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How The Victorians Styled The Modern British Christmas

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CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS
The Modern Christmas | Geffrye Museum, London / photography Jayne Lloyd

From Father Christmas in his scarlet coat to bright green mistletoe, we have a firmly entrenched idea of what our Christmas should look like, but how did it end up looking like this?

The festive green colours come from before the 16th century when Christmas took its cue from the pagan winter solstice. People worried the sun would not return and that their crops would not grow, so they revered evergreens that could survive the winter.

The Victorians kept hold of the greenery, but added some flourishes of their own.

The Victorians took their Christmas celebrations seriously and gave older traditions the Christmassy gloss that we recognise today. From the mid-19th century onwards they enthusiastically started decorating trees, sending cards, and pulling crackers for the first time.

It was Queen Victoria herself, often thought of as a dour figure, who popularised the Christmas tree. She was seen in prints with one in the Illustrated London News and it captured the public imagination. Suddenly they were the must-have Christmas item.

From then on they became popular with the middle class, who had them imported from northern Europe.

Before the Victorians, Father Christmas was not the jolly soul we recognise now, St Nicholas was often frowning, and the emphasis was on his ability to see how children had been behaving all year. Presents from him were not taken as read as they are now. Early Father Christmases were a bit drab by modern standards, in brown or green clothing, but became bright red by 19th century, as St Nicholas became a less frightening Christmas presence.

The Christmas season may now start earlier, but for over 100 years Christmas has looked remarkably similar.

Look out for the changes of the British Christmas over the centuries in these pictures from London's Geffrye Museum exhibition of Christmases Past:

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