Season’s Greetings, Victorian Style

Last week I did a miniature version of this post on Twitter, but I thought it might be night be nice to put it all in one semi-comprehensive post. 

In the 1800s, the Christmas season was a big deal. This was due in large part to the work of Charles Dickens, whose work brought a holiday that had been a footnote in the previous century into the fore, turning it from a single day celebration to an entire season.

The royal family at the time were also big fans of Christmas, taking the opportunity to engage in celebrations, parties, acts of charity, and generally making it a big PR event, all to show off what a loving, happy family they were.

This put a lot of pressure on the social A-listers of the period. One complained of making 75 calls in a single day! “Calling” at the time meant an in-person visit, usually about 15 minutes in length. One usually didn’t even remove their hat or wrap, merely sat down, said how-do-you-do, and sipped tea before leaving when the next person came.

Sir Henry Cole

For Sir Henry Cole in 1843, that was just too much. Adding to the difficulty, the advent of Penny Post made things even harder. On top of the in-person calls, there were now dozens or even hundreds of letters to write, because it was considered extremely rude not to reply to a letter.

But Cole was a very well-connected man who would go on to head the V&A when it was founded in 1852, at the specific request of Prince Albert. So he came up with an idea and discussed it with his friend, an artist name J.C. Horsley.

Horsley sketched out a plan, Cole approved it, and the design was sent to the printers. Now, Cole could print up hundreds of these images and send them out with his greetings to friends and family, all from the comfort of his own home, and all he’d have to do was sign it–no two or three page letter necessary.

The first Christmas card, designed by J.C. Horsley.

The cards were a huge hit, catching on through England’s upper crust within a couple of years, and then spreading to the other layers of society. Did the Christmas card have anything to do with his appointment to the V&A? Who knows?

The thing about the Victorians, however, is that they were deeply weird.

Some of their Christmas cards were relatively normal. Sweet, even.


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But then we get into some of the more questionable images.

3. Green Santa

I’m not really sure how festive a dead robin is, but this one was apparently very popular.

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Light your torch, mount your horse
Screw your courage to the sticking place
We’re counting on Gaston to lead the way…

And then we get into the weird:

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Grocery shopping the day before Christmas? Yeah, the lobster might be a good idea in that case. Paws off the canned yams, mister.
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I have no explanation.
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Yep, that’s mice eating a cat. Yes, I am as disturbed by that image as you are.

Now, Victorian Christmases did have one similarity to Halloween, which is that they were big days for telling ghost stories. The idea was that because Christmas was pretty much the holiest day of the year, the devil and his minions couldn’t hurt you.

I think some of them might have taken it a bit far, because these last two kind of look like they got the holidays confused.

This is why you shouldn’t leave your Jack-o-Lanterns out after November 1.
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Was this the inspiration for Alien?

Victorians, man.

Is there a strange Victorian tradition you want to know more about? Leave a comment below! Or check out Woman Killed by Underwear.