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Our Curious Christmas – its Traditions and their Origins

December 6, 2010

Christmas is a time for tradition, when many of us choose to do things the same way year after year; that is both the blessing and the curse of the season. Often, trying to put our customs into some sort of perspective can be quite liberating. This will be a quick romp through some English Christmas habits with an attempt to give their origins. Obviously, with ideas that have developed over centuries, there are variations, geographical limitations and differences of opinion. Please feel free to comment if you think I’ve gone wildly wrong and you know better.

Choose any Saturday in Advent and there are people voluntarily struggling to carry trees inside their homes before covering them with baubles, tinsel and a wide variety of decorations. They know there will be pine needles all over the floor before, just a few weeks later, they strip them of the finery and take them for disposal. So why do we all do it? Most people point to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in the 1840s, and cite the magazine illustrations that show the royal family around the Christmas tree which Prince Albert is thought to have introduced from his native Germany.

However, fewer people look back further, to an Englishman from Wessex. Born Wynfrid or Wynfrith in the late 7th century, St Boniface spent time with monks near Exeter before being filled with a desire to take the message of Christianity to the german tribes, especially the Engles of Friesland who had settled in England in earlier centuries and given our country its name. Traditionally he is associated with cutting down a giant tree which they held sacred, and when he wasn’t struck dead as they expected, he gave them a tree covered with lit candles which he said was symbolic of the way his God had come to bring light into their darkness. Some centuries later, Martin Luther is supposed to have used the same idea in his preaching career. Even later, in the early nineteenth century before Victoria was born, Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, is recorded as having set up a Christmas tree at Windsor. The reason that the tree is so closely connected with Albert and Victoria is largely due to the media: magazines, periodicals and newspapers were more widely available, and they were probably one of the first celebrity couples. Details of their home life, and Prince Albert’s views on educating their children were widely reported to a fascinated public. The Christmas tree was of modest proportions, designed to sit on a table. Amongst the small toys (largely wooden) that decorated it, another popular decoration was a range of flags, such as children nowadays stick in sandcastles. The lighting of the candles was part of the ceremony, with servants standing by to put out fires. ‘Safety’ candles, in the form of early electric tree lights were available (for those who could afford them) from the late 1880’s.

For those of more modest incomes, decorations remained more traditional. The custom of bringing greenery indoors at midwinter goes way back beyond the birth of Christianity. Nearly everywhere in the northern hemisphere there was some sort of midwinter celebration to mark  the shortest day and the start of the sun’s long journey back. Bonfires and fires were light to encourage it, and greenery that hadn’t died with the year was a reminder that life would return to the world. Anything green counted, not just holly and ivy. However, clinging ivy was associated with the feminine and holly with the masculine. Later tradition has it that if the holly is smooth leaved the woman of the house will rule in the coming year, but if it is prickly the man will be in control – so choose wisely!

Mistletoe also has ancient and magical associations, though only the female stems carry the white berries. It was supposed to protect a household from witchcraft and enchantment and could be nailed anywhere over doorways to protect people as they passed through. In the days when households were larger, with servants and perhaps men at arms all bustling through a great hall the custom of snatching a kiss would easily develop. However, with each kiss the female should remove a berry. The last laugh was with the girls, though, as whoever caught the man of their choice under the mistletoe and claimed the very last berry was supposed to expect to marry him within the next 12 months. When all the berries had gone, the kissing should stop. The greenery was tied in huge bundles and suspended (the kissing bough) or draped. Although wreaths or garlands were traditional decorations, the custom had declined in England and was revived due to the influence of American ideas after the end of the Second World War. Especially since the 1970s. wreaths have become a more and more frequent decoration on front doors and now take many forms apart from the traditional greenery, with sweetie wreaths being popular in houses with children.

