The Roots of our Family-Centred Christmas




Although the celebration of Christmas goes back to the Roman times, the current traditions implemented in celebrating this season were largely developed during the Victorian era. During this period, Christmas transitioned from community-centric to family-centric. Previously, Christmas was seen as a celebration between households within the community; in the 19th century its focus turned inwards, revolving around the family. John Gillis notes that “by 1870 [Christmas] had become the family occasion of the year…”[i] Changes in the Christmas celebration might be appropriately called the domestication of Christmas. So did the domestic Victorian Christmas develop, and what catalysed this domestic emphasis?

History of Christmas

The symbols and traditions of Christmas find their roots in pagan celebrations associated with Winter Solstice during the Roman period. At the end of the harvest period, as the weather became cold, Romans would hold feasts both to celebrate their bounty and to request another plentiful harvest in the next year. This season was marked by Saturnalia on December 25th, a celebration of the birth of the sun, and the Feast of Kalends on New Year’s Day.[ii] During this season of celebration, evergreens were commonly used as decorations, a representation of life and fertility.[iii] Also common was an activity called mumming; men and women would exchange clothing and visit their neighbors to continue their feasting.[iv]

The Christianization of this holiday first arose during the second century through the influence of missionaries. It was a common practice of the Church to Christianize existing pagan holidays in order to reach the indigenous people.[v] Therefore, the Roman Church adopted a number of the traditional practices of this holiday and transposed them on to a celebration of the birth of Christ.[vi] Thus, the birth of Christ was celebrated on December 25th (Saturnalia- the birth of the unconquerable sun), as he was the Son of God, the light of the world[vii]; evergreens were rebranded to represent the new life which could be found in Christ. However all excess was met with disapproval, such as drunkenness, debauchery, and the practice of mumming.

puritan-christmas-banThe disapproval of these particular facets of the holiday would continue to cause tension within the Church throughout the Medieval Age. Puritans disapproved of any celebration of this holiday; during the protectorate all Christmas celebrations, including holding Church services on December 25th, were banned.

After the Restoration, people were free to celebrate Christmas as they wished, but it failed to regain the place it had previously held, which is evident from silence of literature on this subject. According to Pimlott, “There can have been no time when less was written about Christmas, and when so much that was written referred to decline and decay.”[viii]

The Church of England still counted Christmas, in its association with the birth of Christ, as one of its major holidays (along with Easter). However, the large community celebrations which accompanied the holidays were far less frequent. While workers previously had taken holiday during this season for a number of days, if not weeks, by the 19th century only one day was taken – Christmas day itself. In 1797 workers had seven days off during the Christmas season; by 1838 only Christmas day was given as a holiday.[ix]

During the Victorian era, Christmas underwent a change. While retaining some of its key elements such as charity, gift-giving, and feasting; it transitioned from its prior form as a communal festival to a family-oriented one.[x] Christmas had been, in effect, domesticated. This was considered to be the bedrock for Christmas celebrations in the present-day. It was under the influence of the Victorians that the family-centric Christmas celebrations were popularized. But what were the causes or circumstances which birthed this change? Regarding this, there is much debate.

Domestication of Christmas


It is popular to attribute the changes in Christmas largely to two individuals: Charles Dickens, for his stories on Christmas, and The Prince Consort, for his popularization of the Christmas tree. Michael Connelly downplayed the singular importance of Dickens and instead attributed what he called the “inflation” (rather than invention) of Christmas as an expression of English National Identity.[xi] J.A.R. Pimlott and Golby likewise downplayed the significance of these two individuals and instead argued that the rise in the popularity of Christmas could be attributed largely to Humanitarianism[xii]. Pimlott also added the impact of the Romantic Movement and religious revival. William Wait, contrary to Pimlott, argued that religion played no significant role in the development of the Victorian Christmas. Instead, he argued, these changes were largely attributed to reforms caused by industrialization and urbanization.[xiii] John Gillis views the Victorian Christmas as the result of a change in family rituals.

