How Christmas celebrations were turbo-charged in Victorian times

Charles Dickens, pictured , and left, an inscribed copy of 'A Christmas Carol' by the author

Charles Dickens, pictured , and left, an inscribed copy of 'A Christmas Carol' by the author

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Lancashire County Council’s community heritage manager Andrew Walmsey charts the boom in festivities in the 19th century.

As the Christmas hurtles towards us with the impetus of a runaway freight train it was interesting recently looking at the Christmas Eve 1831 edition of the Preston Chronicle. Hardly a mention of Christmas itself!

The front page was given over to advertisements and notices as was the norm at the time.

Assemblies were to be held at the Corn Exchange on Lune Street in January (admission five shillings for ladies and seven for gentlemen), The Catholic School on Fox Street was to have a charity ball on December 26 andJames Hunt of Preston was bankrupted.

Mr Gaskell, a Church Street chemist, and Mr Lamb, a confectioner from Garstang, were looking for apprentices and the ‘Malta Exotic’ remedy could cure a headache in three minutes.

Admittedly the Manchester Assurance company did remind folk that policies falling due at Christmas “must be renewed within fifteen days or they become void”.

Inside the newspaper there is extensive coverage of the passage of the famous Reform Bill through parliament.

We learn that Walter Scott had safely arrived in Malta and that 20 lives were lost in the protests about the enforcement of tithes in Ireland.

More locally James Greaves, of Tamworth, was appointed as organist at the Parish Church, the scholars of St Peter’s School sat their examinations, the Board of Health agreed on 60 shillings being made available to assist the deserving poor and Betty Crookshaw, aged 15, was charged with stealing an iron pan from a cellar in Marsh Lane.

The following weekend’s New Year’s Eve edition again gave scant mention to Christmas although Kitty Culshaw was charged with having returned to the Workhouse on Christmas Night ‘much intoxicated’.

She abused the governor in a ‘vile and unwarrantable manner’ but refused to apologise saying he had deserved it.

Maybe it was worth the hangover and 21 days hard labour it cost her to get some kind of revenge on her nemesis.

Fast forward 40 years to December 23 1871 and even within the dense typeface of a Victorian newspaper you can spot a marked difference.

Ferguson’s, of 125 Fishergate, claimed the largest variety of Christmas cards, presents and tree ornaments while John Noblet, of Lawson Street, was selling ‘Good Port Wine for the Christmas holidays’.

The ‘New and Magnificent Christmas Pantomime, Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp’ was due to begin its run at the Corn Exchange.

Inside the paper an article on ‘Christmas Tide’ examined the history of Christmas customs and readers could read ‘The Mystery of Langridge Hall’, described as ‘An Original Christmas Story’.

The editor also celebrates the fact that ‘A festival far greater than any other has arrived’ and wishes readers ‘A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year’.

The great Christmas festival has its origins in medieval Western Europe and was traditionally a time of feasts, celebrations and games.

In the 17th Century, the Puritan sensibility condemned it as a Catholic invention belonging to the dark arts of Popery and in 1645 Parliament published the Directory for the Public Worship of God as an alternative to the Book of Common Prayer.

This didn’t mention Christmas at all.

A couple of years later in 1647 Parliament even made the celebration of Christmas a punishable offence.

The effective banning of Christmas resulted in dissent right across the country and there were riots in protest at the abandonment of the festival.

The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 heralded the return of Christmas, apart from in Presbyterian Scotland which had issues with the Christmas celebrations until into the 20th Century. In fact for the Scots, Christmas has only been a public holiday from 1958.

Christmas celebrations began to be turbo-charged in the 19th Century when Victoria’s reign saw the widespread use of the Christmas Tree (to some extent a foreign import via the Royal Family’s German connections) the sending of Christmas Cards and Charles Dickens’ popularising of the spirit of Christmas particularly in ‘A Christmas Carol.’

This was published in 1843 but six years earlier in 1837 in Pickwick Papers, Dickens had called Christmas the season of ‘hospitality, merriment and open-heartedness’ which we could certainly do with some of now!

I had wondered whether the relative absence of ‘Christmas’ in the Preston Chronicle of 1831 meant it wasn’t being much celebrated but it’s more likely that the presence of ‘Christmas’ in the 1871 newspaper reflects the boom in all things Christmas in Victorian times.

In the 21st Century this boom shows no sign of abating with Christmas Trees and decorations now appearing in front windows from late November.

Personally I don’t mind bit of light in the darkness of winter which the Victorians helped to provide for us but wouldn’t miss the commercialism and advertising frenzy which also seems to be one of their legacies.

Large district libraries around the county have copies of local newspapers on Microfilm and you can read the Preston Chronicle through on ‘19th Century British Newspapers.’

It is available online through Lancashire County Council’s Digital Library website.

You will need to input your Lancashire Library card number to access this resource.