17 Genius Ways to Celebrate Christmas Eve Like Charles Dickens
Live out your Christmas Carol fantasies this season.
There’s no denying that Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is one of the most beloved Christmas stories of all time, and with good reason—the Victorians seemed to have quite a handle on how to make the holidays special. However, accompanying the abundance of good cheer that seemed to go into Victorian Christmas celebrations, there were countless holiday traditions celebrated by Dickens and his contemporaries that are more than a little surprising by today’s standards.
So, before you celebrate those staid holiday festivities again this year, discover these easy steps for celebrating a Victorian Christmas like Dickens would have, from putting up dangerous decorations to wishing friends holiday greetings with a picture of a murderous frog. (Yikes!) And if you need an exciting preamble to the holidays, check out these 20 Super Fun Ways to Spend Christmas Eve.
Go caroling—and demand gifts
While caroling is still a holiday tradition throughout the United States and Europe today, in Dickens’ day, caroling was performed not only to bring good cheer to your neighbors, but to get something from them, as well. In the Victorian era, carolers would provide their neighbors the gift of song, but would traditionally expect something in return—like alcohol, food, or a little cash.
The practice, known as wassailing, is still a prominent feature in Christmas songs sung today, including “Here We Come a Wassailing” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” the latter of which highlights requests made by wassailers, including their desire for figgy pudding and refusal to leave until their demands have been met.
Brew up some wassail
If you were on the receiving end of some carolers during Dickens’ day, it would behoove you to be ready for them—specifically by brewing up a batch of wassail.
This holiday beverage was originally made of crabapples, but by Dickens’ time, the recipe had been amended to more closely resemble a traditional mulled wine. If you see carolers carrying steins or mugs today, this may be a nod to the traditional request for wassail during Victorian times.
Today, Christmas may be all about bringing good cheer to others, but Victorian Christmas celebrations were just as much about frightening your friends and family members. This love for a holiday fright is actually well-represented in Dickens’ work—hence the ghosts and death in A Christmas Carol.
However, it wasn’t Dickens alone perpetuating this trend: As author Jerome K. Jerome noted in his 1891 essay “Our Ghost Party,” part of his humor collection Told After Supper, “Not only do the ghosts themselves walk on Christmas Eve, but live people always sit and talk about them on Christmas Eve… Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about spectres. It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders, and blood.”
Play some old-fashioned games
While you might break out the Monopoly or Scrabble when you tire of watching It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story for the 10,000th time, if you really want to celebrate like it’s 1859, try playing a Victorian parlor game instead.
Try games like charades, Kim’s Game (a memory game in which children are told to look over the items on a tray and take note of any items that go missing during successive turns), and Reverend Crawley’s Game, an old-fashioned version of the popular human knot team-building exercise.
Send a Christmas frog card
Christmas cards began to gain popularity in Dickens’ era, but they didn’t resemble the holiday greetings we typically send out today. If you want to do things in proper Dickensian style, send a frog card instead. Instead of sending out family photos, Victorian-era Christmas cards were frequently adorned with images of animals—sometimes violent ones depicting them killing one another—often including frogs. While the exact reasoning behind the violence and amphibians is unclear, it’s certainly one way to help your card stand out amidst the stack of happy family photos inundating your family and friends.
Put an orange in someone’s stocking
Today, you might find gifts in your stocking, but if you’re eager to honor Dickens’ legacy this Christmas, you might want to swap out some of those fun knickknacks for fruit instead.
Oranges—often considered a luxury, considering the lengths they had to travel from southern parts of Europe to the UK for the holidays—were put in the toe of stockings for Christmas revelers, a tradition also said to represent the sacks of gold Saint Nicholas is said to have given a poor family to help them avoid destitution.
Open some Christmas crackers
While still part of some families’ holiday celebrations today, Christmas crackers were once a highly popular Christmas tradition in Dickens’ day. The practice was allegedly borrowed from a form of wrapping presents popularized in Paris, and eventually turned into the popular popping, crown-and-toy-bearing crackers we know and love today.