All of these explanations are contributing factors which share one common theme: nostalgia. The Victorian Christmas was not the byproduct of just one of these movements or individuals, but the result of a nostalgia which grew under their influence. This nostalgia is two dimensional; first is it a nostalgia which remembers to an idealized past wistfully. Secondly, it is nostalgia, impacted by the former, which particularly focuses on the idealization of childhood. Using the explanations given by numerous historians above, this will be demonstrated by analyzing each in turn.

Dickens and Albert

Charles Dickens and Prince Albert have been frequently held responsible for the Victorian Christmas. Dickens publication of “The Christmas Carol” was instrumental in presenting an idealized family-centric view of Christmas. Dickens was painting a picture of his perception of the ideal Christmas, which was subsequently adopted by middle-class society.[xiv] Dickens novels also placed a strong emphasis on the roles of children. His novels, including his Christmas stories, depicted good children who needed to be rescued from the hypocrisy of their adult role-models. “Children for Dickens became a symbol of all that was good in the world before adult behaviour and adult institutions began to make their impact.”[xv]

Prince Albert became famous for his influence on the Victorian Christmas due to his popularization of the Christmas tree in England. Although trees had previously been introduced by Queen Charlotte in 1800, they had not been popularized until Albert brought them over in1840. The trees themselves were a popular German icon for Christmas celebrations. German legend says that trees were first associated with this season when, in the 8th century on Christmas Eve, a group of Christian missionaries interrupted a child sacrifice being conducted to appease Thor, in front of his sacred oak tree. The missionaries told them about the Christian God, and the people believed. Seeing an evergreen tree, they decided this would be the new emblem of their new worship, centered on the Christ-Child.[xvi]

The Christmas tree became widely popularized in England, within a couple of decades they were referred to as though they had always been a key part of Christmas history. The trees were emblematic of the domestic Christmas, being placed in the home and identified with the children and the family.[xvii]


britishimperialismDuring the 19th century, history was a subject which was being taken quite seriously; the perception of and identification with the past grew in significance. The English Civil Wars became an obsession among the Victorians, depicted frequently in paintings. Nostalgia developed towards this period which led to the desire to revive the ethic of celebrating a Pre-Puritan Christmas reminiscent of “Old England.” There was, however, a tension – since middle-class Victorians still disapproved of the rowdier celebrations from the Medieval age. Therefore, Christmas was transformed into a more acceptable and virtuous celebration, acceptable to middle-class families. Feelings of patriotism are also emphasized by Sarah Hale in her etiquette manual, “These Christmas meetings, Christmas dinners and celebrations, keep up the feelings of patriotism and the memories of home…”[xviii]


vicchildreWhile Christmas was rising in significance for middle-class homes due to prosperity, there was also a general rise in the consciousness of the less-prosperous. Charitable giving had long been a part of Christmas tradition, and this was also implemented in Victorian celebrations; pictures of the poor flooded Christmas books and magazines.[xix] Images of altruism were also firmly embedded into British culture by Dickens novels, many of which highlighted the poverty of the working classes. Besides altruism, the poverty also spurred feelings of fear amongst the middle and upper classes of society. With the French Revolution firmly in their memory, the Victorians were genuinely fearful of violent disruption. The solution to these issues coincided with the view of idealizing pre-Puritan Christmas celebrations. These communal Christmases were socially harmonious, a season where “all classes met together to celebrate the festival of Christmas.”[xx]

Romantic Movement:

