Once upon a time in Britain, it was quite popular to get married on Christmas day.
Everyone knows that the British have a special love for this holiday, but these days even the jolliest of couples would think twice about tying the knot on December 25th. So why was it so common to do so in the 18th and 19th centuries?
The Christmas season undoubtedly one of the most romantic times of the year. Numerous polls have seen Christmas Eve consistently voted the best day to pop the question to prospective spouses, and the months leading up to festive season tend see a huge spike in the sale of engagement rings.
Engagement is one thing, but it is also not uncommon for family historians to encounter the odd Christmas Day wedding in their British family research. While this may appear to suggest that our ancestors shared similar views on the romantic nature of Britain's favorite holiday, the appeal of the date was actually primarilypractical.
As you can see from this newspaper, churches across the country were used to holding festive nuptials every December 25th.
However, couples who chose to opt for a Christmas Day wedding would have rarely done so out of a desire to capture a sense of seasonal romance. Christmas Day weddings usually occurred out of necessity as Christmas and Boxing Day were often the only days of the year that young working class couples were guaranteed to get off work. Even Ebenezer Scrooge was forced to reluctantly give his long suffering clerk, Bob Cratchett, the day off in the opening chapter of
A Christmas Carol.
Christmas and Boxing Day were often the only days of the year that young working class couples were guaranteed to get off work
Why so little vacation? In Britain in the 1800's, most people worked six days a week and didn't get paid when they didn't work. Most were so poor they could ill afford to miss a day of work.
It was only with the rise of the labor unions in the twentieth century that working conditions and employee rights started to improve, allowing the tradition to die out. However Christmas Day weddings didn't become entirely extinct - enthusiastic reports of marriage can be found within our collection of historic British Newspapers right through the 1940's and even into the early 1950's.
Arbroath Herald and Advertiser for the Montrose Burghs - Friday 1 January 1937© THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
The process our British ancestors went through in order to arrange a marriage was uncomplicated - just three readings of "the banns" on three consecutive Sundays being all that was required. An ancient legal tradition, banns are an announcement in church of a couple's intention to marry. The readings provided an opportunity for anybody to declare a reason why the marriage may not lawfully take place.
Most weddings in Britain at that time were simple, small affairs with few guests and even fewer of the expensive trappings and traditions associated with modern weddings. Best clothes would be worn as they would be for any Sunday and a short service would be followed by dancing and making merry at home, in the local barn or pub.
A short service would be followed by dancing and making merry at home, in the local barn or pub
Christmas Day weddings appear to have been even more common in inner city areas home to large industrial working class communities. In a number of cities, particularly in London, it was a tradition that churches offered free marriages and baptisms on December 25th. Group weddings appear to have been routinely performed east of St. Paul's, and in the poorer quarters of the city.
The author and journalist, George Robert Sims, noted in his 1903 essay "Living in London" how a Christmas Day, "batch wedding, as for lack of a better term it may be styled, is quite a feature of slum life, though there are probably tens of thousands of Londoners who are unaware that such a ceremony can be legally performed."
Penny Weddings, so-called because each of the contracting parties paid this modest sum for the privilege of being united in the bonds of matrimony, were another relatively common form of working class marriages. In fact, they were so common that church ministers would occasionally advertise the speed with which they could perform a ceremony.
By the turn of the twentieth century, Penny Weddings had largely died out as inflation meant that even the very cheapest of ceremonies now cost a fee of about six shillings. However, Penny Wedding were still performed on Christmas Day by a number of churches in London as special acts of festive charity.
Bath Chronicle - Dec 28 1940© THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
While the practice began to fall out of favour in the early 20th century, Christmas Day weddings enjoyed a brief resurgence during the 1940s as the lives and romances of many young couples were thrown into turmoil by World War 2. The majority of young men were in military service while a significant number of women were conducting essential war work and leave was hard to come by.
Many couples used the rare instances of home leave they were given on Christmas day to wed before they were separated and sent off to face uncertain futures...
Couples used the home leave they were given on Christmas day to wed before they were separated and sent off to face uncertain futures
December 25th weddings are now virtually unheard of due to improved working conditions and the reduced availability (and sharp increase in cost) of essentials such as venues, catering and staff during the festive season. Search our collections of marriage and banns records, as well as our collection of historic British newspapers, to discover whether your family tree grew a new branch one Christmas Day long ago.