Queen Victoria may have given her name to the age, but it was her German husband, Prince Albert, who has given us what we now think of as a traditional English Christmas. In fact, don’t tell Nigel Farage, but our festive traditions are as European as they come.
Before Albert, Christmas in England was something of a drunken rout. The mistletoe action would have been fuelled by liberal helpings from the wassail bowl – a concoction of mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and sugar. Jesus College, Oxford has a silver-plated wassail bowl that holds ten gallons.
The thoroughly wassailed-up might dress up to go mumming, which means “making a diversion in disguise” – men and women would swap clothes and act out silly stories led by a Father Christmas for the amusement of their friends and neighbours – an early precursor to our seasonal pantos. The revelling in early modern times was so intense that the 17th-century Puritans tried to ban celebrations and declare Christmas Day a day of fasting. But it was in the 1840s that Christmas really took on the form that is familiar to us today – and that was down to Albert and Victoria.
THE FIRST CHRISTMAS TREE
Prince Albert is famously credited with bringing the Christmas tree to England from Germany in 1841. Queen Charlotte had installed trees outside the royal home before him, but Albert was the first to put them inside. A picture of Victoria, Albert and their children around a tree in the 1848 Illustrated London News was a sensation and sparked a mania among the burgeoning middle classes to celebrate Christmas just like the royals.
The idea of a decorated tree came from the German theologian Martin Luther who, seeing the stars shine through the branches of a fir tree when riding one night, decided to bring one inside and decorate it with candles to remind his children of the star of Bethlehem. But Albert made Christmas at Windsor an astonishingly lavish affair. Each member of the royal family had their own tree standing on its own special altar heaped with presents. Albert even hung trees upside down from the chandeliers at Windsor. Guards had to watch the trees to make sure they didn’t catch fire as they were adorned with countless candles, bonbons and gingerbread. Victoria wrote in her diary that, “The Christmas tree quite affected dear Albert who turned pale, and had tears in his eyes, and pressed my hand warmly.”
The 1840s are responsible for many of the songs we sing year on year. The publication of 58 classic carols in A Good Christmas Box in 1847 cemented many of our most beloved carols as part of the festive canon. O Come All Ye Faithful was translated from Latin and published as a carol in 1843 and in 1848 Mrs Cecil Alexander wrote Once in Royal David’s City as a poem before it was set to music the following year. Albert, who really could do everything, also composed his own carols.
A 20-COURSE DINNER
Turkey was certainly not the main event of Victoria’s 20-course Christmas dinner, although multiple turkeys often featured, as well as roasted swan. Victorian newspapers report the inclusion of a boar’s head and the ceremony surrounding it with excitement: the boar’s head was placed on a gold platter and heralded by trumpets. Herbs blossomed from the ears, eyes were made from red jelly and intricate designs made from mousse and aspic jelly flowed from its snout.
But this was by no means the main event. A “baron” of beef would also be presented each year. Comprising two sirloins joined by the backbone, it needed to be carried in by several footmen, adorned with flowers and royal insignia. And Victoria liked to have a cold table as well. In 1846 her chef Francatelli created a Christmas pie made with truffles, a turkey, a brace of pheasants, four widgeons and a small york ham, enclosed in a hot water pastry crust garnished with Christmas motifs. It took two days to prepare and six hours to cook.
TIARAS AND SCANDAL
Victoria and Albert loved to give each other presents. Multitalented Albert liked to design jewellery for his wife and one year presented her with a magnificent emerald tiara, which is now on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum (that scene is reproduced in the Christmas episode). In return, we see Victoria give Albert a boudoir portrait of her by Franz Xaver Winterhalter where she has her hair down and gazes at the viewer with parted lips. Victoria’s mother was scandalised but Albert declared that it was his favourite picture of his wife. As a monarch, Victoria also received gifts from other nations: a one-hundred-bird pie from Ireland, crates of Imperial sturgeon from Russia, and one year a St Bernard from France that was swiftly taken away after it bit the Queen.
NO TIME FOR SCROOGE
Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was published in 1843 and idealised Christmas as a time of loving kindness and charity. The antihero Scrooge pours scorn on the two men who are collecting money for the poor and refuses to give his clerk Bob Cratchit the day off. But by the end, Scrooge is a changed man, he has seen the true meaning of Christmas and even sends the Cratchits a turkey.
Queen Victoria embraced this charitable spirit and generosity, and every New Year gave gifts of food, fuel and clothing to the aged, infirm and “deserving poor” of Windsor, Eton and Clewer.
A newspaper from 1848 reports: “The Royal gifts will consist of meat, bread, plum pudding, coals and potatoes. There will also be given away, by command of her Majesty, a quantity of winter cloaks, flannel, and calico, besides upwards of one hundred pairs of blankets.” I hope you enjoy a Christmas that’s as full of friends, love, feasting and merriment as Victoria and Albert’s!