Eat some oysters
Roast beef for Christmas dinner? Not unless you were a member of the upper class in Dickens’ day. If you want to make like a Victorian of lesser means this year, shuck some oysters instead—these briny beauties were frequently the holiday protein of choice for those without the budget for land-dwelling animals. Dickens even makes reference to this in The Pickwick Papers, in which Sam Weller tells Mr. Pickwick, “Poverty and oysters always seem to go together.”
Decorate your tree—and try not to burn the house down
According to the National Fire Protection Association, approximately 170 American homes burn down each year due to Christmas-tree-related fires. Back in Dickens’ day, you’d be lucky if you got your tree decorated without singing off an eyebrow, at the very least. In the Victorian era, Christmas trees were becoming a more and more popular sight in upper class homes after being popularized by Prince Albert, who brought the tradition to the UK from his native Germany. However, they weren’t exactly safe, as they were traditionally decorated with candles, making them a very real fire risk.
Or put up a feather tree
While Americans still purchase approximately 21.7 million fake Christmas trees each year, Victorians had their own unique take on the fake fir back in Dickens’ day: The feather tree.
For those who couldn’t get their hands on a real tree (or didn’t want to), trees fashioned from dyed goose feathers and wire were an equally popular yuletide accessory.
Conduct an experiment or two
Make like Dickens this year and turn your Christmas celebration into a science-fest. In addition to the food and presents associated with the holiday today, Victorian Christmas celebrations often featured science demonstrations—Dickens even makes mention of this trend in the novella The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain, the protagonist of which is a chemistry professor.
Cook a goose
Instead of your usual Christmas fare, make like a Victorian this holiday season and cook your family a traditional goose. While it was considered a step above the poor man’s oyster, the goose was traditionally the centerpiece of meals for families of more modest means.
Or eat a turkey—if you’re rich enough
Though turkey is typically associated with Thanksgiving in the United States, it was the protein of choice for upper-class Victorians in Dickens’ day. Frequently stuffed with veal and a medley of chopped vegetables, this traditional dish was often also accompanied by roast beef or other proteins in richer homes.
And if you’re tight on cash, join a goose club
Of course, not every family had enough money for a roast bird on Christmas, but Victorians did their best to celebrate the holidays in style with the help of goose clubs. These so-called clubs essentially allowed poorer families to put a goose on layaway, paying a bit of money each week so they could have a proper meal to eat by Christmas. However, the practice wasn’t always entirely honorable, with some families getting swindled out of their savings by unscrupulous butchers and restaurateurs.
Dress up as Father Christmas—decked out in green
While we often think of Santa Claus as a rotund fellow in red today, in Dickens’ time, he was typically seen wearing green instead. Though they’re typically used synonymously today, Father Christmas and Santa Claus were separate characters back in the Victorian era, with the former arriving during the UK midwinter festivities, his green clothes a representation of the soon-to-arrive spring.
So, if you want to make like a true Victorian, don that beard, grab your sack of presents, and set your sights on greener garb instead.
Make mince pies
If you go into a British bakery today and ask for a mincemeat pie, you’ll typically get a pastry filled with dried fruits, like apples, orange peels, currants, and raisins, as well as spices, and maybe a bit of brandy. If you want to make your Christmas a bit more Dickensian, however, it’s time to prepare some organ meats instead.
Back in Victorian times, mincemeat pies contained actual meat, as their name would suggest—typically a mixture of beef and suet (the fat cut away from the kidneys of cows and sheep)—in addition to the sweeter ingredients associated with the pies today.
Play some soccer
Make like a Victorian this year (and burn off some of those mincemeat pies) by challenging your friends and family to a game of soccer on Christmas Day. Long before folks had A Charlie Brown Christmas or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to entertain them after the holiday meal, they had soccer matches on Christmas Day, with this tradition extending through the mid-1900s.