52 Weeks of Historical How-To’s, Week 6: Victorian Christmas decorations from the Girl’s Own Annual

Thursday 5 December 2013

Christmas was not much a family festivity until Queen Victoria posed with her children around a laden fir tree, a tradition Prince Albert had brought with him from Germany. The Victorians took this to heart and very soon there was a boom in trees, decorations, wreaths, presents, cards, turkey dinners, advent calendars and other Christmas paraphernalia. Scotland was less enthusiastic – celebrations at Christmas had been abolished in 1640, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland considering it to be a Popish invention, and Christmas Day was not established as a public holiday until 1958. Many older people will tell stories of going to work on Christmas day as if it were just an ordinary day; perhaps Hogmanay celebrations evolved to compensate for missing out on the 25th. Fortunately we are now allowed to have some fun at Christmas time and that’s just what we have been doing this week.

The Girl's Own Annual (rper AP4.G5)
The Girl’s Own Annual (St Andrews copy at rper AP4.G5)
Festive decorations in production
Festive decorations in production

We have been very industrious during lunchtimes making decorations for our Christmas party using the The Girl’s Own Paper of 1884 for guidance.  Two volumes of The Girl’s Own Annual, the annual publication of the paper, were gifted to us this year by Gillian Kirkpatrick of St Monans, having been in her family for many years.  Intended for girls and young women, Girl’s Own Paper was first published in 1880 by the Religious Tract Society, following the successful publication of the Boy’s Own Annual in 1879. The magazine includes stories, educational articles, adventure tales, morally improving tracts, answers to correspondents, poetry, music sheets, and many miscellaneous crafts. The last bound volume of the annual issued by the publisher appeared in 1941.

Under the editorship of Charles Peters, the magazine responded to market demand. In an era when new opportunities were opening to girls, such as education to rival that of men, The Girls Own provided progressive information, guiding girls on how to negotiate this changing cultural status. Yet Peters managed to never to be too forward, striking a balance between the new woman who dressed in mannish clothes, and the educated women who remained feminine, seeing to the comforts of home life. Although there were numerous girls’ magazines emerging in the nineteenth century, such as The Girl’s Best Friend, aimed at working-class girls, none had the longevity of The Girls Own.

The Girls Own Annual, (rper AP4.G5)
‘Our Christmas Decorations’, in The Girls Own Annual, (St Andrews copy at rper AP4.G5)
The Girls Own Annual, (St Andrews copy at rper AP4.G5)
Instructions for decorations in The Girls Own Annual, (St Andrews copy at rper AP4.G5). Click for large version.

Following the death of Peters in 1907, Flora Klickmann took over as editor; in 1908 she renamed the magazine The Girl’s Own Paper and Women’s Magazine in an attempt to broaden its readership. Changes were made. The weekly penny magazine was discontinued, whilst serialised stories were cut back, with a focus in short fiction and informative essays. Although the magazine continued to offer advice on professional development, it also devoted a greater attention to matters of fashion and domestic management. After Klickmann resigned as editor in 1930 The Girl’s Own reverted to being a strictly adolescent magazine. It experienced something of a renaissance during the 1930s, but after the Second World War (where it was reduced in format in 1941, due to paper shortages) it never quite regained its popularity. The magazine was renamed Girls’ Own Paper and Heiress in 1947, being shortened to Heiress in 1951, with publication ceasing in 1956.

Jane's lanterns
Jane’s lanterns

As the article ‘Our Christmas Decorations’ (pictured above) tells us, most decorations were so familiar that no instructions were needed – annoyingly for us! Many were home-made, sewn by the ladies of the house, with paper decorations made by the children. We have assumed that this includes the paper lanterns made by Jane, paper chains by Eddie and snowflakes by Marc.