domesticxmasBy the mid-19th century, Romanticism had evoked a strong reaction from Victorian households. It emphasized childhood as an idealized part of life, marked by innocence and closeness to nature. Previously, children had been viewed by Evangelical Christians as having innate ungodliness, due to original sin, which needed to be tamed. During the 18th century, notions of childhood innocence began to replace these views. Children were viewed, instead, being born pure, with an innocence which needed cultivation. “Children, unsullied by experience, were believed to be particularly close to God, even godlike themselves.”[xxi] Emphasis was placed on passages of scripture which pointed to the virtues of children, such as in the Gospels, rather than passages which spoke of original sin; these views became prominent in both Catholic and Protestant Christian circles.[xxii] There was even a tradition which grew out of Evangelicalism, influenced by Dickens, which suggested that sinful adults could, in some way, be redeemed by children.[xxiii] Therefore, children became the embodiment of innocence and goodness. Adults began to associate childhood with nostalgia. Childhood became represented as a notion of innocence, something which was lost in adulthood.[xxiv] Therefore, it was looked back upon with a nostalgia for once was. This particular nostalgia was highly influenced by Romantic Poet William Wordsworth, who wrote about the innocence of children due to their harmony with nature. “There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, The earth, and every common sight, To me did seem Apparel’d in celestial light, The glory and the freshness of a dream.[xxv] Childhood was a nostalgic notion, to be looked upon with somberness, sad for what was lost; but also with expectation, for it was in children that adults could find their identity; both past and future.[xxvi]

Religious Revival:

religiousrevivalReligion frequently played an important part in the history of Christmas; as demonstrated in the short history above. Although the plebian parts of Christmas remained largely unacceptable to Evangelicals, evidence shows that many still participated in Christmas celebrations by attending services and participating in charitable causes.[xxvii] Furthermore, evangelical attitudes played an important part in the family celebrations by providing a spiritual emphasis. Armstrong notes, “[They] provided a spiritual emphasis to the emotional feelings generated by the reunions of family and friends at Christmas”[xxviii] Whereas formerly, salvation needed to be found by focusing on the metaphysical future, it became acceptable to find salvation within the confines of daily life.[xxix]

Additionally, Christmas was influenced by a theological shift which developed during the late 19th century; the emphasis on the atonement and Easter was displaced by an emphasis on the incarnation of Christ at Christmas. This led to an emphasis on children during the Christmas period in connected with the birth and infancy of Christ.[xxx] Special services and sermons delivered for children during this time became quite common.

Industrialization and Urbanization

industrialisationWhile people did continue to attend church services and celebrate the birth of Christ, the vast amount of time celebrating this holiday was spent on secular endeavors. Industrialization was pivotal due to its role in mass production of affordable gifts. This allowed families to spend more, and therefore, purchase more gifts during the Christmas season. Urbanization was also influential; city-dwellers had to decide whether to exchange gifts with neighbours (who were strangers) in their community, as had been commonplace in earlier Christmases, or whether to restrict this celebration to the family.[xxxi] Largely, families decided to keep their gift-exchanges and celebrations private; that is, within their households and amongst their family, but still participated in charitable causes which to assist the worthy-needy.[xxxii]

It is also worth mentioning how urbanization generally impacted the family and their celebration of the Christmas season. The rise in transport links and changes in the nature of work mentioned above permitted families to create a distinction between home and work. The home became a separate haven, one which contrasted the worldly work environment and offered, instead, a peaceful, restful, and virtuous environment, held together by the angel of the house, the mother. Rising wages and new laws restricting the labor of children meant that children were less needed, particularly for the middle-class, as wage earners for the family. Childhood was becoming a sacred period, one which needed to be protected and preserved.

Development of Family-Centered Rituals

vicxmas1This new way of life gave rise to a reorganization of household time and space which permitted special time to be allotted to the family. In the early 19th century, work and family time were not separate entities. Work and home often overlapped physically, and there was no intentional division between the two regarding time. However, with the rise of the male as sole breadwinner, in a workplace that was separate from the homestead, this all changed. Family and work were no longer compatible; the competitive worldly marketplace in which men went to work each day became a stark contrast to the moral, virtuous environment found in the home. With this change developed a new approach to the “homecoming” of fathers from work. When men returned home from work each day, this very act ritual became nearly sacred. It was the chance for a child-like regression where men could symbolically experience dependence, protection, and safety. “Homecoming restored to the man those family feelings and connections left behind when he entered masculinized adulthood and which he was forced to deny daily in his confrontation with the impersonal world of the market and profession.”[xxxiii] Christmas built on this premise, as the homecoming of sons and fathers was a symbolic identification with an idealized past. “Christmas was not just a time for the physical return of sons living far from home, but the symbolic return for resident fathers to that mythic home of childhood memory.”[xxxiv]

