A Strange Season: Festive Folklore and the Darker Side of Victorian Christmas
By Emma Butcher – Early Career Researcher at the School of Arts, University of Leicester and AHRC New Generation Thinker
Christmas as we know it today began in the Victorian period. Before Queen Victoria took to the throne in June 1837 there were no Christmas cards, no crackers and no turkey. But by the end of her reign, the ancient midwinter festivities had been transformed into something we'd all recognise.
What underpinned these changes may have been industrialisation and economic progress: during the period giving gifts became more affordable – and more popular – through mass production, while the introduction of the 'Penny Post' in 1840 made sending cards much cheaper.
But much of the aesthetics and atmosphere of the Victorian Christmas came from somewhere far older – and a lot stranger.
When Prince Albert brought over the Christmas tree from Germany, he brought with it German traditions and the booming popularity of these decorated trees was only one manifestation of a much wider Victorian fascination with legends, folk stories and the supernatural. And while the Victorian Christmas was definitely a time for family, presents and good cheer – it was also a time when the natural order was turned upside down, and some very weird things going on as well.
One of the oddest to modern sensibilities was the Krampus, a bizarre anthropomorphic figure, described as half goat and half demon, who was the devilish opposite of St Nicholas.
While the charitable St Nicholas rewarded children who had been good by giving them presents, Krampus punished those who had been bad by drowning them, eating them – or dragging them off to hell – and the Victorians loved him.
The popularity of these cards was possibly as a reaction to the more widespread representation of a very romantic, chocolate box Christmas, with its robins and carol singers and fresh fallen snow. And Krampus cards are one aspect of a whole range of – to modern eyes at least, very bizarre – alternative Christmas Cards, featuring anthropomorphised beetles and insects, as well as human-like root vegetables wearing hats.This dark figure of Germanic mythology even starts to appear on Christmas cards in the period and there are lots of “Greetings from Krampus” cards that feature him with his long tongue sticking out, leering over screaming children.
The rapid spread and rising popularity of these strange, supernatural traditions was made possible by the growth of printing in the period and the publication of cheap books, pamphlets and papers. It was part of a wider obsession with the past, with Egyptology and mysticism. And while we may see the Victorians as quite serious and stuffy, they actually had a very romantic – mischievous – sensibility as well.
Another old belief revived and given a second life around the Victorian Christmas fireside was the Nordic myth of 'the Wild Hunt'. This group of restless spirits – unable to enter heaven and bound instead to wander the Earth for eternity – was featured in many festive publications, which related the spooky groups exploits over the 12 Days of Christmas as they marauded through the human realm causing mischief and mayhem.
From closer to home, the Welsh Christmas custom of Mari Lwyd also gained a new popularity. This macabre spin on Christmas carolling involved a group of people processing from house-to-house around the village, led by a horse's skull mounted on a pole and carried by an individual hidden under a sack.
When the homeowner answered the door, the visitors would demand entry through song, while the owner would make a show of refusing them – only to eventually comply and invite them in for food and drink.
So, this Christmas as you enjoy the many traditions that the Victorians have passed on to us – remember as well those stranger ones that we've lost along the way. For all our modern values, perhaps in some ways we are more conservative than our famously stuffy ancestors.
It's also worth remembering that even the most wholesome of Victorian festive traditions have a dark side. Hidden among the twinkling lights of their Christmas trees was often a small glass pickle; a reminder of a strange Spanish story about two boys who were walking home at Christmas when they stopped at an Inn, where an evil innkeeper stole their possessions and nailed the boys up in a pickle barrel.
Luckily, St Nicholas was passing and he rescued them. But if he hadn't, they might have still been there to this day...