Maia's Christmas wreath
Maia’s Christmas wreath

We will be decorating the party venue with holly, ivy, fir, mistletoe, herbs, laurel and other seasonal berries and leaves, maybe even the bulrushes, teasel heads and pampas grass mentioned in the paper, but decided not to introduce too much of this into our storage building, restricting ourselves to wreath and garland making.  The wreaths were fun, very Kirsty Allsop, using old wire coat hangers as a base, with layers of fir, ivy, holly and cotoneaster berries wired on to the frame, and bright ribbons to finish.

Maia's Japanese fan
Maia’s Japanese fan

Japanese fans may have been cheap and easily available in 1884, but not anymore, so we have been making our own out of stiff Christmas paper from Paperchase, with ribbons or chopsticks to keep them firm, and they have turned out very well, even though we don’t have any portraits of clerical forebears to put them over, as in the illustration.

                Artificial Christmas flowers are not so easily purchased, as they are either expensive or very tawdry-looking; Christmas roses are not at all difficult to make at home.

The Girl’s Own Annual, 1884, (rper AP4.G5)

attempts at
Our attempts at making a Christmas rose decoration

We have to disagree! The Christmas roses were complicated to make and don’t look much like either roses or hellebore, which is known as the Christmas rose because it flowers at Christmas, but isn’t related to the rose family at all. Paper was much easier to use, as the silky satin is hard to cut and manage, and we produced some updated versions with paper for the petals and a bundle of wool as the stamens.

                If artificial frost is called for….it can be made at home by crushing white glass (old bottles or pieces of broken window panes) with a garden roller.

The Girl’s Own Annual, 1884, (rper AP4.G5)

We decided not to try grinding up broken window panes to make frost, as Health and Safety might have issues with that, but perhaps you could use coarse rock salt if you wanted to try this.

Kirsty's bunting
Kirsty’s bunting

Many of us had a go at the flags – now known as bunting, but back then made of bunting, a close-woven worsted fabric.  Rachel’s Canadian themed red and white bunting and Kirsty’s triple-layered flags with silver snowflakes were the highlights. They certainly brighten up the rather post-modern industrial landing which doubles as a staff room.

Festive cheer in Special Collections
Festive cheer in Special Collections

Websites such as Victorian Christmas have lots of ideas for tree ornaments and other decorations too.

The Christmas Special in 1884, called Winter Leaves, includes hints for making the supper  table pretty, which  directs us to get out our candles.

                A delightful, cool, restful light is to be obtained from candles, and this has led girls to bring out from forgotten corners, the queer old-fashioned candlesticks which belonged to their grandmothers, to put candles therein, and burn these for a change.

The Girl’s Own Annual, 1884, (rper AP4.G5)

We often think of Victorian homes as candle-powered but in fact gas-lighting for the home had been spreading from the early years of Victoria’s reign.  Candles might only be used for adding atmosphere, much as we use them today. And everyone looks better in flickering candlelight. So we will be lighting lots of candles for the party, but not with the coloured Japanese paper shades advocated in the article, which surely was never a good idea!

The Girl's Own Annual, rper AP4.G5
The Girl’s Own Annual, (St Andrews copy at rper AP4.G5)

– Maia Sheridan and Briony Aitchison

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4 thoughts on "52 Weeks of Historical How-To’s, Week 6: Victorian Christmas decorations from the Girl’s Own Annual"

  • juliamelvin1
    Thursday 5 December 2013, 8.27pm

    Thank you for this wonderful apercu of life, both of the past and of the present, from the Special Collections. Graduates very easily complain that they are not kept in touch enough with their alma mater. Your blog does this in heaps! and I loved it. I particularly want to know how such and such came into the collection. My mother who grew up in St Andrews had a presbyterian upbringing, and games and toys on Sundays were forbidden, until she had the bright idea of making a pack of cards for Happy Families using Biblical families. However, the Irvines celebrated Christmas in style, even in their earlier more modest days. They liked to think, however, that the Princ brought back some American Christmas customs from his annual trips to the US. Julia Melv

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