Christmas in the collections

A Victorian Christmas card depicting three young children with gifts including oranges and dolls

A Victorian Christmas card - Credit: Torquay Museum

Christmas, many people’s favourite time of year, is reflected throughout the many different collections housed in Torquay Museum.

Items associated with the Christian festival, pagan traditions and the popular culture of Christmas largely invented in the 19th century can be found everywhere we look.

Our natural history collections would not seem a likely source of Christmas items but delving into our Quaternary cave collections we find reindeer antlers from Kents Cavern that remind us that this part of Devon was once on the edge of an Ice Age world and that reindeer were as much a part of life here as they are now in the Arctic Circle.

Then there is the humble robin found in our British bird collection. 

Why do we see robins on everything from Christmas cards to biscuit tins?

In Victorian times when the tradition of sending cards first started Royal Mail postmen wore bright red uniforms to deliver these cards.

This earned them the nickname of ‘robin or ‘redbreast’. Eventually artists started drawing the little brown and red bird delivering the letters instead of the postmen.

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This leads us to our Victorian Christmas card collection. The museum has many Victorian cards, but how did this tradition come about?

The first cards were commissioned by Sir Henry Cole and illustrated by John Callcott Horsley in London in 1843.

The first card caused controversy as it depicted three generations of a family raising a toast to the card’s recipient, while on the reverse there were scenes of charity with food and clothing being given to the poor.

The family drinking together proved controversial but the idea was clever, Cole had introduced the Penny Post three years earlier and cards were sold for a shilling each. By the 1880s, millions of cards were being sold each year.

Some of our social history items remind us of the hardships faced by many at Christmas, items such as Princess Mary’s Gift Tin, a common brass tin found in many antique shops.

This box was distributed to all members of the British Empire’s armed forces on Christmas Day in 1914. 

Typically, it contained an ounce of tobacco, a packet of cigarettes, a lighter, a Christmas card and photograph from Princess Mary, some also contained sweets.

An appeal was launched to fund the gifts and they were still being distributed in 1920 with more than 2.5 million eventually given.

Perhaps it is the museum's Old Devon Farmhouse collection that really captures the traditions of Christmas, with its smells of mulled wine, sugar treats and jelly and gingerbread moulds.

The farmhouse would have been part of a now almost lost Devon and Somerset tradition of burning the ashen faggot. This was a large bundle of ash sticks (similar to a Yule log) bound with nine green lengths of ash bands.

On Christmas Eve it was burnt on the hearth while the people watching sung carols. The use of ash probably went back to the magical associations of Norse mythology.

As the faggot burns the watchers make a toast as each binding bursts and when it is over a burnt stick is kept to go into the centre of next year’s faggot, symbolising the continuity of life.

Merry Christmas and see you in the new year!