Victorian Valentine cards were flat paper sheets, often printed with colored illustrations and embossed borders. The sheets, when folded and sealed with wax, could be mailed. On 10 January 1840, Great Britain introduced the Uniform Penny Post, meaning that Valentine cards could be mailed for just one penny. The mass produced Valentine card was born. Valentines were sent in such great numbers that postmen were given a special allowance for refreshments to help them through the extraordinary exertions of the two or three days leading up to February 14th. Rather than purchase a ready-made valentine, some Victorians assembled original valentines from materials purchased at a stationer’s shop: lace, bits of mirror, bows and ribbons, seashells and seeds, gold and silver foil appliqués, silk flowers, and clichéd printed mottoes like “Be Mine” and “Constant and True.”Victorian valentines commonly feature churches or church spires, signifying honorable intentions and fidelity.
Historical Holiday Traditions We Really Need To Bring Back
Here comes Santa Claus, and also a bunch of annual holiday Things we do to ensure he commits a truly boggling act of breaking and entering and leaves goods underneath the large plant in the living room.
Because I’ve always got a hankerin’ for the days of yore, here are some historical holiday traditions we really need to bring back:
1. Everything that happened on Saturnalia
Saturnalia was the ancient Roman winter festival held on December 25th–which is why we celebrate Christmas on that day and not on the day historians speculate Jesus was actually born, which was probably in the spring.
Saturnalia was bonkers. As the name suggests, it celebrated the god Saturn, who represented wealth and liberty and generally having a great time.
Above: Their party is way cooler than yours could ever hope to be.
During Saturnalia, masters would serve their slaves, because it was the one day during the year when everybody agreed that freedom for all is great, actually, let’s just do that. Everyone wore a coned hat called the pilleusto denote that they were all bros and equal, and also to disguise the fact that they hadn’t brushed their hair after partying hard all week, probably.
Gambling was allowed on Saturnalia, so all of Rome basically turned into ancient Vegas, complete with Caesar’s Palace, except with the actual Caesar and his palace because he was, you know. Alive.
The most famous part (besides getting drunk off your rocker) was gift-giving–usually gag gifts. Historians have records of people giving each other some truly impressive white elephant gifts for Saturnalia, including: a parrot, balls, toothpicks, a pig, one single sausage, spoons, and deliberately awful books of poetry.
Above: Me, except all the time.
Partygoers also crowned a King of Saturnalia, which was a predecessor to the King of Fools popular in medieval festivals. The king was basically the head idiot who delivered absurd commands to everyone there, like, “Sing naked!” or “run around screaming for an hour,” or “slap your butt cheeks real hard in front of your crush; DO IT, Brutus.”
Oh, wait. Everyone was already doing all that. Hell yes.
(Quick clarification: early celebrations of Saturnalia did feature human sacrifice, so let’s just leave that bit out and instead wear the pointy hats and sing naked, okay? Io Saturnalia, everybody.)
2. Leaving out treats for Sleipnir in the hopes of avoiding Odin’s complete disregard for your property
The whole “leave out cookies and milk for Santa” thing comes from a much older tradition of trying to appease old guys with white beards. In Norse mythology, Odin, who was sort of the head god but preferred to be on a perpetual road trip instead, took an annual nighttime ride through the winter sky called the Wild Hunt.
Above: The holidays, now with 300% more heavy metal.
Variations of the Wild Hunt story exist in a bunch of European folklore–in Odin’s case, he usually brought along a bunch of supernatural buddies, like spirits and other gods and Valkyries and ghost dogs, who, the Vikings said, you could hear howling and barking as the group approached (GOOD DOGGOS).
That was the thing, though; you never actually saw Odin’s hunt–you only heard it. And hearing it did not spark the same sense of childish glee you felt when you thought you heard Santa’s sleigh bells approaching as a kid–instead, the Vikings said, you should be afraid. Be VERY afraid.
Because Odin could be kind of a dick.
Odin was also known as the Allfather, and like any father, he hated asking for directions. GPS who? I’m the Allfather, I’m riding the same way I always ride.
And that was pretty much it: “I took this road last year and I’m taking it again this year.”
“But,” someone would pipe up from the back, “there are houses on the road now–we’re gonna run right into them. We could just take a different path; there’s actually a detour off the–”
“Nope,” Odin would say. “They know the rules. My road, my hunt, my rules. We’re going this way.”
So if you were unlucky enough to have built your house along one of Odin’s favorite road trip sky-ways, he wouldn’t just plow right past you.
He would burn your entire house down–and your family along with it.
Kids playing in the yard? Torch ‘em; they should have known better. Grandma knitting while she waits for her gingerbread Einherjar to finish baking? Sucks to be her; my road, my rules, my beard, I’m the Allfather, bitch.
Above: Santa, but so much worse.
To be fair to Odin, he could be a cool guy sometimes. He just turned into any dad when he was on a road trip and wanted to MAKE GOOD TIME, DAMN IT, I AM NOT STOPPING; YOU SHOULD HAVE PEED BEFORE WE LEFT.
