PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Armed with what some would describe as a Charlie Brown tree, a decorated pine cone ornament, Christmas “crackers” and lots of interesting information, Kimberly Smith, secretary/treasurer of the Presque Isle Historical Society, helped put local sixth-graders in the holiday mood Dec. 5 as she discussed a Victorian Christmas.
“The Victorian Era was named after England’s Queen Victoria, who was the longest reigning monarch in the history of the United Kingdom,” Smith told students in Erin Hoffses’ and Casey Johnson’s classes at Presque Isle Middle School, “and generally refers to her period of reign which spanned from 1837 to 1901.
“Before the Victorian Era, no one knew about Santa Claus, Christmas cards weren’t sent, and no one got Christmas off from work or school,” she said. “The new found wealth and technological advances from the Industrial Revolution changed the way we celebrate Christmas.”
Smith explained that in 1841, Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, decorated a large Christmas tree at Windsor Castle. The Christmas tree had been a German tradition since the 1700s, and since Albert was originally from Germany, he introduced the tree tradition into the royal family.
“As is the case even today, we often try to copy things the rich and famous — or celebrities — are doing. Soon after Prince Albert introduced the Christmas tree at Windsor Castle,” said Smith, “it became popular in England to set up a large tree at Christmas and decorate it with lighted candles, candies, and fancy cakes hung from the branches by ribbon and paper chains.
“German settlers brought this tradition to North America as early as the 17th century,” she said, “and decorated Christmas trees were also very popular in America by the 19th century.”
Smith also shared that Victorian Christmas gifts would range from the practical to the ornamental and usually included jams, jellies, preserves, cookies, fudge and peanut brittle; children’s gifts typically were dolls and doll houses for girls and locomotives, tool chests and hobby horses for boys; and Christmas cards began in 1843 when Sir Henry Cole asked John Callcott Horsley, a British painter, to design a Christmas and New Year’s card.
The Presque Isle Historical Society has over 50 different talks available.
“I contacted Mrs. Johnson and asked if there was any interest in hearing the Victorian Christmas presentation,” said Smith. “She said that it fits in with the sixth-grade curriculum because they were studying where traditions come from, so we scheduled it.
“We do this particular presentation every year,” she said, “but this was the first school presentation we’ve done. I think it went well. You never know with kids where their interest is going to lie, but I think they were interested and enjoyed it.
Following Smith’s discussion, the students could either color a traditional Victorian Christmas paper ornament, or make one that featured peanuts wrapped in brightly colored tissue paper.
“Having the kids make an ornament is very important to the presentation because it gives them a buy-in,” said Smith, “and they actually have something they can walk away with to remember the occasion.”
Student Kyler Caron made the “nature-based ornament.”
“It looked like it would be interesting, and it was pretty fun,” he said. “I’ll probably put it on our tree at home.”
Caron said he found Smith’s visit to be very informative.
“I learned that Macy’s was the first store to stay open till midnight. I also learned about Christmas crackers,” he said. “That was pretty cool. Most of what I heard was kind of new. It was fun, and helped put me more in the Christmas spirit.”
Christmas crackers were invented by London sweet maker Tom Smith in 1847. The confectioner had been selling sugared almonds in twists of paper. One Christmas as he was preparing the almonds, a log burst into flame with a loud crack. That inspired him to make a log-shaped package that would produce a surprise “bang” when opened to reveal the almond, which was later eliminated and replaced with a small gift. The Christmas cracker soon caught on and often replaced toys and hats at parties. The crackers are now readily available in the U.S. and other countries.
A number of crackers were handed out and the students pulled on either end to discover their treasure.
Abbigayle Quirino also learned a lot about the Christmas customs.
“I learned that most of the traditions came from Germany and England. I always wondered where those traditions came from,” she said. “I also learned that in earlier pictures, Santa wore a dark suit and then eventually it was changed to red.”
Smith, who was assisted by Hank King, said she hopes to present the Victorian Christmas unit to students in future years.