Before the 19th century, Christmas wasn’t nearly as popular, extravagant, or grand. It was celebrated, but not nearly to the level of excitement and cheer we associate with the holiday today. Many of our treasured traditions, Christmas cards, Christmas trees, hanging stockings, and caroling, didn’t appear until the 1840s. This makes much of Christmas a Victorian invention.
However, like anything from the Victorian era, many of our beloved traditions had weird, wacky, and even sinister roots. Some of these traditions have taken on a more lighthearted, modern form, such as Christmas cards, while others have become lost over time, such as the parlor game Snapdragon. Here’s a list of 7 of those weird Victorian Christmas traditions:
1. Weird Christmas cards with dead birds and dancing critters.
Christmas cards first appeared in the Victorian era when John Callcott Horsley (1817-1903), an English painter, designed the very first one for his wealthy, and very busy, friend, Sir Henry Cole, who recognized he didn’t have the time in his busy schedule to write out Christmas greetings for all his family and friends. He figured a card with a decorative image would be enough to satisfy this social holiday obligation—and boy, was he right. At least, he would be as time went on.
The trend didn’t initially catch on when, in 1843, 1,000 of these cards were printed and placed for sale in London. The cards were a flop with several society members disapproving of the novelty. Leaders of the temperance movement disapproved of cards that featured liquor, thinking this would encourage drunkenness.
Nevertheless, in following years, the invention of the Christmas card became wildly successful. It provided opportunities for artists, printers, and engravers in Victorian England who cranked out images we don’t associate with Christmas cards today. Many of these cards featured fairies, flowers, and woodland animals as a promise that spring would soon come. Some cards were just downright weird, depicting images of frogs fencing, dung beetles waltzing with toads, children riding bats, crows with human bodies sledding, and dead birds. Personally, I kind of wish someone would send me one of these weird, vintage Christmas cards!
2. There was a Christmas parlor game that involved raisins, rum, and fire.
Called Snapdragon, this game was often played on Christmas Eve. Players took a bowl and filled it with two dozen raisins. Brandy or rum was poured into the bowl, set onto a table, and then the liquor was lit on fire. Players risked burning their hands by plunging their fingers into the bowl to capture flaming raisins. If any players managed to fish out a raisin, it had to be popped into their mouth.
Losers for this game had to perform some sort of task. One possibility was kissing every woman in the room, which might make a man want to lose on purpose, but usually another lady accompanied the man and did the kissing for him. Other possible tasks included complimenting a chosen lady without uttering a word including the letter “L,” like a deranged version of Sesame Street, or to pose like a Greek or Roman statue while other players moved their limbs for them, like a game on “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”
Snapdragon had a less risky counterpart to play called Flapdragon. Players placed a lit candle into a jug of ale and tried to take a sip without burning their beards, eyebrows, or hair. Will you be playing these games at your next Christmas party?
3. Victorians loved telling ghost stories around a blazing Yule log.
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is one of the most famous Christmas stories, featuring the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Dickens’ story was written during a time when the Victorians were fascinated with Spiritualism and many believed in life after death.
Despite the popularity of ghosts in the Victorian era, the connection between Christmas and the spiritual dates back to pagan traditions linked to the Winter Solstice. The Victorians only perpetuated a human fascination with ghosts that has long existed and connected it to the Christian tradition of Christmastime. Victorian writers, such as Charles Dickens and M.R. James, wrote ghost stories set in the winter or associated with Christmas that an eager public gobbled up.
4. If you found the glass pickle in the Christmas tree, you could open your presents first!
Yep, that’s right. There was once a Christmas tradition that involved hiding a Christmas pickle made of glass somewhere deep inside a Christmas tree. On Christmas morning, whoever found the pickle first was given a special gift or allowed to open their presents first. The idea behind this tradition was to teach children patience and appreciation for their gifts.
It’s been claimed this tradition is entirely German, but that might not be true. In fact, not too many people are sure how the tradition started. There’s two stories about how the tradition might have gotten started. One involves a soldier in the American Civil War, who originated from Bavaria, a region in Germany. The soldier was imprisoned and asked his jailer for mercy and something to eat. His jailer gave him a pickle, which gave the soldier the will to live on.
Another story involves good ol’ St. Nicholas. This story, from the medieval times, takes a darker bend when two Spanish boys are murdered by an innkeeper. Their bodies are shoved inside a pickle barrel, but when St. Nicholas stops to take a respite at the inn, he finds the boys’ bodies. St. Nicholas prays for the boys, and by a divine miracle and the purity of St. Nick, the boys are restored to their human forms. Whether it was one of these two tales or another that started the tradition of the Christmas pickle, no one seems to know, but I think we can all agree both are a little strange.
5. Oysters were the chosen Christmas dinner for the poor.
Wealthy families could afford beef and turkey for their Christmas tables. These meats were often too expensive for poorer or working class families who’d resort to geese, but when even that meat was too pricey, oysters remained the most viable option.
But why oysters? Oysters were readily available and plentiful, making the prices cheaper. Street vendors sold oysters as a sort of Victorian fast food, selling pickled oysters, as well as fresh oysters, that lasted longer. Oysters were called “the poor man’s protein,” making it the most likely Christmas dinner for many Victorian families. Today we see oysters as a luxury—and typically not an option for the Christmas table.
6. Goose Clubs weren’t a secret society or cult. It was an option for the poor who didn’t want to load their Christmas tables with oysters.
Families living in the countryside were often given geese or other meats as a Christmas bonus from their employers, while the landed gentry gave meals to their tenants. However, the poor living in towns and cities had fewer chances of earning or receiving a free Christmas meal. The solution to this were “Goose Clubs,” where members paid a little each week throughout the year toward a Christmas goose. When Christmastime finally came, members could purchase a goose for their holiday dinners.
7. Before the word “christmasing” was a hashtag on Twitter, it had an entirely different meaning.
Street vendors collected different evergreens, like holly and mistletoe, and sold them in the days leading up to Christmas for a profit. Pubs, churches, inns, and houses used these decorations for the festive season, while families also used the evergreens for decorating puddings and pies. Collecting these evergreens was called “christmasing.”
Since the Victorian era, Christmas cards have shed their fencing frogs and dead birds and dinner tables aren’t laden with oysters. Some practices are completely lost, such as street vendors “christmasing” to collect holly and mistletoe to sell. Others I wish would have a comeback—and I’m talking about Snapdragon! Who else would love to play a Christmas game involving sticking their fingers into a flaming bowl of rum?
What do you think of these 7 weird Victorian Christmas traditions? Did I miss any? Maybe you celebrate a different holiday; what traditions surround what you celebrate? Please share in the comments!
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8 Creepy and Delightful Ways the Victorians Celebrated Christmas by Alexander Meddings
10 Strange Christmas Traditions From The Victorian Era by Laura Martisiute
57 Victorian Christmas Cards That Are As Creepy As Those Times Themselves by Šarūnė Bar
The Christmas Pickle on WhyChristmas.com
First Christmas Card, article in Victoriana Magazine
Victorians’ Christmas Parlor Games Will Leave You Burned, Bruised, And Puking by George Pendle
Where did the Christmas pickle tradition come from? Here’s the real deal by Lyn Mettler
Thank you for the history lesson. I also read that the ‘original’ St. Nicolas was a monk in Turkey that cared for children.
I personally like the pagan tradition of Yule (winter solstice) celebrating the rebirth of the sun.