The Contemporary New England Witch

The Contemporary New England Witch
Ms Faith

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Victorian Influence on our Christmas Yuletide Traditions

 Evenings Frosty Greetings,

I recognize days like today, very cold with snow flurries taunting us all day, never quite amounting to anything, but like the bully on the playground who walks by and gives an evil glare,  we, New Englanders , we know the potential of those innocent looking snow flakes. 

Yet, for all the cold, work and expense of a snowy winter, everyone pretty much desires a bit of white on the ground around Christmas Yuletide.   As for the Christmas decorations, the retail marketing, Christmas songs and carols, television infomercials, holiday gatherings, we tend to have our fill the 6 to 8 weeks typically set aside for this holiday nowadays, but as we near the 25th of December, it seems even the most Scrooge-like person wants, if only for a day, the 'traditional' Christmas imagery. Those fleeting memories from childhood, the magick of waking up on Christmas morning to find a present from Santa.. 

I find it interesting that just about all of our traditional Christmas decorations and images in the United States, come from the Victorian Era. The Victorian Era spanned the years Queen Victoria reigned from 1837 until her death in 1901.  The latter part of the era coincided with the American gilded age and both eras were known for their opulence, the glitz and glamour, the lavish expense of the rich in mocking contrast to the abject poverty of the poor.

First we need to again go deep into pre-Christian European tradition to find the original roots of this winter celebration. We've touched on the pagan roots of Yule, which are based in the Germanic and Norse cultures. For more detail see my discussion "Yuletide to Christmas Where did this holiday really begin?"on December 1, 2010.  Now the peoples of these frigid lands in winter used what we recognize as a pagan-based symbolism as they descended into the harsh cold and ice of winter.

It was easy for the people to believe,  with the isolation that winter enforced, the harshness of survival, the bitter cold mixed with very little daylight in some areas up to six months of the year, that the sun may not come back, and all would perish.  They saw the immortal nature of conifer trees and other evergreens that did not die in the winter, as it appeared all else did, as a promise from their gods and goddesses that life would be renewed and resurrected again in the spring. The evergreen was a constant reminded of that promise and so they kept it indoors and close to them throughout the winter.  Even burning the pine cones and needles as an incense was thought to bring life and vitality to those who burned it. 

The Germanic peoples felt the evergreen foretold of the return of the sun god, Balor with the return of spring. Whereas the Druids felt that by bringing evergreen holly indoors along with the mistletoe,  it symbolized eternal life, while the ancient Egyptians brought indoors green date palms to symbolize life's triumph over death. All of these cultures celebrated these traditions on the winter solstice.

The Yuletide celebrated by these ancient cultures introduced the Yule tree, Yule log, Christmas tree and evergreen boughs to our traditional holiday decorations.  Although representing England, Prince Albert was German born and Queen Victoria's mother was also German born so the traditions of their culture which both Victoria and Albert enjoyed since childhood, were brought into the British monarchy. They wed in 1840 and the grand opulence and Victorian look and fashion that we recognize today was brought into being.

The Christmas Tree 

The opulent  Victorian 'crafts' look with richly adorned Christmas trees, wreaths and boughs brought the outdoor evergreen indoors, but with the acceptable extravagance required.  Even wreaths and trees that were placed outside were elaborately decorated. A Christmas card from the Royal family showed them gathered around the eight foot tall Christmas tree, it was a tradition that the tree be eight feet tall, no shorter, no taller. It was decorated with  lit candles, gingerbread, spun sugar, sugared fruits and sweets. Many of the ornaments at this time we made from sugar.  The image of the Queen, the Prince and their children gathered around the present bedecked tree,  heavily influenced a culture that thrived on being as much like the Royal family as possible. In this culture, fashion, etiquette, daily customs even the popular foods of the day were dictated by the likes and dislikes of the Queen and her family. These societal preferences found their way to America,  perhaps a season or two behind, but they found their way here and have flourished ever since.  

Christmas Cards

Christmas Cards started in the Victorian age also. Sending cards was actually a daily or weekly occurrence in England, especially in the large cities.  In the morning hours on a typical day, the members of the gentry or upper level of society would often spend a few hours writing cards and sending them by hand delivery to other members of the gentry. So cards issuing invitations to that evenings dinner parties and social gatherings, invites to balls and dances, generally 'social networking' , were sent back and forth as a typical means of communicating, as this was before telephones and public postal delivery was barely in its infancy.

A servant would be dispatched to deliver notes and return with responses.  Around Christmas in 1843 a gentleman in England wanted to send a card to his society members but was too busy to send out the few hundred he wished to.  He had them printed and all with the same message "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you - Sir Henry Cole.  In this way he solved his dilemma of hand writing so many Christmas notes. So it appears, that in Sir Henry Cole's search for time efficiency,  he invented the Christmas card concept.

