In the early years of American history, Christmas celebrations were localized, and depended on the traditions of the settlers in each area. Before Queen Victoria’s reign (beginning in 1837), nobody even took the holiday off – they worked as if it were any other day. But by 1876, what we think of as a traditional Christmas had crystallized. The wealth generated by industrialization offered the emergent middle class time and money to take a holiday in the middle of winter. Modern Americans will recognize nearly all of the traditions your Victorian characters would have celebrated.
Victorians were good at providing their own entertainment. They would sing, play musical instruments, act out short plays, or read out loud for all to enjoy. Spring had been the traditional peak season for launching new books, but this shifted to October as publishers realized that books made excellent Christmas presents.
By the 1860s, ice skating parties at Christmas were all the rage. The sport became popular not only as a family outing, but also as a great way for courting couples to socialize. Storytelling of all kinds was always a popular form of entertainment. Surprisingly enough, ghost stories were a popular Christmas entertainment, so Charles Dickens’ tale of holiday spirits, along with a good Victorian moral, made A Christmas Carol a new tradition for the holiday.
Holiday shopping also started early. Most families were large, so there were a great many gifts to procure or make. Cities were filled with specialty shops where one could go to buy French lace or English linen. In addition, the first department stores had opened, offering huge selections of goods to shoppers. As always, shopping for children was the most fun. German mechanical toys, with their clockwork moving parts, were particularly prized.
Gift-giving also spurred Americans to donate charitable gifts as well. It was but one more step to extend your good feelings and generosity to the homeless, hungry, and unemployed, and Christmas seemed the best time to ameliorate those situations (or at least, to assuage one’s guilt over them). “Nowhere in Christendom are the poor remembered at Christmastide so generously as they are in American cities, especially our own,” The New York Tribune contended.
The Germans also popularized the indoor Christmas tree, helped a great deal by England’s royal family. If the royal family found something fashionable, the rest of the Victorian world did as well. An engraving of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert decorating their tree was published in 1848, and helped popularize the tree as a traditional part of the season. During the 1850s, town squares began to bristle with trees for sale, and tree decorating became a big business. By 1870, American businessmen were importing large quantities of German ornaments to be sold on street corners, in toy shops and variety stores. Vendors hawked glass ornaments and balls in bright colors, tin cut in all imaginable shapes, and wax angels with spun glass wings.
Father Christmas and Santa Claus arose from two entirely different traditions. The former was originally part of an old English midwinter festival. He dressed in green and bore holly boughs and evergreen branches to herald the arrival of Spring. Stories of St. Nicholas (Sinter Klaas in Holland) came via Dutch settlers, and by the 1870s, he was known as Santa Claus. The Dutch also brought the custom of hanging a Christmas stocking by the fire for small gifts.
The rise of Christmas cards revealed other aspects of the new holiday’s profile. The first American made cards were distributed in the 1850s, with a family scene dominating the small card’s center. Unlike its English counterpart, however, the images in each corner made no allusion to poverty, cold or hunger. Instead, the American cards showed Santa, reindeer, dancers, and an array of presents and food, suggesting the bounty and joys of the season.
Feasting has always been a big part of the Christmas holiday. Even the poorest families will scrimp to have a delectable morsel for their holiday meal, while the more well-to-do went all out with their feasts. One menu from 1890 featured breakfast: fruits, breaded chops, tomato sauce, baked potatoes, buckwheat cakes, maple syrup and coffee; dinner (at 2 o’clock): oysters on half shell, almond milk soup with rice, salted almonds, celery, olives, halibut baked with fine herbs, English drawn butter, Persian potatoes, roast turkey, cranberry sauce, rice croquettes, asparagus tips, braised duck, baked macaroni, lettuce salad, wafers, brie, English plum pudding, brandy sauce, coffee, nuts, fruits, and sugar plums; and supper (at 8 o’clock): raw oysters, chicken sandwiches, coffee, jelly, and cake.
In short, your characters would have celebrated in much the same way you celebrate the holiday today, albeit without the conveniences that electricity and modern plumbing make available. A child in the late 1800s would have had just as magical a time as todays youngster.