Has Christmas in York changed much since Victorian times?

A rare quiet moment in yuletide York

A rare quiet moment in yuletide York - Credit: Archant

Jo Haywood checks out Yuletide in York

The Christmas citys Christmas tree in St Helens Square

The Christmas citys Christmas tree in St Helens Square - Credit: Archant

It’s difficult to imagine Queen Victoria as a sprightly young thing with an eye for a blingy bauble. For many of us, the popular image of her as a dour, rather portly widow dressed in head-to-toe black is so resolutely ingrained that any thoughts of her as a giddy teenager are as fleeting and ungraspable as smoke from an advent candle.

But she was young once and, with her beloved Albert at her side, led her people down new, thrillingly fashionable paths and away from the chaos and unrest caused by the various Georges who had come before her.

‘People were ready for change,’ explained Faye Prior, collections facilitator at York Castle Museum. ‘They’d had issues with the Regency monarchs and were looking for something new. To have such a young queen was exciting. She and Albert were trendsetters. Apparently he was known for his very snazzy trousers. Victoria comments on them in her diary.’

Prince Albert introduced his wife – and her country – to Christmas trees, already popular in his native Germany and other European countries. Queen Victoria decorated her first festive tree at Windsor Castle in 1841 and, by 1847, was hosting great feasts with ‘a baron of beef, a boar’s head with rosemary and bays and Christmas trees on sideboards loaded with presents; each tree lighted by 80 wax candles’.

By the 1860s, ordinary folk in York and around the country were sending each other Christmas cards, mostly featuring garlands, trees and scenes of nature, but very little religion (barring the odd choirboy).

‘There was a time when New Year was perhaps the more important celebration,’ said Faye. ‘People sent each other New Year greeting cards. But Christmas began to slowly take over after it became an official holiday in 1834.’

The ever-popular St Nicholas Fayre extended this year to run right up to Christmas week

The ever-popular St Nicholas Fayre extended this year to run right up to Christmas week - Credit: Archant

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For Victorians, it seems Christmas was as much about celebrating the seasons and nature as it was about religion. They were obsessed with what they regarded as the pastoral idyll of the Middle Ages and enjoyed bringing the outside in at Christmas, mimicking the solstice celebrations of a bygone era. They even dressed Father Christmas in green as a way of tipping their festive hats to medieval Green Man carvings.

‘The yule log wasn’t a chocolate cake for the Victorians, it was literally a massive log hauled in from the garden,’ said Faye. ‘Sometimes, if resources were tight, it would be little more than a symbolic twig but, either way, they didn’t decorate it, they set fire to it. A blazing fire cheered people up and gave them a focus for their celebration.’

Christmas in York at that time was very much about feasting, commonly shared with the wider community as an act of charity, friendship and inclusion, and a bit of shopping (no change there then).

Meaty mince pies were very popular, until meat became scarce and spices more prevalent, and a typical Christmas dinner would consist of roast beef, plum pudding, oranges and nuts (although the middle classes plumped for turkey and the upper echelons goose).

‘People began to complain that Christmas was coming earlier each year as it became more commercialised,’ said Faye. ‘But it was a matter of weeks, not months as it is now. And there were very popular Christmas Eve and New Year sales, which people flocked to, much like the Next sale today.’

Most shopkeepers kept their doors firmly closed on Christmas Day, except butchers, who were very busy providing fresh meat for the big day. As 25 of the 39 shops on Shambles in York were butchers at the time, it’s probably safe to say it was chockablock on Christmas morning.

But what else would have been on a typical Victorian’s shopping list as the festive season approached?

‘They enjoyed a gaudy bauble,’ said Faye. ‘In fact, they loved a bit of festive bling all tied up with tartan ribbon. They started introducing metallic materials into their decorations, but they didn’t have tinsel; they had garlands of plants and flowers instead.’

Gifts were hidden in the boughs of the tree – among anything up to 400 candles – but they were small tokens rather than the entire contents of the Argos catalogue. And children might get a stocking if they were lucky, filled with fruit (satsumas were top of the wishlist) and nuts – a real treat at the time.

‘The Victorians also liked to play games on Christmas Day,’ said Faye. ‘Blind man’s buff was a real favourite. It was one of the few days when it was okay for them to kick back and just enjoy themselves.’

Daft games, satsumas, gaudy baubles, New Year sales and cards featuring fat robins – is it just me or does this all sound festively familiar?

Victorian festive facts

:: According to William Hargrove’s History of York: ‘The first Christmas festival ever held in Britain was in York.’

:: Boxing Day was made an official holiday in 1871 – 37 years after people were first given a day off for Christmas. It’s also known as St Stephen’s Day after the patron saint of horses, which is why there are so many traditional race meetings on Boxing Day.

:: The first mass production of Christmas cards began in the 1860s. They really took off, however, in the 1880s when manufacturers were able to print them for a few pence per dozen.

:: Generous Victorian grocers would give their customers two large yule candles, one red and the other blue, to burn through Christmas night until the first morning church service.

:: Churches were decorated with large stars in their east window adorned with mottos in cotton wool on moss saying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ or ‘Emmanuel, God With Us’. Evergreen triangles, trefoils and wreaths would also be put around pillars and fonts to symbolise the trinity and eternity.

:: Christmas collection events were held in Victorian York with schools, hospitals and workhouses inviting patrons, masters and do-gooders to donate toys, sweets and oranges to be hung on the tree and given to children and the poor.

:: Christmas cake and Christmas Pie were both popular, and much pride was taken in the festive plum pudding. The Christmas edition of the 1850 Illustrated London News proudly claimed that plum pudding was an English creation and the French had no idea how to make it.

Festive events in the Christmas city

York looks set to be tinselled up to the tree-tops this year with festive fun.

‘Visitors will be able to experience everything from a Georgian Christmas at Fairfax House to a fireside audience with Father Christmas at Castle Howard,’ said Kate McMullen, head of Visit York. ‘We’re delighted that, for the first time ever, the popular St Nicholas Fair will run throughout the whole Christmas season, meaning visitors can shop at the wooden market stalls as well as visiting the city’s visitor attractions right up to Christmas week.’

York’s attractions will be offering a variety of Christmas treats alongside the city’s unique collection of independent shops and boutiques, pantomimes and a festive atmosphere, which in recent years has gained the county’s historic capital the moniker of ‘Britain’s most Christmassy city’.

Among the unmissable must-sees this year are York Early Music Christmas Festival from December 5th-14th, with concerts in key venues across the city; a special performance of Handel’s Messiah by the York Minster Choir – one of the UK’s leading choirs – on December 13th; a special showing of Home Alone at Yorkshire Museum on December 11th with a festive pre-film buffet; and a chance to slip, slide and shop at Yorkshire’s Winter Wonderland, with ice-skating and a traditional funfair, at York Designer Centre from November 22nd to January 4th.

‘York’s festive spirit is second to none, and there’s nowhere quite like it to shop, eat and experience Christmas at its very best with markets, festivals, concerts, pantomimes and entertainment,’ said Councillor Sonja Crisp. ‘We’re offering visitors a better Christmas programme than ever before.’

:: For the first time this year, York Castle Museum is running a series of magical Victorian Christmas experience evenings for families to meet the people of Kirkgate as they prepare for the festive season and seek out presents. (If you find them all, a very special guest might appear.) For prices and times visit yorkcastlemuseum.org.uk.

:: To find out more, call York Visitor Information Centre on 01904 550099, email info@visityork.org or click on visityork.org/christmas.