A Victorian Christmas

Gift Giving

The making of Christmas presents was something seen as a way to enliven the long winter evenings leading up to the great day. The planning and making of gifts started months in advance, with daughters often helping mothers with sewing and needlework. Family members spent a lot of time designing personal gifts for each other. They spent long, happy hours together, planning and creating these special gifts. Patterns were printed and advice was to be found in books and periodicals.  One that was particularly useful was Cassell's Household Guide.  The notion of a home-made offering was often more sentimentally appealing than a gift bought at the shop, though ready-made items became more available and popular as time went on.

Depending upon the individual family customs, Victorians opened their presents either before or after breakfast, or after church service or dinner.  It was more usual to eat a hurried breakfast, then Papa lit the candles on the tree and let the children into the parlor.

Gift items ranged from the practical to the ornamental.Food gifts included jams, jellies, and preserves put up earlier in the summer, and homemade candy such as peanut brittle or fudge. Shown below is a sampling of gift ideas for the Victorian Family.


an apron, stationery or pen-wipers, a fan, a silk lined sewing basket with its many accessories, a strawberry or tomato shaped pincushion pretty enough to be used as a tree decoration, lacy needle cases, a silver thimble and sewing scissors. tea ball or strainer, jewelry, a magazine subscription, cologne, handkerchiefs or scarves, combs, a needle-case or watch-case

a muffler or scarf,     embroidered suspenders, berlin work slippers, a monogrammed tobacco pouch, a chamois eyeglass cleaner elegantly bound in a crewel stitched cover, an india work humidor, or a gift of homemade cookies in a handsome handmade container, an umbrella, a cigar case, embroidered bed slippers

pomander ball, wonder ball (small gifts wrapped in a ball of yarn), a plant, photograph frame, doilies, a rosebud sachet, a pen-wiper in the shape of a waterlily, a knitting bag worked with blue silk floss and matching blue fringe, book-markers

hair ribbons, drawing pencils , a muff, a wardrobe of crochet and lace edged blankets and dresses for dolly, a tiny wax doll in its nutshell cradle, diminutive reproductions of bed quilts, a painting set, a fan, a music book, some sachets, a sewing kit, a book, a canary, mittens, a bisque doll

a sled, stamp album, skates, some carved and painted toy animals, a pen wiper hidden beneath some engagingly worked plaything, a model train, toy pistol, wind-up soldier, marbles, building blocks, a savings bank, shoeshine kit

Harper's Bazar

Gentlemen do not care for the pretty trifles and decorations that delight ladies; and as for real necessities, they are apt to go and buy anything that is a convenience just as soon as it is discovered. Knickknacks, articles of china, ect,. are generally useless to them.

A Lady cannot give a gentleman a gift of great value because he would certainly feel bound to return one still more valuable and thus her gift would lose all its grace and retain only a selfish commercial aspect.

What, then, shall she give? Here is the woman's advantage. She has her hands, while men must transact all their present giving in hard cash. She can hem fine handkerchiefs-and in order to give them intrinsic value, if their relationship warrants such a favor, she can embroider the name or monogram with her own hair. If the hair is dark it has a very pretty, graceful effect, and the design may be shaded by mingling the different hair of the family. We knew a gentlemen who for years lost every handkerchief he took to the office; at length his wife marked them with her own hair, and he never lost another. Such gifts are made precious by love, time and talent.

The bare fact of rarity can raise an object commercially valueless, to an asthetic level. Souvenirs from famous places or of famous people, a bouquet of wild thyme from Mount Hymettus, an ancient Jewish shekel or Roman coin, etc. All such things are very suitable as presents to gentlemen and will be far more valued than pins, studs, ect., which only represent a certain number of dollars and cents. Do not give a person who is socially your equal a richer present than he is able to give you. He will be more mortified than pleased. But between equals it is often an elegance to disregard cost and depend on rarity, because gold cannot always purchase it. Still between very rich people presents should also be very rich or else their riches are set above their friendship and generosity.
Harpers Bazar
Sugar Plum DreamsUnder the tree were store-bought toys, usually one for each child: a wind-up dancing bear; Logos, an early form of Scrabble, and a precursor of Monoply called Moneta; penny whistles, pull toys and stuffed animals. But the most wondrous gift of all was Papa’s gift to the entire family, a surprise even to Mother: a magic lantern with a four-wick oil lamp and a packet of twenty-five hand-tinted slides. The slides told a spooky story, with images of wicked gargoyles and saintly fairies cast upon a nine-foot-square muslin screen.

From Charles Dickens: "But now a knocking at the door was heard, and such a rush immediately ensued that she with laughing face and plundered dress was borne towards it the centre of a flushed and boisterous group,just in time to greet the father, who came home attended by a man laden with Christmas toys and presents.  Then the shouting and the struggling, and the onslaught that was made on the defenseless porter!  The scaling him with chairs for ladders to dive into his pockets, despoil him of brown-paper parcels, hold on tight by his cravat, hug him round his neck, pommel his back, and kick his legs in irrepressible affection!The shouts of wonder and delight with which the development of every package was received!  The terrible announcement that the baby had been taken in the act of putting a doll's frying-pan into his mouth, and was more than suspected having swallowed a fictitious turkey, glued on a wooden platter!  The immense relief of finding this a false alarm! The joy, and gratitude, and ecstasy!They are all indescribable alike.  It is enough that by degrees the children and their emotions got out of the parlor, and by one stair at a time, up to the top of the house; where they went to bed, and so subsided."

Not only did the Victorians exchange gifts with their family and friends-they shared what they had with those less fortunate. Charity often took the form of delivering dinners or gift boxes to the poor on Christmas Day, or pledging money to help the needy.

"At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge," said the gentleman, taking up a pen, "it is usually more desirable that we should make some slight provision fro the poor and destitute.......endeavoring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth..What shall I put you down for?"
-Charles Dickens, "A Christmas Carol"

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