To ensure they didn’t incur Odin’s road trip wrath, the Vikings had a few ways of smoothing things over with Dad.
They would leave Odin offerings on the road, like pieces of steel (??? okay ???) or bread for his dogs, or food for his giant, eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, because the only true way to a man’s heart is through his pet.
People would generally leave veggies and oats and other horse-y things out for Sleipnir, whose eight legs made him the fastest flying horse in the world and also made him the only horse to ever win Asgard’s coveted tap dancing championship.
(Side note: EIGHT legs…EIGHT tiny reindeer…eh? Eh? See how we got here? Thanks, nightmare horse!)
Above: An excellent prancer AND dancer.
And if Odin was feeling particularly charitable and not in the mood for horrific acts of arson, children would also leave their shoes out for him–it was said that he’d put gifts in your boots to ring in a happy new year.
If all that didn’t work and the Vikings heard the hunt approaching, they would resort to throwing themselves on the ground and covering their heads while the massive party sped above them like a giant Halloween rager.
So this holiday season, leave your boots out for Odin and some carrots out for his giant spider horse or you and your entire family will die in a fiery inferno, the end.
3. Yule Logs
Speaking of Scandinavia, another Northern European winter solstice tradition was the yule log. Today, if you google “yule log,” something like this will pop up:
…which isn’t an actual log, but is instead log-shaped food that you shove into your mouth along with 500 other cakes at the same time because it’s CHRISTMAS, and I’m having ME TIME; so WHAT if I ate the whole jar of Nutella by myself, alone, in the dark at 3 am?
But that log cake is actually inspired by actual logs of yore that Celtic, Germanic, and Scandinavian peoples decorated with fragrant plants like holly, ivy, pinecones, and other Stuff That Smells Nice before tossing the log into the fire.
This served a few purposes:
It smelled nice, and Bath and Body Works scented candles hadn’t been invented yet.
It had religious and/or spiritual significance as a way to mark the winter solstice.
It was a symbolic way of ringing in the new year and kicking out the old.
Common belief held that the ashes of a yule log could ward off lightning strikes and bad energy.
Winter cold. Fire warm.
Everybody loves to watch things burn. (See: Odin.)
The yule log cakes we eat today got their start in 19th century Paris, when bakers thought it was a cute idea to resurrect an ancient pagan tradition in the form of a delicious dessert, and boy, howdy, were they right.
In any case, I’m 100% down with eating a chocolate yule log while burning an actual yule log in my backyard because everybody loves to watch things burn; winter cold, fire warm; and hnnnngggg pine tree smell hnnnnggg.
(Quick note: The word “yule” is the name of a traditional pagan winter festival, still celebrated culturally or religiously in modern pagan practice. It’s also another name for Odin. He had a bunch of other names, one of the most well-known being jólfaðr, which is Old Norse for “Yule father.” If you would like to royally piss him off, or if you are Loki, feel free to call him “Yule Daddy.”)
4. Upside down Christmas trees
I just found out that apparently, upside down Christmas trees are a hot new trend with HGTV types this year, so I guess this is one historical trend we did bring back, meaning it doesn’t really belong on this list, but I’m gonna talk about it, anyway.
Historians aren’t actually sure where the inverted Christmas tree thing came from, but we know people were bringing home trees and then hanging them upside down in the living room as early as the 7th century. We have a couple theories as to why people turned trees on their heads:
Logistically, it’s way easier to hang a giant pine tree from your rafters upside down by its trunk and roots. You just hoist that baby up there, wind some rope around the rafter and the trunk, and boom. Start decorating.
A Christian tradition says that one day in the 7th century, a Benedictine monk named Saint Boniface stumbled across a group of pagans worshipping an oak tree. So, instead of minding his own damn business, he cut the tree down and replaced it with a fir tree. While the pagans were like, “Dude, what the hell?” Boniface used the triangular shape of the fir tree to explain the concept of the holy trinity to the pagans. Some versions have him planting it right-side up, others having him displaying a fir tree upside down. Either way, it’s still a triangle that’s a solid but ultimately very rude way of explaining God. Word’s still out on whether anyone was converted or just rightly pissed off that this random guy strolled into their place of worship, chopped down their sacred tree, and plopped HIS tree down instead. Please do not do that this holiday season.
Eastern Europeans lay claim to the upside-down tree phenomenon with a tradition called podłazniczek in Poland–people hung the tree from the ceiling and decorated it with fruits and nuts and seeds and ribbons and other festive doodads.
(God, who lives in these houses? Look at that. That’s like a swanky version of Gaston’s hunting lodge. Where do I get one? Which enchanted castle do I have to stumble into to chill out in a Christmas living room like that?)
Today, at least in the West, upside-down trees are making a comeback because…I don’t know. Chip and Joanna Gaines said so.
Some folks say it’s a surefire way to keep your cats from clawing their way through the tree and then puking up fir needles for weeks afterward, which checks out for me.
