Photos courtesy of Cara Slifka Photography
The holidays are here, and we are delighted to share our new production of Beatrix Potter’s Christmas: a look back at the childhood of children’s book author Beatrix Potter and the animals that inspired her illustrations and stories. In the show, Beatrix longs for a festive Christmas celebration… but exactly what kind of Christmas would a little girl in the Victorian era be celebrating?
The Victorian era is so named for Queen Victoria, who ruled the United Kingdom from 1837 to 1901. Beatrix Potter was born in 1866, and was growing up in a time when many Christmas traditions we know today were becoming popular throughout England and America.
Do you send Christmas cards to your friends and family? This is one tradition begun by the Victorians. The first department stores in London, like Harrods and Bainbridge’s, date back to the 1830s and were thriving businesses by the late 19th century when Beatrix was young, and carried mass-produced illustrated cards that bore Christmas and New Year greetings – they rapidly grew in popularity during this time and the tradition continued into the 20th century.
Beatrix and her younger brother Bertram designed, printed and sold their own Christmas cards in the 1890s, featuring fantastical animals like the mice and rabbits she is seen sketching in our holiday show.
Christmas Trees, Ornaments, and Presents
O, Christmas Tree, O, Christmas Tree – do you know the song? Maybe even the German version, O Tannenbaum? The Tannenbaum, or Christmas tree, was a German tradition beginning as early as the 1500s, but was adopted into English Christmas tradition in the 1840s and 50s after Queen Victoria’s husband Albert, who was from Germany, brought the tradition to the palace! Queen Victoria was known for making many things fashionable, from clothes to decor, and by the 1870s Christmas ornaments were being mass produced and sold in department stores. Families would decorate their own Christmas trees with nuts and candy, ribbons, candles, ornaments, and tinsel. We’ve switched to electric lights instead of candles these days, but many of us still put stars or angels on the tops of our trees, just like people did in Beatrix Potter’s time.
Christmas presents were made and purchased, wrapped with care, and hung from the tree or placed beneath it. Presents were symbols of well-wishing, and the most cherished were those made by hand, like a crocheted or knitted scarf – something one of the animals in our play gives to another!
Games and Toys
Children and adults alike enjoyed playing games during Christmas. Beatrix’s housekeeper, Jane, mentions playing snapdragon, an English and American traditional game of quickly eating raisins out of hot Christmas pudding. (The game faded out during the early 20th century – the raisins were just too hot!) Children also played guessing games – such as what we know as “I Spy” with decorations on the tree – and played a game of trimming (decorating) the tree while blindfolded.
And everyone loved Christmas crackers. These aren’t the crackers we eat with slices of cheese… these are toys wrapped up bonbon style that pop when you pull them open! They contain small toys, paper crowns, and notes or riddles, but like “blind box” toys, you never know what color or style you’re going to get till you pop open the cracker. The tradition is not very widely practiced in America today, but is still popular in England.
Caroling and Parties
How many Christmas carols do you know? Carols are mostly sprightly, festive tunes (though some are slower and more somber) that ring in the joy of the season. Many of the songs we still sing today, like Jingle Bells, Deck the Halls!, The Twelve Days of Christmas, and Joy to the World were all popular during the Victorian era, and this was also the heyday of caroling door to door.
Beatrix looks out her window on festive Christmas carolers in a few scenes in our play (there are some animal carolers, too!), trying to hear the music. Carolers traveled in groups, playing instruments, singing, and selling sheet music. Having parlor instruments was becoming more and more commonplace among the middle class, not just the upper class, and people were playing pianos, violins, harps, and other instruments at home to liven up the house for the holidays or for entertaining at parties, so buying sheet music from a caroler on the street was a pretty great idea! Carolers went door to door and through the streets, livening up an evening for shoppers and partygoers.
Beatrix’s parents, Rupert and Helen, were well-to-do and attended several Christmas parties as part of their social station. This was an expectation of them as it was for many upper-class Londoners, so while some families enjoyed presents and games, the Potters may have heard a carol or two, but their parties were more about seeing and being seen in high society. But it’s the sprightly carols, decorations and games that Beatrix wants in her seasonal celebrations.
To see exactly how Beatrix, her brother Bertram, and all the animal friends of their real life and imaginations celebrate Christmas, join us for Beatrix Potter’s Christmas, beginning on December 11th and running through December 22nd!