From lighting a real candle on the branch of an indoor Christmas tree, to a well-dressed family singing carols on a stairwell in the home, this lovely collection of nostalgic photos reveal how children from a bygone era celebrated the festive season.
A little girl and her Saint Bernard deliver a present at Christmas, circa 1910s.
Children carrying holly and mistletoe, London, December 1915.
Photo: The combination of a well matured and baked dark fruit cake accompanied by slices of crumbly piquant cheese is a rare treat not to be missed.
The poor fruitcake has gotten a bad rap over the past few decades, and not just a cellophane wrap.
People misunderstand its booze-infused density and dank fruitiness, chalking up the decision to give such a gift as nothing more than a misguided antiquated ritual.
But Yorkshire natives will not be dissuaded from enjoying the holiday loaf and, furthermore, from topping the succulent slice with a thick layer of piquant cheese.
In England, a Christmas cake refers to the dried fruit–speckled, rum-soaked round that many other cultures simply call fruitcake. Ideally, the cake is made ahead of time—up to two months—allowing the ingredients to mellow and blend as they receive a regular dowsing of alcohol.
But how did cheese come to accompany the holiday treat?
According to food historian Peter Brears, the creative combo comes from the Victorian era, specifically in Wensleydale, Yorkshire.
Wensleydale is also home to an eponymous cow’s milk (formerly sheep’s milk) cheese that, at the time, was made only during the summer and reached maturity right around the Christmas season.
Folks found that the sharp and crumbly cheese—either perched atop or eaten alongside the cake—paired perfectly with the moist, rich baked good, and a tradition was born.
The Christmas custom has remained mostly a delight confined to Yorkshire, but has become very popular across the border in Scotland
1863: Detail from Thomas Nast’s illustration ‘A Christmas Furlough’ for the front page of a 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly. Obviously crafted for the Union side of the American Civil War Conflict.
As time went by, more and more was added to the Santa Claus legend.
The cartoonist Thomas Nast established the bounds for Santa Claus’ current look with an initial illustration in an 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly, as part of a large illustration titled “A Christmas Furlough”.
In later Nast drawings a home at the North Pole was added, as was the workshop for building toys and a large book filled with the names of children who had been naughty or nice.
Anthropomorphic birds and animals were another popular theme, as seen in this Christmas Reversed scene, where raw dinner ingredients get in a party mood.
Sending Christmas cards was a habit popularised by the Victorians, helped by the introduction, in 1840, of a uniform penny post.England’s first commercial Christmas card was printed in 1843, and is in the Laura Seddon collection at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Here, is a selection from its archive.
Showing that there’s little new about the tactics of trick-or-treaters, a group of festive musicians make their presence known, and demand beer.
This classic card was designed by the children’s book illustrator Walter Crane, a prominent member of the Arts and Crafts movement.
All Photographs: Ade Hunter/Manchester Metropolitan University
How pray tell did two such popular blokes get those ridiculous nicknames?
The Toff is easy, he claims he is descended from British aristocracy and as an apprentice showed contempt for the other apprentices.
He tried countless times to get out of work that he thought was below him. Quite well off, drives a Jaguar and uses driving gloves and wears a top hat.
Mr Grubby’s nickname and how he got it are just so monstrous that even I do not quite understand it. But, I believe it occurred during morning tea in the comp room some years ago and was a practical joke that went astray. However the nickname “Grubby” suggests there was filth involved.
Let’s move on… we have tried on two occasions to organise a Get Together and both times been beaten by Covid-19.
Alex Riley will not give up. He has made a temporary booking at Westies in March, 2021.
More information to come and let’s hope we can finally enjoy each other’s Company.
An old man in Scotland calls his son in London the day before Christmas Eve and says, “I hate to ruin your day son but I have to tell you that your mother and I are divorcing; forty-five years of misery is enough.”
“Dad, what are you talking about?” the son screams.
“We can’t stand the sight of each other any longer” the father says. “We’re sick of each other and I’m sick of talking about this, so you call your sister in Leeds and tell her.”
Frantically, the son calls his sister, who explodes on the phone. “Like hell they’re getting divorced!” she shouts, “I’ll take care of this!”
She calls Scotland immediately, and screams at her father “You are NOT getting divorced. Don’t do a single thing until I get there. I’m calling my brother back, and we will both be up there tomorrow.
“Until then, don’t do a thing, DO YOU HEAR ME?” and hangs up.
The old man hangs up his phone and turns to his wife. “That’s Sorted!
They’re coming up for Christmas tomorrow and they’re paying their own way.”
For some years it was assumed that Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort had introduced the Christmas Tree into Great Britain.
However, that honour rightfully belongs to Queen Charlotte, the German born wife of George III in December of 1800.
That year Queen Charlotte planned to hold a large Christmas party for the children of all the principal families in Windsor.
And casting about in her mind for a special treat to give the youngsters, she suddenly decided that instead of the customary yew bough, she would pot up an entire yew tree, cover it with baubles and fruit, load it with presents and stand it in the middle of the drawing-room floor at Queen’s Lodge.
Such a tree, she considered, would make an enchanting spectacle for the little ones to gaze upon.
When the children arrived at the house on the evening of Christmas Day and beheld that magical tree, all aglitter with tinsel and glass, they believed themselves transported straight to fairyland and their happiness knew no bounds.