Candy Canes 

Candy canes have their history in candy making over 350 years ago!  During the earliest days of candy making, hard sugar sticks, upright, all white,  with no specific flavor but the taste of sugar, were very popular. In 1670 a choirmaster at Cologne Catherdral in Germany had bent tops fashioned into the candy sticks to represent shepard's crooks specifically for the week of nativity services.  They tended to be several hours in length and would be attended daily the entire week, so to keep the children quiet he handed out these nativity candy sticks. They were still white and unflavored sweet, but proved to be terribly popular and they started to appear in other towns around the holidays.   

The first time the candy cane was recorded in American use was in 1847 when a man in Ohio decorated his holiday tree all over with the white confections.  The familiar red and white striped look we're accustomed to today took place around the turn of the 20th century.  Christmas cards depicting candy canes before 1900 showed only pure white canes.  Around the same time peppermint and wintergreen started to be added giving these flavors a significant role in the celebration of Christmas, and doing away with the unflavored variety that had existed for over 200 years prior. 

The Influence of Charles Dickens on Christmas

Traditional Christmas imagery became very popular after the publication of "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens.  This popular Christmas season ghost story was published the week before Christmas in 1843 and by the end of that year, a mere 2 weeks later over 6,000 copies had been sold.  Mr. Dickens work is solely credited with the introduction of Christmas dinner, the giving of presents, taking time off to celebrate life and family.  This may have been Victorian England, but it was also the Industrial Revolution and if you weren't of the gentry, the elite rich and privileged, then you were of the working class and it was a very difficult life for many.  Workhouses, children as young as 4 and 5 being forced to work dozens of hours, employers using employees with little regard for human life, let alone comfort and dignity. Charles Dickens wrote of this dark side of London, in this time. He lived amongst it. 

A Christmas Carol showed everyone, even the working class, that a day as holy, as special, as Christmas, the celebration of the Yuletide,  belonged to everyone. During the Industrial Revolution  people worked seven days a week. Days off, holidays, weekends didn't exist. One worked to survive. The factories produced and profited the most when they were worked seven days a week. Its no surprise to me that at such a dark time, the special light of Yuletide, the belief that the sun will come again, that we will rise renewed was brought into being again. People were desperate for something to give them hope for the future.  Mr. Dickens work gave the people the holiday imagery they needed and aspired to and Queen Victoria reign made it acceptable for all. 

Christmas and Yuletide celebrations had fallen out of favor when the Puritans ruled Parliament, during the Elizabethan age, for over two hundred years prior. The concept of 'everyman' celebrating had become a thing of the distant pagan past until the reign of Queen Victoria brought it back with a vengeance and we have benefited ever since.  

Many times I've been asked about our practice in relation to Christmas.  Many pagans and Wiccans celebrate, and many like to refer to its original name of Yule or Saturnalia, which is the Roman equivalent of Yule.  We celebrate as we do every other Sabbat or holiday, with a feast and a ritual with loved ones.  Lighting a candle is a nice way to celebrate this holiday. Candles have always been a part of winter celebrations, a symbol of light and warmth in the midst of darkness and cold.

We hang stockings, decorate our yule tree, bake cookies and feast with family and friends.  The feast for pagans is significant as we remember, those who perished by not having enough, as the winter is also a time of remembrance. Remembering our ancestors, loved ones and those who have gone before. It is also a celebration of abundance. If your Christmas Yule feast is abundant, with extras and leftovers it signifies a prosperous year ahead.  So buy an extra loaf of bread, and fresh fruit.  Exotic fruits like oranges and limes and lemons, well, they were exotic during Victorian days! These have a 'luxury' energy to them that speaks to abundance and prosperity. Fresh whole pineapples are also a symbol of luck, prosperity and abundance for this holiday.  Extra nuts, candies, treats are predominant around this holiday as it also has a strong energy that speaks to the child within everyone's heart. 


Many times in the past I have celebrated on the 21st when I have the opportunity, and this year I will conduct a small ritual that night. This year I will have a family dinner on the 25th, and whether you are pagan or Christian there is an undeniable energy, a spark of the magickal on the 25th, if one would stop for a moment to sense it.

It comes from our childhood memories, blended with the love of family and friends mixed up with the magick of millions of people around the world all feeling the same similar feelings of love, happiness, forgiveness and peace. That many people putting out that kind of energy creates a thought form, a global thought form that becomes tangible, at least substantial enough for everyone to sense it, the 'magick of Christmas'. 

I can already feel the energy of the Yuletide spirit, can you?

Peace and Happiness





© 2010 Enchantments, LLC Portions of this blog posting may include materials from my book “Enchantments School for the Magickal Arts First Year Magickal Studies.” For more information, see www.enchantmentsschool.com. Click on the title of this discussion and the link will take you to the school's website.

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