Golden days of yore: how Victorians celebrated Christmas

December 19, 2017

Christmas trees, Christmas cards, Christmas crackers— much of our merry holiday associations come from

Bramwell, WV – photo courtesy of Mercer County CVB #visitmercerwv

Victorian England. Southern West Virginia owes much to Queen Victoria’s reign, too. Exquisite coal baron mansions, quirky company stores, historic towns— our region is crammed with 19th-century treasures.

Let’s see how Victorian settlers might have celebrated Christmas, shall we?

Trimming the tree

If you think about it, dragging a Fraser fir indoors is a pretty odd idea. We have Germany to thank for such an invention. But until Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, Christmas trees were more of a regional custom. An 1848 newspaper article glamorized things even more with an engraving of the royal family— the Victorian equivalent of an Instagram photo. In it, the queen, prince consort, and their children are gathered around a decorated tree. Readers were enthralled. The rest, as they say, was history.

But what about ornaments? Victorians liked anything that could twinkle in candlelight: tinsel, glass, and pressed foil paper. They also made lots of homemade decorations. Strings of dried fruit, baked gingerbread, and candies were popular.

One of the great things about the Victorian era is that antiques are relatively common. Of course, some items (like figurines) are easier to find than 1890s ornaments. But searching is half the fun! Browse Southern West Virginia’s antique shops and see what you can find for your tree. Brick House Antiques in Lewisburg; Grandma’s House Antiques & Collectibles in Hinton; and Landmark Antique Mall in Bluefield have treasures hiding in plain sight.

Christmas feast

Then, as now, the holidays drew everybody together. The Victorians were especially family oriented. Christmas, therefore, was an opportunity to celebrate with gusto.

Feasting began after church. Turkeys became popular during the late 1800s, but Victorians were hardy eaters. A Christmas dinner would also include potatoes, gravy, soup, oysters, fruit, and cheese. Those tables must have been pretty solid! Then came coffee and dessert. Victorians were especially fond of mince pies and plum pudding— a treat Puritans once condemned for being “lewd.”

No party could go without punch, either. Nothing drew guests together like a bowl filled with spirits, sugar, lemons, and spices.

To a certain extent, Southern West Virginia’s gourmet restaurants capture that cheerful, festive glow. If you’d like to treat your family to an enchanting evening, take them to places like Dobra Zupas in Beckley; The French Goat in Lewisburg; and Chessie’s on the Square in Hinton.

Christmas games

Victorians sure knew how to have fun. After eating, they would celebrate some more with parlor games. One of these was snapdragon. That’s when guests had to snatch flaming brandy-soaked currants from a bowl. Men had their own games, too. One of these involved sticking candles into cups of ale. Whoever set their beard on fire while trying to drink was the loser.

Christmas crackers were a big hit as well. A candy shop owner named Tom Smith invented them in the 1840s. It wasn’t until 20 years later, though, that he added gunpowder— the ingredient that makes them pop.

You can make this year’s Christmas just as entertaining, too. The Tamarack art gallery in Beckley has magical— and affordable— surprises you can slip into stockings, like finger puppets, handmade soap, candy, and much more. Downtown Lewisburg has lots of intriguing possibilities as well. Shop for simple pleasures like gourmet snacks and local crafts!

Make your own Victorian Christmas!

Whether you own a historic home or simply enjoy history, here are some ways you can celebrate “the new old-fashioned way”:

  • Make your own Christmas cards. Use heavy cardstock and ribbon. It’s simple, satisfying, and much more personal than what you’d find in the store.
  • Decorate with live greenery. Put fresh holly on the mantle or arrange some on a side table. Is your bathroom plain? Put a sprig on top of your toilet! Simple surprises make Christmas especially magical.
  • Bake a plum pudding. If you can, stir charms into the batter. Whoever gets a prize-filled slice will have a lucky 2018!
  • Make your own Christmas gifts. If you’re crafty, surprise friends and family with artwork or knit scarves. You can also decorate a jar and fill it with homemade cookies or layered hot cocoa mix.

You can also tour Southern West Virginia’s historic towns during the holidays. Hinton, a historic railroad town, has a charming market square with boutiques and antique shops. Up for something extra? Spend the night in The Guest House on Courthouse Square as another treat; it’s a historic hotel with plush modern comforts.

Another intriguing place is Monroe County. Rural towns and quiet farms evoke a feeling of timelessness. That illusion is underscored by the presence of Mennonite shops and gorgeous state parks. Intrigued? This itinerary will transport you to the Victorian past— or at least spark your imagination.

Merry Christmas! What’s your favorite Victorian tradition?

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