In a previous post, I wrote about New York writers Washington Irving and Clement C. Moore, and how their literary works shaped modern lore surrounding Santa Claus and stockings hung by the chimney... etc. But a significant influence on the way we celebrate Christmas today came from across the pond, and cemented many traditions still practiced. From Prince Albert's trees at Buckingham Palace to the decorations that made them twinkle and shine, to Christmas greeting cards, caroling and gift giving, we owe much of our festivity and merry-making to the Victorians.
The Victorians loved their music. Before the Victorian Age, the cost of pianos and organs would have been prohibitive in the home, but among the middle and upper classes a new opportunity arose to gather around parlor instruments and sing. Both secular and sacred, a new form of song arose in carols. The ancient English custom of the waits, traveling house to house singing for one's supper, transformed into a new and lighter-hearted wassail. Secular tunes were recomposed with sacred lyrics and sung in church as Christmas hymns. Silent Night, O Little Town of Bethlehem and Away in a Manger for example, retold the story of the first Christmas in song. But just as popular were songs like Jingle Bells and O Christmas Tree which celebrate the simple joys of the season.
Queen Victoria may not have originated such iconic associations as mistletoe or Father Christmas, but there was a remarkable renaissance of these charming legends during her reign. Gone were the days of Cromwell who choked out every reference to Catholicism with an iron fist, including gift giving, holiday feasts, and reverence for Saint Nicholas. Victoria and Albert seemed to relax old taboos and usher in an era of simplicity and celebration, particularly where it concerned the joys of children. Maybe this renewal was as much due to writers such as Charles Dickens, whose Pickwick Papers and later work A Christmas Carol depicted charity, dancing, banquet tables, family gatherings, and renouncing curmudgeonly behavior.
The Kissing Ball, an arrangement involving mistletoe, holly, ivy, and berries, symbolizes the return of pagan evergreen symbols of hope of spring and life, and made its reappearance in the Pickwick Papers. One version of this charming tradition that had its roots in fertility rites, has couples picking a berry from the arrangement each time they kissed beneath it, leaving it eventually empty of fruit. Father Christmas' return from the ban imposed during the Commonwealth period came in A Christmas Carol. The Spirit of Christmas Present would have been easily recognized by any man, woman or child of England as Father Christmas, with his wreath crown, his fur robe, and his merry persona. Between Dickens' writings in England and Moore's in New York, the idea of Santa Claus and Father Christmas started to meld. Father Christmas changed his cloak from green to red somewhere in the mid-century and started placing gifts in stockings.
Yet another Christmas tradition came during the early years of Victoria's reign. The first Christmas greeting card was ordered in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole who commissioned artist John Calcott Horsley. His work was reproduced into 1000 prints and distributed to business associates and friends to wish them good fortune.
In my Victorian Christmas novella, "Love Brick by Brick", English traditions collide with American folklore in 1857 New York. The aristocrat and the lowborn square off. Romance emerges amid music, popular literature, charity, and leaving aside pride and the failings of the past. Two people of vastly differing backgrounds find they are drawn to build a future together, tying the threads of the old in with new possibilities.
To celebrate the launch of my first traditionally published story this month, I am offering one of Barbour Books' gorgeous paperback copies of Victorian Christmas Brides to one lucky visitor. Random (dot) org will draw one winner on Monday, Sept 10. Be sure to leave your email so I can notify you. (US residents only)
To enter, answer this question:
What is your favorite Christmas carol or song, and what memories does it evoke when you hear it?
Kathleen L. Maher has had an infatuation with books and fictional heroes ever since her preschool crush, Peter Rabbit. Her novella "Love Brick by Brick", released in the 2018 Victorian Christmas Brides Collection, featuring her hometown of Elmira, New York. She won the ACFW Genesis contest in 2012 for her Civil War story The Abolitionist’s Daughter. Kathleen shares an old farmhouse in upstate New York with her husband, children, and a small zoo of rescued animals.
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