Have Yourself a Dour Victorian Christmas


Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and family in the Illustrated London News (1848)

This is gonna be a downer, but what do you expect from a Victorianist? Now this is probably the time for me to say that the Victorians don’t fit the neat stereotypes that we have for them. They weren’t as prudish, but their chairs were really overstuffed…yadda yadda yadda. But where’s the fun in that? Instead, let’s visit some of our favorite Victorians and see for ourselves.

First, let’s drop by Fr. Gerard and see how he’s getting ready for the festivities. His room will be a bit chill, but please don’t ask him to put on another coal; it will just get him going about how they look “gold-vermillion” when they become embers and break.

Moonless darkness stands between.
Past, the Past, no more be seen!
But the Bethlehem-star may lead me
To the sight of Him Who freed me
From the self that I have been.
Make me pure, Lord: Thou art holy;
Make me meek, Lord: Thou wert lowly;
Now beginning, and alway:
Now begin, on Christmas day.

– Gerard Manley Hopkins, 25 December 1865

Uhm, okay, let’s visit the Tennyson family. They’ve got to be cheerier than that. I’m sure we’re in for a wonderful time with quaint traditions and parlor games.

Canto 29
With such compelling cause to grieve
As daily vexes household peace,
And chains regret to his decease,
How dare we keep our Christmas-eve;

Which brings no more a welcome guest
To enrich the threshold of the night
With shower’d largess of delight
In dance and song and game and jest?

Yet go, and while the holly boughs
Entwine the cold baptismal font,
Make one wreath more for Use and Wont,
That guard the portals of the house;

Old sisters of a day gone by,
Gray nurses, loving nothing new;
Why should they miss their yearly due
Before their time? They too will die.

– In Memoriam: AHH by Alfred Tennyson, finished in 1849. The first Christmas after his friend, Arthur Hallam’s, death would have been in 1833

Oh, Mr. Tennyson (he hasn’t been elevated to the peerage yet, so “Mr.” should do), I’m so sorry for your loss. Erm, mince pie? No, no, I’m full. Thanks though…

Wow, okay, that’s just too much. Let’s fast forward a bit and find a more festive household among those chipper Edwardians. I’m sure the Chestertons will have more going on than death and darkness.

The House of Christmas

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost – how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky’s dome.

– G. K. Chesterton

Seriously!? Well, I suppose that’s better than the last two. Oh, a pint? Don’t mind if I do.


Merry Christmas!


8 Responses

  1. A very interesting article, there was an interesting piece on the BBC recently with several Victorian Christmas cards in-which were interesting to say the least!
    Hope you have a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.
    Best wishes, Matt

    • It seems that they saw as a time for humor. I’ve linked the bird to an article on it. Check, out the one with the clown; it reminded me of the harlequin in Chesterton’s “Flying Stars.” Greeting cards were a brand new genre then. As an era, it’s not really all that dour, but Hopkins and Tennyson are total melancholics.

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