5. Incredibly weird Victorian Christmas cards
So back in the 19th century, the Christmas card industry was really getting fired up. Victorians loved their mail, let me tell you. They loved sending it. They loved getting it. They loved writing it. They loved opening it. They loved those sexy wax seals you use to keep all that sweet, sweet mail inside that sizzling envelope. (Those things are incredibly sexy. Have you ever made a wax seal? Oh, man, it’s hot.)
The problem, though, was that while the Victorians arguably helped standardize many of the holiday traditions we know and love today (Christmas trees, caroling, Dickens everything, spending too much money, etc.) back in 1800-whenever, a lot of that Christmas symbolism was, um…still under construction. No one had really agreed on which visual holiday cues worked and which…didn’t.
Meaning everyone just kind of made up their own holiday symbols. Which resulted in monstrous aberrations like this card:
What the hell is that? A beet? Is that a beet? Or a turnip? Why is it…oh, God, why does it have a man’s head? Why does the man beet have insect claws?
What is it that he’s holding? A cookie? Cardboard? A terra cotta planter?
And then there’s this one:
“A Merry Christmas to you,” it says, while depicting a brutal frog murder/mugging.
What are you trying to tell me? Are you threatening me with this card? Is that it? Is this a threat? How the hell am I supposed to interpret this? “Merry Christmas, hide your money or you’re dead, you stupid bitch.”
Also, why is the dead frog naked? Did the other frog steal his clothes after the murder? WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO WITH THIS?
Victorian holiday cards also doubled as early absurdist Internet memes, apparently, because how else do I explain this?
Is this some sort of tiny animal Santa? A mouse riding a lobster? Like, the mouse, I get. Mice are fine. Disney built an empire on a mouse. And look, he’s got a little list of things he’s presumably going to bring you: Peace, joy, health, happiness. (In French. Oh, wait, is that that Patton Oswalt rat?)
But a LOBSTER? What’s with the lobster? It’s basically a sea scorpion. Why in the name of all that is good and holy would you saddle up a LOBSTER? I hate it. I hate it so, so much. Just scurrying around the floor with more legs than are strictly necessary, smelling like the seafood section of Smith’s, snapping its giant claws.
This whole card is a health inspector’s worst nightmare. It really is.
I gotta say, though, I am a fan of this one:
Presumably, that polar bear is going in for a hug because nothing stamps out a polar bear’s innate desire to rip your face from your skull than candy canes and Coke and Christmas spirit.
This next one is actually fantastic, but for all the wrong reasons:
I know everyone overuses “same” these days but geez, LOOK at that kid. I can HEAR it. SAME.
If you’ve ever been in a shopping mall stuffed with kids, nothing sums it up better than this card. This is like the perverse version of those Anne Geddes portraits that were everywhere in the late 90s. “Make wee Jacob sit in the tea pot; everyone will–Jacob, STOP, look at Mommy; I said LOOK. AT. MOMMY–everyone will love it.”
Actually, you know what? Every other Christmas card is cancelled. This is the only card we will be using from now on. This is it.
Wait, no. We can also use this one:
Merry Christmas. Here’s a fuckin’…just a dead fuckin’ bird.
A very short guide to alcohol (for civilised gentlefolk).
Red wine is heavy, and therefore goes with heavier meals, including meats.
White wine is lighter than red wine, and goes well with fish meals.
When eating cheese, port should be an accompaniment. This also goes well with tobacco.
Gin is best mixed with tonic. It works well as a refreshing cleanser of the palate.
When drinking whisky, the taste will often reflect the area in which it is produced (for example, Welsh whisky tastes like sheep shit, Irish whisky tastes of soil, and Scottish whisky tastes of peat. English whisky isn’t worth trying).
Never pour more than an inch of whisky, rum, port, pimms, or other spirits into a glass.
When holding a wine glass or champagne flute, make sure to hold the round base of the glass’ stem. This ensures that your drink will not become warm throughout the evening.
One should not drink alcohol before luncheon.
Being completely drunk is detestable, but being completely sober whilst drinking is also detestable. Make sure to drink slowly, never on an empty stomach, and always stop when a headache or other pain ensues. Aim for warm tipsiness rather than flat-out-drunk.
A short thread busting a very robust fashion history myth. (I have heard it from three different curators. Once through an exhibition’s intro text, once in a preview tour of an exhibition, and once in a direct conversation online. But when I submitted a paper on it to Dress, one of the reasons they turned me down was that “everyone already knows Victoria had nothing to do with the white wedding dress”. I’m not bitter at all, as you can see.)
I lived in a Victorian mansion in the middle of the woods. I kept asking my family where they got the money to buy it but they refused to tell me. Every night, a maid woke me up and brought me down to the basement where my mother was waiting for me with a syringe. They injected me with something every night but refused to tell me what it was. This went on for months until I eventually stopped asking about it and just accepted it. For some reason, one night I decided that I wanted to know what they were injecting me with and I knocked the syringe out of the maid’s hand. I was horrified to see that it was filled with wax. My mother looked down at me and said, “You ruined everything.” I woke up crying.