It was the Victorians who created what we today recognize as Christmas. The Christmas tree, which had long been a staple among the German-speaking countries, was popularized in the English world by Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert, who were accustomed to the German tradition. It quickly became a staple in middle and upper class homes, replacing simple evergreen boughs. The trees were decorated with both homemade paper and fabric ornaments, as well as imported glass and silver ornaments.
But Queen Victoria also introduced another set of customs to the English world after the death of her husband Prince Albert: what today we know as Victorian mourning protocols. Social rules dictated that families remain in mourning, closed off from amusements and the rest of the world, for an extended period of time out of respect for their deceased loved one. At the same time, the new Christmas traditions conferred greater social status on whoever had the largest tree and the best decorations. The compromise that was eventually reached between these two forces allowed socially prominent families to celebrate Christmas while in mourning. It remained socially unacceptable for families to entertain a large number of guests or to attend big parties, but decorations could be hung as long as they were in mourning colors such as black, white, grey and mauve. While mourning and holiday celebrations may feel like an odd fit for us today, it was once a common compromise designed to ensure a family’s social standing while allowing children to have a childhood.
In that spirit, the Museum has chosen to enhance our Ghosts, Ghouls & Gravestones: The Trades of Burial exhibit by decorating in mourning just as our Victorian ancestors once did. When you visit the museum beginning this week you will also have the opportunity to learn about the connection between Christmas and ghost stories, see a Christmas tree decorated for a house in mourning, and make your own paper ornaments.