Scientific Christmases in the 19th century

Rupert Cole has written about how an interest in science revived the celebration of Christmas in early 19th century Britain in a Dec. 14, 2012 posting on the Guardian science blogs (Note: I have removed links),

In the first few decades of the 19th century, Christmas was a rather rarefied tradition, kept alive by the nostalgia of poets and antiquarians. Romantically inclined writers such as William B Sandys and Thomas Kibble Hervey feared for the end of “Old Christmas” – the age, they lamented, had become too philosophic, too utilitarian and too refined for boozy wassail bowls, feudal feasts and Lords of Misrule.

On the eve of the Victorian era, however, Christmas underwent a transformation, becoming a popular festival once again – reinvented for the modern age. And as science was reaching unprecedented levels of popularity around the same time, the two cultures overlapped.

Publications like The Illustrated London News and The Leisure Hour printed Christmas essays, stories and poems that celebrated scientific progress. Christmas books and annuals included experiments for children. Newspapers ran adverts for “scientific Christmas presents” and articles describing “Christmas scientific recreations”.

Here’s a great description of a scientific pantomime,

By 1848, festive science was all the rage. That year, the Victoria Theatre staged one of the most sensational and oversubscribed pantomimes of the decade. E L Blanchard’s Land of Light, or Harlequin Gas and the Four Elements made “Science” the personified hero.

The opening scene takes place in a “goblin coal mine” 5,000 miles beneath the surface of the Earth, where an unhappy troop of fairies bemoan their banishment from the science-enamoured society above. The character Science arrives, challenging the fairies to a contest of traditional panto magic.

Science steals the show by combusting a slab of coal. The stage directions at this point indicate that the player Gas appears from the coal “with flame upon his head”. And to further perturb even the most hardened health-and-safety enthusiast, the scene’s magical finale consists of a “magnificent temple” of artificial light, fuelled by a selection of intensely bright (and extremely explosive) gases in use at the time – Budelight, limelight and camphine.

Pantomime became an exclusively Christmas tradition during the Victorian era, but it was much more politically edgy, witty and spectacular than the best of today’s efforts – which tend to rely on the fame and acting abilities of soap stars.

Cole goes on to describe extraordinary science Christmas-themed exhibitions and mentions that even Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s hubby) made a point of attending one of the myriad science-themed Christmas events of the day.

Prince Albert and the ‘royal children’ attend Michael Faraday’s 1855 Christmas Lecture, ‘The Distinctive Properties of the Common Metals’. Image: Illustrated London News archive (accessed from]

There’s more detail and more illustrations in the Cole’s piece which ends with this,

The first of three Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, Air: The Elixir of Life, will be broadcast on BBC Four on 26 December

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