A Victorian Christmas c.1855

This Christmas Heritage Paper is taken from “Christmas in Canada — A Victorian Innovation”, by James Bannerman. This description of an imaginary Toronto family’s Christmas celebration shows what great changes have occurred in the past hundred years.


“Christmas for the Cartwrights a hundred years ago was rather a different affair from the hectic, somewhat overwhelming season of good cheer we know to-day. For Mama and Papa there was no last-minute shopping, no gift-wrapping, no cards to be mailed. For the children, no bevy of Rudolphs, Sparkys and Frostys swarmed in their dreams, because Santa Claus hadn’t appeared either. Indeed, Christmas, as we know it in Canada now, was only beginning to take shape.

To see what a Canadian Christmas was like a hundred years ago or so, let us spend the happy day of December 25, 1855, with the Cartwrights. They are an imaginary family, of course, but the individual members seem very real. There is Papa, a large and prosperous Toronto merchant who has chosen to live in that city both for business reasons and by the inclination of his Tory heart. There is Mamma, mild and capable, her tiny-waisted beauty that first caught Papa’s eye lost to forty years of vast Victorian eating and a vast Victorian brood of eleven children. (In those days of high infant mortality it wasn’t an unusual tragedy that six of them had died very young.)

There are Martha and Lucy, married daughters in their early thirties, who have come home for Christmas along with their husbands Joe and Charlie, and their children. Martha has three and Lucy four — little Marys and Jacks and Sophies, and Alma, the baby named for the allied victory at the River Alma in Crimea the year before. Brother Frank Cartwright is home too — in fact he has never left it. Still in his middle twenties but already a born bachelor, he is stout, rosy-cheeked, amiable and self-sufficient. The older brothers, George and Henry, who are married, live too far away to journey home for the holiday. There will be many more Cartwright family connections at Christmas dinner itself — Uncle Tom and Uncle Herbert from Mamma’s family and Uncle Richard from Papa’s, the maiden aunts Lucy, Emily and Charlotte and an assortment of cousins. Altogether there will be nearly thirty, all looking forward to what a Toronto newspaper of the period spoke of as ‘the new German way of celebrating Christmas!’ What the paper didn’t mention was that the new German way had spread to Canada from England, where it had been introduced by the Prince Consort and made fashionable by his pretty young Queen. And no Canadians were quicker to follow Victoria’s royal example then people like the Cartwrights, solidly prosperous Anglicans (the other Protestant faiths were slower to recognize Christmas as a combined sacred and secular festival).

The Cartwrights slept well that Christmas Eve. Unlike their descendants today, they hadn’t exhausted themselves with long-drawn-out preparations for the morrow of by a rush of last-minute shopping. They had obtained their Christmas tree, the chief feature of the new way of celebrating, by the simple expedient of telling their manservant to go out to the woods at the edge of the city and cut one. And since presents were only sent to one’s very best friends and immediate relatives, they hadn’t been much of a problem.

Nor had the Cartwrights sat up late addressing uncountable Christmas cards to almost total strangers. It would be another fifteen years or so before the custom of sending cards caught on to any extent, and about ten years before the now classic figure of Santa Claus appeared.

On Christmas morning, the kitchen staff began work at dawn. Meanwhile Papa and Mamma and the family were waked at their usual hour of eight to dress for the great day.

Right after breakfast (lamb chops, deviled kidneys and great bowls of porridge) came the official recognition of the Christmas tree, which had been set up in the drawing room by the manservant, and trimmed by the maid under the direction of Mamma. Since the idea of having one was still such a novelty, she’d had to go by the account of Queen Victoria’s tree at Windsor Castle in the Illustrated London News… ‘The tree employed for this festive purpose is a young fir about eight feet high, and has six tiers of branches. Pendent from the branches are elegant trays, baskets, bon bonnières, and other receptacles for sweetmeats. Fancy cakes, gilt gingerbread and eggs filled with sweetmeats are also suspended by variously coloured ribbons from the branches. The tree which stands upon a table covered with white damask, is supported at the root by piles of sweets of a larger kind and by toys and dolls.’

Mamma Cartwright wasn’t able to match the superlative elegance of the royal tree, but she managed to please Papa and enthrall the children all the same. For the sweetmeats there were lozenges, both plain and with little mottoes written on them, and an astonishing variety of fruit drops — strawberry, grape, apple, pear, raspberry and lemon, each in the shape of the respective fruit. There were china baskets filled with sugared almonds, and bundles of licorice sticks, together with shining rings of coloured barley sugar which looked like jewelled bracelets.

The presents at the foot of the tree, as at Windsor, were mostly toys. There were dolls of wax, the most coveted; of china, considered second-best; and of papier-mâché, not so popular but guaranteed unbreakable. There were hobby-horses, and miniature violins and guitars made of painted tin and thoughtfully designed to produce almost no sound. And because this was Canada, there were little ice skates with upcurling runners for the children, as well as wooden sleighs and toboggans. The toys were nearly always bought, but some of the presents the grownups got has been made at home. Their store-bought gifts ran heavily to coral and jet brooches and cameos for the women, and studs, sleeve links and scarf pins for the men.

When the tree had been admired and the presents distributed (it wasn’t the custom to wrap them unless they were intended to be surprises), the whole family set off for church, trudging decorously along the snow-covered plank side-walks of those calm times.

Since their ears hadn’t been assaulted for the past four weeks by Christmas carols roaring metallically out of amplifiers everywhere, they greatly enjoyed the singing. ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night’, which had been newly set to music in 1850, was just beginning to become a familiar part of Christmas, but that year of 1855 the Cartwrights heard for the first time what is now perhaps the most famous Christmas hymn of all. The words had been written by Charles Wesley, brother of the founder of Methodism, and the music was adapted from Mendelssohn’s ‘Festesang’ by a man named Cummings earlier in 1855 — the name of it was ‘Hark, the Herald Angels Sing’!

After church, the family went home to the enormous dinner that awaited them. For the Cartwrights there were to be four kinds of soups: oysters (the oysters were dried and shipped from the Atlantic coast in small wooden casks), chicken, gumbo and mutton broth. Mamma had arranged for four boiled dishes: beef, pork, mutton, and, of all things, boiled turkey served with a sauce of melted butter. There wasn’t much choice of vegetables, but she’d provided for steaming mountains of potatoes, carrots, turnips and onions. For the main course there were no fewer than seven different roasts — beef, pork, mutton and turkey again, together with venison, chickens and geese … And after dinner, when the wonderful fullness had worn off enough to allow everyone to move about without gasping, there were the children’s games…”

Originally published in Heritage Happenings, November-December 1982.

© The Waterdown-East Flamborough Heritage Society 1982, 2020

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