The way we celebrate Christmas today owes a lot to the Victorians. It is easy to forget that, at the beginning of the 19th century Christmas was hardly celebrated at all (any gift-giving at that time of year – and there wasn’t much of it – centred on New Year).
Things changed dramatically during Victoria’s reign, thanks to improvements in transport, manufacture and communication – and also to the emphasis on family embodied in the closeness of the relationship between Victoria, her beloved Albert and their nine children. Suddenly Christmas became a time to share with and celebrate the family. It was Prince Albert who introduced us to the Christmas tree, Christmas cards were first printed in 1843 and crackers, including the traditional ‘bang’ were not invented until the 1860s. Certain foods became associated with Christmas, and they still are – mince pies, Christmas pudding etc. Spare a thought for our forebears as you tuck into your turkey. We owe them a lot!
The other thing that the Victorians were good at was death. (They had to be as child mortality was over 50% and the average life expectancy of an adult was only about 40). Again, it was Victoria, when she was widowed, who changed the way things were done. She introduced the idea of real and long-term mourning. We all know that after Alfred died, she wore black until her own death many years later. This, coupled with the idea, current at the time, that there was no purgatory, just a stark choice between Heaven and Hell, led to the concept of a ‘lingering death’ where the person must prepare for the next world. Various elaborate, detailed and expensive practices evolved and failing to mourn on a grand scale was considered a moral failure. Widows were expected to wear mourning black and isolate themselves from society for two years after the death of their husband. It became common practice for close relatives to pose with the deceased for a post-mortem photograph in their home.
Fortunately, many of these sorts of traditions have now been discontinued, but many remain. Standard apparel for undertakers has changed little over the years. The funeral cortege, apart from the fact that it is motorised, is much as it was in Victorian times – and so on.
What we have discontinued, and we are the poorer for it, is the ability to discuss death in a non-emotive way. We are, thankfully, directly exposed to death far less frequently than the Victorians were and that may account for our reluctance to discuss it, but we are all going to die and it would be healthy to acknowledge that in discussions with our families and friends.
As a solicitor I often take phone calls from people, newly bereaved, who want to know what arrangements the deceased had, in their Will, stipulated should be made for their funeral. It is helpful to them to have firm information and if that is not included in the Will it can cause real anxiety. Family do not want to do the ‘wrong thing’ for the person who has died. Equally, it can be distressing for a family member to discover at this late stage that the deceased’s views on how their body should be dealt with is very different from their own, or from what they were expecting. Too late to discuss it with the deceased now.
I also become involved where family members come to loggerheads over who should have what from amongst the deceased’s personal belongings. Usually disagreements are based not on the monetary value of the item but memories. Sentiment is a very strong motivator.
The moral here is talk to your family. Ask them if there are any items you have which hold a special memory for them. Discuss what funeral arrangements you would like. And then make sure that what you all know as a result of that discussion is embodied in your Will.
I am not suggesting that you do this over Christmas dinner, but the Christmas break usually brings families together for long enough to have a discussion of this type in a relaxed atmosphere. Take the opportunity if you can.