Dr John Watkins, one of Queen Charlotte’s biographers, who attended the party, provides us with a vivid description of this captivating tree ‘from the branches of which hung bunches of sweetmeats, almonds and raisins in papers, fruits and toys, most tastefully arranged; the whole illuminated by small wax candles’.
He adds that ‘after the company had walked round and admired the tree, each child obtained a portion of the sweets it bore, together with a toy, and then all returned home quite delighted’.
Christmas trees now became all the rage in English upper-class circles, where they formed the focal point at countless children’s gatherings.
As in Germany, any handy evergreen tree might be uprooted for the purpose; yews, box trees, pines or firs. Trees placed on table tops usually also had either a Noah’s Ark or a model farm and numerous gaily-painted wooden animals set out among the presents beneath the branches to add extra allurement to the scene.
By the time Queen Charlotte died in 1818, the Christmas-tree tradition was firmly established in society, and it continued to flourish throughout the 1820s and 1830s.
The fullest description of these early English Yuletide trees is to be found in the diary of Charles Greville, the witty, cultured Clerk of the Privy Council, who in 1829 spent his Christmas holidays at Panshanger, Hertfordshire, home to Peter, 5th Earl Cowper, and his wife Lady Emily.
But it was not until periodicals such as the Illustrated London News, Cassell’s Magazine and The Graphic began to depict and describe the royal Christmas trees every year from 1845 until the late 1850s, that the custom of setting up such trees in their own homes caught on with the masses in England.
By 1860, however, there was scarcely a well-off family in the land that did not sport a Christmas tree in parlour or hall.
And all the December parties held for pauper children at this date featured gift-laden Christmas trees as their main attraction.
The spruce fir was now generally accepted as the festive tree par excellence, but the branches of these firs were no longer cut into artificial tiers or layers as in Germany, but were allowed to remain intact, with candles and ornaments arranged randomly over them, as at the present day.
Take a look at Macy’s best-selling holiday gifts of 1948—which LIFE compiled, along with the number of each item sold and at what price—and it’s immediately apparent that things have changed since then.
For starters, the gifts then skewed more toward the practical.
Such everyday items as a pair of nylons or a ballpoint pen, the department store’s third- and fourth-highest-selling items that season, may ignite little excitement in today’s gift receiver, who has been conditioned to want little more than the latest Apple product.
Second, there is a conspicuous absence of anything technological, whereas nearly seven decades later, more than two thirds of holiday shoppers plan to purchase electronics for their loved ones.
Then again, the rise of personal technology was still decades away, as these were the days when fewer than 10% of households even had a TV set.
Rather than instruments of entertainment, gift-givers wrapped up objects that were wearable or edible, and immediately usable: a pair of pajamas, a bottle of scotch or that perennial favourite, some sturdy slippers.
Basic, to be sure—but sure to be put to frequent use.
Cultures have enjoyed sharing written New Year’s greetings for centuries. The English-speaking ritual of sending holiday cards, however, dates back only to the middle of the 19th century.
Some sources say it originated with Thomas Shorrock, of Leith, Scotland, who, in the 1840s, produced cards showing a jolly face with the caption “A Gude Year to Ye.” a Guid New Year
Credit more commonly goes to Sir Henry Cole, who would later become the first director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
He commissioned an artist to create 1,000 engraved holiday cards in 1843. Cole’s greeting featured a prosperous-looking family toasting the holidays, flanked on both sides by images of kindly souls engaging in acts of charity.
A caption along the bottom read, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.”
The world’s first commercially produced Christmas card, designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole in 1843
With advances in printing technology and mail service, the practice of sending commercially produced Christmas cards caught on.
By the 1880s, it was an integral part of the holiday season for many American families as well. In “The Female World of Cards and Holidays: Women, Families, and the Work of Kinship,” Yale anthropologist Micaela di Leonardo explains that the practice thrived amid postbellum industrialization and the demise of the family farm.
As relatives spread out geographically, women assumed responsibility for “the work of kinship” and became caretakers of extended family connections. Christmas cards were a convenient way for them to nurture relationships among their husbands, children, and distant relatives.
As the Christmas card habit took hold, manufacturers rushed to meet demand. Best known was German emigrant Louis Prang, who produced attractive and reasonably priced chromolithographed cards for the mass market. He is often referred to as the father of the American Christmas card.
Not all manufacturers were as concerned with quality. Many of them relied on trite and overly sentimental images to decorate their greetings.
In 1885, The Decorator and Furnisher magazine criticized the industry for its ubiquitous imaginings of “pantaletted young ones” singing in snowstorms and “angels floating in mid-air bearing a baby.
Such tiresome subjects, the article lamented, created “no agreeable sensations.” Also troublesome were the poor production values.
That same year, The Art Amateur magazine faulted a British manufacturer for offering a card that featured the image of a cherub whose head was “too intangibly connected with her body even for a disembodied spirit.”
Industry critics predicted that the American public would soon tire of Christmas cards. But then, in the early 1900s, improvements in image reproduction technology allowed the greeting-card market to surge to new heights.
In 1900, The British Medical Journal applauded a new series of Christmas cards with “platino-panel reproductions” that resembled photographic prints. The variety of subjects featured on the new cards also increased—sporting themes, landscapes, and patriotic drawings of men in regimental uniforms.