For many Victorians, homemade Christmas decorations were far preferable to those bought in a store. Why spend good money on glittery trinkets when you could make something much more meaningful yourself? An article in the 1887 edition of Household Words advocates for doing just that, declaring:
“There is no burst of splendor equal to that which is produced by our own labour. No lamps burn so bright as those that shine on the gifts we made ourselves; and no decorations equal our own homemade garlands and mottoes.”
In order to make their own Christmas ornaments, Victorians often began gathering supplies much earlier than December. For example, certain grasses, such as wild barley, meadow barley, and sea barley, were best collected in the autumn. They were then dried, and later, dyed to suit. This process was made easier by the invention of artificial dyes, such as Judson’s Dyes, which could be purchased, during the late Victorian era, for sixpence a bottle.
Gilded walnuts and acorns were another popular choice for Victorian Christmas decorations. In order to decorate them, Victorians first hammered “a light tack” into the nut. This gave them a way to hold onto it while decorating, and also served to “tie the suspending string to afterwards.”
Initially, the Victorians would paint the nut with a wash of egg whites, and then roll it in gold leaf and set it to dry. Unfortunately, this resulted in an ornament that cost more to make than it was worth. It was much less expensive to simply use gold paint. Household Words explains:
“One bottle of Judson’s gold paint will go a long way in gilding walnuts, acorns, little baskets for sweetmeats, and the many miscellaneous trifles which brighten up the sombre fir branches.”
As an alternative, the 1900 issue of the Delineator recommends painting the acorn or walnut with mucilage, then rolling it in gold powder “until it is well gilded.” Victorians could also cover nuts with tin foil “in imitation of gold leaf.” Once gilded, acorns and walnuts could either be hung on the tree or displayed “in a bed of moss with a little grass and some everlastings.”
Berries could also be gilded, but it was necessary to preserve them first, lest they shrivel up before the holiday arrived. For mountain-ash berries or elderberries, Household Words recommends gathering “before they are quite ripe.” They were then painted with a gum solution, which was left to harden. Once the gum was set, the berries could be gilded without fear of the fruit rotting.
In my Victorian Christmas novella A Holiday By Gaslight the guests at a Christmas house party not only gild acorns and walnuts, they also artificially frost the leaves of holly and ivy with a mixture of boiled alum and water. When dry, boiled alum and water created crystals on the leaves. It could also be used to tip the branches of the Christmas tree itself. The 1881 edition of Arthur’s Illustrated Home Magazine explains:
“On one pound of alum, pour a quart of boiling water. Whilst still warm, suspend the leaves in it by a string tied round the stalks; leave them in for twenty-four hours and then hang them up till dry.”
The possibilities for homemade Christmas decorations were endless. For example, Household Words describes homemade birds’ nests “with a proper compliment of sugar eggs” that were tucked into the branches of the Christmas trees. Crystallized fruits and gilded nuts were similarly placed, not only in the tree, but on the dining table, where they were often displayed with colorfully died grasses. The only limits were one’s imagination.
I hope the above gives you some idea how the Victorians went about making their homemade Christmas decorations—and why it was necessary for them to start preparing early.
Arthur’s Illustrated Home Magazine, Vol, XLIX. Philadelphia: T. S. Arthur & Son, 1881
The Delineator, Vol. LVI. New York: Butterick Publishing Co.,1900
Household Words, Vol. IV. London: Charles Dickens & Evans, 1883.
Praise for A Holiday By Gaslight
“Matthews (The Matrimonial Advertisement) pays homage to Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South with her admirable portrayal of the Victorian era’s historic advancements in addition to courtship struggles arising from societal castes…Readers will easily fall for Sophie and Ned in their gaslit surroundings.” –Library Journal, starred review
“Matthews’ novella is full of comfort and joy—a sweet treat for romance readers that’s just in time for Christmas.” –Kirkus Reviews
“A warm and captivating Christmas romance which showcases how people from two different worlds can find common ground and genuine love.” –The Romance Reviews, top pick
“A graceful love story…and an authentic presentation of the 1860s that reads with the simplicity and visual gusto of a period movie.” –Readers’ Favorite (2019 Gold Medal for Holiday Fiction)
“Historically rich and tenderly romantic! Lovely in every way.” -Caroline Linden, USA Today bestselling author
“A lovely novella perfect for the Christmas Season.” -Vanessa Kelly, USA Today bestselling author
“A wonderful pre-holiday escape. I love [Matthews’] heroines and her fresh take on classic tropes.” -Jane Porter, NYT and USA Today bestselling author