Monday, December 24, 2018

DAY 29: A Victorian Christmas Eve

courtesy of Victoriana Magazine
The picture at left is of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who popularized the imported German custom of decorating an evergreen tree on the night before Christmas to enchant children. I say, popularized, because there had been Christmas trees at the British court before Albert arrived--Queen Charlotte, Mad King George's wife and also of German origin, was known to decorate a tree in the late eighteenth century. But prints like this one, that purported to show the monarchs of Britain as a family enjoying a cherished holiday, made Christmas trees an object of Fashion in an era that craved novelty.

Christmas in Jennie Churchill's era was a holiday in transition: from the Georgian and Regency tradition of celebrating the pagan Saturnalia--most obviously with Twelfth Night celebrations, gift-giving on the eve of the Epiphany, and balls characterized by masquerades that inverted the accepted order--to the Victorian Christmas: celebrated on the day of the Christ Child's purported birth, with gifts from St. Nicholas and loving friends.

Victorian trees were a symbol of that change--an upper-class indulgence not widely adopted by the rest of the Kingdom. But those who followed Victoria's example gave up Twelfth Night balls and staged their Christmas Eve trees expressly for children. The spectacle lasted only a few hours, and only on one night--December 24, when the drawing-room doors were opened to reveal candles blazing on a freshly cut evergreen, set on a table-top, its branches burdened with cones of sugared nuts, candies, and pastries. Every describable toy was tucked into the branches as well, and the children watched impatiently as the resident alpha male distributed gifts to each and every one. The scene closely resembles the opening of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, as it should. 
Courtesy Nicola Volk, Boston Ballet


nce the presents were distributed, the tree's candles were snuffed out, and the evergreen removed from the house. It was ephemeral--the very opposite of our lifelike artificial trees shifted from garage to living room the day after Thanksgiving and blazing through New Year's, year after year.

But there was a second cherished English holiday tradition, perhaps more universal in Jennie Churchill's day than the fad of Albert's tree--and that was the Christmas stocking. Most British children did not hang them from the chimney mantle, but rather left them at the foot of their beds--where St. Nicholas would magically fill them during the wee hours of Christmas Day. Nuts, candies, oranges and small toys were usual stocking stuffers.

What's bittersweet about researching the Churchill family of the 1880s is how few Christmases they seem to have celebrated together.  Lord Randolph was often absent from his family, staying instead as a guest of a lifelong political friend at his estate in Ireland. Jennie sometimes spent the holiday in the English countryside, but often enjoyed the day and its traditional dinner feast with her sisters and their families in London. The boys, home from their boarding schools, were on some occasions entertained by their grandmother, Duchess Fanny, or their beloved nanny, Everest--notably in 1888, the winter Jennie and Randolph traveled to Russia for Christmas, leaving the boys behind. On one bitterly contested occasion, a teen-aged Winston was sent to Paris for his Christmas holiday, in order to improve his French--but only after repeated letters filled with outrage, penned hurriedly to his mother.

For more images from THAT CHURCHILL WOMAN, visit the  Pinterest board behind the novel.  

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