Saturday, December 10, 2011

a Victorian Christmas

Is there anything more beautiful to daydream about than the Victorian age, La Belle Epoque or America's Gilded Age? The influence of Victorian traditions can especially be seen around the holidays. Queen Victoria's reign (1837-1901) marked a period of romanticism in the arts and social culture, and many of our Christmas traditions can be traced back to her influence.

Queen Victoria popularized the tradition of lighting a Christmas tree upon her marriage to Prince Albert, who hailed from Germany where Christmas trees were already common. The above image, which depicts the Royal Family with their tree, was published in Godey's Lady's Book in 1850 - art historian Karal Ann Marling called it "the first influential American Christmas tree". Folk-culture historian Alfred Lewis Shoemaker states, "In all of America there was no more important medium in spreading the Christmas tree in the decade 1850-60 than Godey's Lady's Book". The image was reprinted in 1860, and by the 1870s, putting up a Christmas tree had become common in America. Tannenbaums were decorated with sugar treats, lighted candles, ribbon, paper and wax ornaments, and  sometimes small gifts were wrapped and hung from the branches as well.

A Christmas postcard from Elizabeth's collection, dating from the early 1900s.

Queen Victoria also began the tradition of sending a yearly Christmas card, and in 1843 the first batches of commercially printed cards were sold and sent through the Penny Post, a system in which families could send a piece of mail to any location in England for one cent. The tradition came to America in 1875 when Louis Prang became the first man to print and sell Christmas cards in the US.

A tabletop tree in one of Biltmore's many beautiful dining rooms. Image via Victorian Magazine

If you want to see what grand Victorian traditions looked like on an enormous (and expensive) scale, Biltmore House in Asheville, NC is an absolutely magical place to visit during the holiday season. Built by George Vanderbilt in 1895 and now open to visitors, it is a magnificent example of what life was like for the wealthy during the Gilded Age, and every year features incredible Victorian-inspired decorations at Christmas. They are enchanting to see in person, but in case you don't have a spare weekend to traipse off and gawk at lavish Christmas decorations, here's some eye candy instead:

the Biltmore Library fireplace, decorated with garlands and beribboned trees. Image from Great Drives: Christmas at Biltmore

The Biltmore library in all its splendor. Image from Romantic Asheville.

Images from Romantic Asheville
Incredible, right? Do you love the Victorian era as much as we do or is there another time period that captures your imagination? Let us know in the comments!

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