Human Interest

Visiting Friends at Christmas: The Victorian Way

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The idealized vision of a white Christmas was popularized in the Victorian era, specifically in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (published 17th December 1843). For the first eight years of his life, Dickens enjoyed a white Christmas. This was due to a ‘Little Ice Age’ Britain was gripped by between the years 1550 and 1850. In my feature last December, A Dickensian Christmas, I discussed the Victorian origins of other Christmas staples, e.g. the tree, and decorations. This time around we’ll be looking at the festive season from the guests’ point of view. In particular the potential pitfalls posed by the etiquette of visiting amongst the wealthy.

The moment one was invited to a friend’s home for Christmas, the etiquette of visiting came into play. If one possessed the same status as one’s friend, the general expectation was one would accept the invitation. Furthermore, if one did accept the invitation, then one had to be prepared to return the favor in the near future. Otherwise, one could be viewed in a less than favorable light by one’s fellow dinner guests. Especially if one always accepted invitations but never returned them. We in modern times can certainly relate to this. According to the New and Revised Edition (4 Vol.) of Cassells Household Guide, c.1880s, there were only a few exceptions to this rule. They were:

Traveler’s when passing through a strange neighborhood, and having no establishment of their own on the spot…Also, when the giver of the proposed repast is the superior in station to the invited guest no similar return is looked for. Unmarried men likewise are permitted to accept all invitations without expectation of return, but from the day that bachelorhood is exchanged for the wedded state the same rule no longer applies. As married men, they are supposed to have establishments suitable to the demands on their position in life.

Once the dinner invitation was accepted, one next had to establish the length of stay. Guests then, as now, were expected to know when they’d outstayed their welcome. How long one should stay at a friend’s house over Christmas was easier to determine since there would be special Church services to attend. Cassells Household Guide cites a week as being a reasonable length of time for such a visit.

Returning to the matter of etiquette around invitations, Cassells Household Guide also stipulates all “invitations to stay at a house, even if instigated by the host, should be given by the hostess, with her direct sanction, and in her name.” Visits would’ve been arranged between the hostess and her expected guest(s) prior to the stay if she wasn’t “personally acquainted” with them, i.e. if they were her husband’s friends. If such a visit wasn’t possible, though, she’d write to the guest(s) to apologize and enclose her card.

The hostess was also expected to arrange transportation for the guest(s) to her home—if it be in the countryside­—either by her own carriage or through the hiring of a “fly.” The hostess wasn’t to greet her guest(s) at the station, either. Instead, she was expected to be in the hallway of her home when the guest(s) arrived. Return journeys to the train station et cetera were to be arranged—or suggested, at the very least—by the guest(s) when it came time for them to leave.

According to Cassells Household Guide, when it was the guest(s) first stay at their friend’s home, they were appointed a servant who was:

the medium through which the latter obtains any requisite information respecting the habits of the family and the locality of the apartments. To all intents and purposes the attendant alluded to may be consulted on such matters as one’s own servant, but a visitor should be careful to confine such inquiries to the most commonplace and essential matters. If the guest takes a personal attendant into the house, all information is sought exclusively through that servant.

Any enquiries regarding the timing of breakfast and morning prayers were to be made by the guest(s) to their hostess before they retired for the night. Hosts today prefer to have guests who’ll wholeheartedly embrace the their household and—to a reasonable extent—their routine. We want to share our lives and happiness with our loved ones, which means spending as much time together as possible. In the Victorian era the expectation of a guests’ routine was much the same. If the hosts’ household routine was disagreeable to the guest(s) to the point of causing a potential rift between friends, though, the guest(s) could shorten their stay to avoid this catastrophe.

As we’ve seen in this feature, the Victorians’ etiquette of visiting wasn’t dissimilar to the popular—yet, often unspoken—etiquette of visiting we have today. Discovering how the Victorians were like us is something I find most enjoyable about the research I conduct for my Bow Street Society crime fiction books. It’s also the way in which I help bridge the gap between now and then within the pages of those same volumes. To demonstration that, despite the passage of time, the Victorians were still human—just like us. So, with that in mind, I’d like to wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy new year on behalf of them, the Bow Street Society, and me.

“And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”

 ― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

 BRAND NEW Bow Street Society short story collection for Christmas: The Case of The Peculiar Portrait & Other Stories. Available to buy from

 Sources of reference:

Cassells Household Guide, New and Revised Edition (4 Vol.) c.1880s [no date] this source was courtesy of Lee Jackson’s Dictionary of Victorian London

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