These explanations for the change in Victorian Christmas all demonstrate a sentimental change occurring during the later 19th century. The change in celebrations from communal to family orientated was linked by nostalgia for the past, a past which was not entirely real. This was an idealized notion of Christmas-past, not necessarily a true one. It was “like so much else in Victorian society – the railway station behind a Gothic façade – only superficially an exercise in nostalgia.”[xxxv] Resulted in nostalgia for the past- in childhood and past traditions which melded together to form nostalgia for what never  was…Victorian Christmas was a remembrance of an ideal past which never occurred. “The truly inventive society refurbishes its present with an ideal past.”[xxxvi]

This idealized nostalgia is most prominent in the notion of childhood; a time of life characterized by innocence, dependence, purity, and to be entirely contrasted with that of adulthood. By examining the changes which took place in Christmas celebrations during the late Victorian era through the framework of childhood, it is easy to see how the impact of Dickens and Prince Albert, the Romantic movement, religious revival, urbanization, and changes in ritual all contributed to a domestication of Christmas, characterized by nostalgia.

[i] Gillis, J. (1989). Ritualization of middle-class family life in nineteenth century Britain. Int J Polit Cult Soc, 3(2), p. 228.

[ii] Bella, L. (1992). The Christmas imperative. Halifax, N.S.: Fernwood Pub, p. 52.

[iii] Bella, op. cit., p. 54.

[iv] Gillis, J. (1996). A world of their own making. New York: Basic Books, p. 99.

[v] Pimlott, J. and Pimlott, B. (1978). The Englishman’s Christmas. Hassocks [England]: Harvester Press, p. 5.

[vi] Bella, op. cit., p. 54.

[vii] Pimlott, op. cit., p. 5.

[viii] Pimlott, op. cit., p. 59.

[ix] Pimlott, op. cit., p. 77.

[x] This was particularly and originally the case for the middle-class Victorians. Evidence of working-class Victorians celebrating Christmas in a similar vein does not arise until after the Second World War.

[xi] Connelly, M. (2012). Christmas: a History. London: I.B. Tauris, p. 39.

[xii] Golby, J. and Purdue, A. (1986). The making of the modern Christmas. Athens: University of Georgia Press, p. 80.

[xiii] Armstrong, N. (2004). Christmas in Nineteenth Century Britain and America: a Historiographical Overview. The Journal of Social History Society, 1, p. 123.

[xiv] Pimlott, op. cit., p. 86

[xv] Cunningham, H. and Morpurgo, M. (2006). The invention of childhood. London: BBC, p. 149.

[xvi] The Christmas Tree. (1916). The Journal of Education, [online] 84(22), pp.598-599. Available at: [Accessed 10 Dec. 2015], p. 598.

[xvii] Gillis, op. cit., p. 97

[xviii] Hale, S. (1868). Manners : or, Happy homes and good society all the year round. Boston: J.E. Tilton, p. 361.

[xix] Golby, op. cit., p. 51.

[xx] Golby, op. cit., p. 51.

[xxi] Heywood, C. (2010). A cultural history of childhood and family in the age of empire. Oxford [u.a.]: Berg, p. 155.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Cunningham, op. cit., p. 151.

[xxiv] In fact, the majority of material on children during the latter 19th century is not focused on particular children, but on the notions of childhood.

[xxv] Cunningham, op. cit., p. 133.

[xxvi] Ibid., p. 135.

[xxvii] Armstrong, N. (2004). The Intimacy of Christmas: Festive Celebrations in England 1750-1914.University of York, p. 96.

[xxviii] Ibid., p. 98.

[xxix] Gillis, Ritualization, p. 217.

[xxx] Armstrong, Intimacy, p. 109.

[xxxi] Waits, W. (1993). The modern Christmas in America. New York: New York University Press, p. 3.

[xxxii] Though charitable contributions were still made to assist paupers, particular children, during this Christmas season.

[xxxiii] Gillis, Ritual, p. 225.

[xxxiv] Ibid., p. 228.

[xxxv] Golby, op. cit., p. 56.

[xxxvi] Golby, op. cit., p. 56.

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