later the gifts became too heavy for the tree and were put in stockings in front of it.

“Toys weren’t particularly associated with Christmas. Children might have received hoops and clothes.”

Right up until the 1960s, it was traditional to decorate the tree on Christmas Eve. Again technology changed a tradition, the development of pines which do not shed their needles has meant they are bought increasingly earlier.

The Victorians liked games, especially after dinner. In his diary, Joseph Romilly, a fellow of Trinity and a visitor to Audley End in the 1830s, wrote: “It was very entertaining”. He said the family liked telling riddles – “I am a creature red and without a head, what am I?”– playing charades, guessing the meaning of words and exchanging jokes.

They also played Nine Men’s Morris with the children, chess, card games and games with marbles on circular boards.

Dr Hann said: “They played battledore and shuttlecock in the hall. We found an old shuttlecock in the woodwork.” As for who turned Father Christmas red. That remains a matter of debate. The modern myth has it that he wore green until Coca Cola began an advertising campaign in the 1930s which for 30 years dressed Santa in Coke’s crimson colours. However, other sources point out that canonical vestments are red. Santa will be at Audley End as part of their Victorian Christmas on Saturday and Sunday, November 28-29, and December 5-6 so you can ask him. Victorian family cook Avis Crocombe and the gamekeeper will be in the kitchen organising the Christmas dinner so you can ask them too when the turkey took over from the goose. On Tuesday, December 8, the choir of Christ’s College, Cambridge, will sing in the Great Hall. Visitors can book in for Christmas dinner in the servant’s hall tearoom before the concert.

For the first time this year, the gardens, stables and service wing at Audley End will be open December 27-31. Visit or call 01799 522842.