WILMINGTON — Every family has their own Christmas traditions, some of which have been passed down through generations. But some traditions, for better or worse, have fallen by the wayside.
Fallen, but not forgotten. Travis John Gilbert, manager at Wilmington’s 1852 Latimer House and the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society, lent some of his historical expertise. Gilbert helped shine a light on a few traditions of Wilmington’s Victorian era.
Whether they’re due for a comeback, of course, is up to you.
Starting Christmas on Christmas
If you think you heard Christmas music playing earlier than ever this year, you’re not alone.
“I think everyone’s aware that Christmas has been getting longer and longer every year. We remember it starting after Thanksgiving, but now it’s slowly creeping into October,” Gilbert said. “But in Victorian times it started on Christmas Eve, maybe the day before.”
It’s not just that Christmas has been starting earlier each year. Contemporary Christmas celebrations tend to fizzle out the day after Christmas but, according to Gilbert, Victorian Christmases were just getting started, running through Epiphany for the 12 days of Christmas.
Tabletop Christmas trees
The modern Christmas tree tradition was brought to England when Queen Victoria married her cousin Albert – an accepted custom at the time – who brought with him Germanic traditions, including the table-top Christmas tree.
A famous 1848 lithograph, showing the royal couple with their children, popularized the Germanic custom in England, and from there it spread to North America.
Some German-Americans had already brought the practice to the United States, but the 1848 lithograph helped turn Christmas trees into more broadly practiced custom, Gilbert said.
And, over time, that tabletop tree grew into the floor-to-ceiling we have today.
Think you have trouble with your Christmas lights?
Forget finding that one faulty light, Victorian Christmas trees were lit with candles.
“Of course, at the time Victoria and Albert popularized Christmas trees, they would only be up for one night, so you’d light the candles, and the next day the tree would be gone,” Gilbert said.
Thomas Edison decorated his Christmas trees at Menlo Park with electric lights in 1880, and they gained popularity after that. As decorated trees became a part of the lengthier build-up to Christmas, the risk of dried needles bursting into flames increased. For a few decades, into the 1920s, candles and electric lights existed side-by-side, but eventually the candles became a forgotten tradition.
Not as pretty, some might say, but probably safer. Especially if you start Christmas in November … or October.
The Christmas spirit(s)
The Victorian era marked a distinct change in the spirit of Christmas, one attributable at least in part to Charles Dickens, according to Gilbert.
“There was a real romanticizating of the holiday. A lot of that was Charles Dickens, who gave us the white Christmas, and the stories with themes and motifs about alms and charity,” Gilbert said. “It was a real change from the solemn, constitutional Christmas as the acknowledgement of the birth of Jesus Christ into something else.”
According to Gilbert, the Victorian era saw a “secularizing” of Christmas, where it drifted from its Biblical roots and time frame – from Nativity to Epiphany – into a more humanistic holiday. The Victorian Christmas was closer to the one we recognize now, but it marked just the beginning of the commercialization of the modern day, Gilbert said.
“It did become more about the festivities and parties and gift giving,” Gilbert said, “though not on a modern scale.”
(John Leech image courtesy of the Victorian Web.)
A gilded… Walnut?
Victorians would decorate trees and their homes with small paper cones, filled with candy and nuts and other treats, and would give each other these goody-stuffed cones as presents.
They would also give the gift of walnuts.
“It was a production. They would take walnuts, carve out the entrails – if you will – of the walnuts. They’d fill them with chocolate or candy, and then paint them gold,” Gilbert said. “Gilded walnuts.”
It’s evidence that though the holiday had drifted from the monastic reverence of the earlier centuries, it hadn’t quite developed into the most frenetic shopping season of the year.
A very Victorian New Year’s
The modern New Year’s Eve party is fairly iconic — the anticipation of midnight, the ball drop, champagne and kissing as horns and whistles are blown.
According to Gilbert, the Victorian New Year’s was a lot more, well, Victorian.
New Year’s Eve was a more sedate affair, but New Year’s Day was the social event of the season. As Gilbert described it, gentleman would prepare a new “carte de visite,” a two-inch by three-inch photograph, a style invented in 1854 that rapidly became popular in a craze known as “cardomania.”
The forerunner of the modern Christmas card, these calling cards – as they were also called – weren’t mailed but distributed in person.
“This being Victorian times, ladies would stay at home and prepare refreshments. Gentlemen would be done up in their absolute best, and would travel from house to house, calling upon the women, catching them up on family news, giving season’s greetings, and of course leaving their cards,” Gilbert said.
The day was part holiday card, part social ritual, part endurance drinking.
“You have to imagine it was quite a sight, think of the population of Wilmington at the time, all of the adult men, about 4,000 in full dress, making their way from house to house,” Gilbert said. “And you’d have a little port here, a little Scotch here, so over the course of the day you could be a little bit intoxicated.”
Speaking of drinking, another bygone Christmas tradition is Smoking Bishop. Appearing in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Smoking Bishop was a London take on the mulled wines of Europe, similar to the wassail – a hot, alcoholic cider – that fueled wassailing, a forerunner of Christmas Carols (like “Here We Come A-wassailing.”)
Smoking Bishop was made from both regular and fortified wines, with lemons and oranges that had been roasted until caramelized, as with as spices, especially cloves. Like wassail, Smoking Bishop was served hot, although it had a considerably higher alcohol content.
The Smoking Bishop is one tradition that’s relatively easy – and safe, in moderation – to bring back. English author, poet, and cook Eliza Acton published a recipe for Smoking Bishop in her 1845 “Modern Cookery,” one of England’s first publicly available cookbooks.
Here is Acton’s recipe:
Make several incisions in the rind of a lemon, stick cloves in these, and roast the lemon by a slow fire.
Boil one bottle of port wine, burn a portion of the spirit out of it by applying a lighted paper to the saucepan; put the roasted lemon and spice into the wine ; stir it up well, and let it stand near the fire ten minutes.
Rub a few knobs of sugar on the rind of a lemon, put the sugar into a bowl or jug, with the juice of half a lemon (not roasted), pour the wine into it, grate in some nutmeg, sweeten it to the taste, and serve it up with the lemon and spice floating in it.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.