The Vikings celebrated midwinter with their Yule festival, one aspect of which involved dragging in as big a tree branch or trunk as they could manage, which once set alight was supposed to burn throughout the 12 days of the festival. The yule log going out was supposed to indicate bad luck in the coming year. As recently as the end of the ninieteenth century there are still accounts of country folk going out to drag home the Yule log, but as this country increasingly moved to burning coal, especially in towns, and more recently gas, the custom has declined. However, the nineteenth century was the great cake making century. Companies like Cadbury, Rowntree, Fry’s and Bournville learned how to manipulate cocoa butter and produce velvety chocolate which inevitably found its way into cakes, and the chocolate log, a gooey swiss roll covered in chocolate, iced and decorated to resemble snow, was born. The yule log was resurrected in a new and edible form.

No Christmas would be complete without drunken displays of Christmas cards, some tidily organised  in rows or special decorations; latecomers lurching off shelves and mantlepieces. We have Sir Henry Cole to thank for these. He was instrumental in starting up the postal service in the early 1840s, and later the Victoria and Albert Museum. In those days it was customary to write letters to far flung relatives one would not see. As a speculation he asked the artist John Calcott Horsley to produce a seasonal design that showed the essence of the celebration – a family feasting, with depictions of charitable activities at the side. He sold these cards for the astronomical sum of a shilling each (that’s only 5p to us today, but a housemaid might only earn up to £8 in a year). These cards were an instant hit and he sold out. Queen Victoria approved of the idea and was the first monarch to oversee a corporate official Christmas card, which the royal family have had produced ever since. In the 1870’s the halfpenny post was introduced for flat postcards which enabled more people to afford the purchase of a greetings card and its postage. Early designs were rarely religious: floral designs predominated, with sentimental verses, robins, and later, children.

Father Christmas did not appear on them till later. Father Christmas, Santa Claus, Christmas Spirit, Captain or Father Holly appeared in various guises: originating loosely from Saint Nicholas who was a fourth century bishop in Asia Minor with a reputation for secret deeds of kindness. It was who who was supposed to have heard the lament of the poor family whose daughters would have to be sold into slavery to pay the family’s debts and saved them by lobbing small bags filled with gold coins into either their shoes or their stockings as they dried by the fire. This is the origin of our Christmas stockings and the custom of putting chocolate (or real) coins in the toe. Father Christmas, though, is a more amorphous character: dressed up till the end of the nineteenth century in royal purple, he was confused with the Wise Men or Magi who brought gifts of gold, frankinsense and myrhh to the infant Jesus. Dressed in greens and golds, the figure is a personification of the Christmas Spirit, living evidence that Spring will return. Generally now dressed in festive red, with snowy boots, he is an indication of our moving the Father Christmas figure to somewhere Arctic like Lapland, where he mysteriously produces gifts with the aid of elves. Although this conceit worked well when children’s gifts were simpler, often made from wood and without corporate packaging, it’s harder to convince children these days. The American soft drink conglomerate who wisely accepts the urban myth that they developed a Santa in red to accompany their advertising campaign in the early 1930s are obviously oblivious of the fact that red Father Christmases are referred to in the early 1900s (1904 and 1907).

And so to the day itself, and particularly the Christmas feast. The Boar’s Head Carol is sung with more enthusiasm than with any expectation that it will really be the centrepiece which it once was. Turkey nowadays reigns supreme in most houses, though this is really recent – even after the end of the Second World War both fresh chicken and turkey were rare treats, but the turkey had the misfortune to be able to be mass reared to enormous proportions relatively easily. It originated in the new World and was first brought back to this country by William Walter Strickland during the reign of Henry VIII who is known to have sampled it though we do not know his opinion of the bird. However, even in the 19th century Mrs Beeton was advising that turkey was best boiled and served with celery sauce as it was apt to be dry and stringy. In the great estates it was customary to slaughter an animal for Christmas, and to offer joints of beef to outdoor staff as a Christmas gift. The size and quality of the cut was nicely graduated to indicate the importance of each member of staff. Goose was the choice for most private families: Norfolk raised geese had their feet painted with tar for their one way walk to London which took place in a leisurely way during December, with the geese arriving in time for the great Christmas market at Smithfield and for delivery to butchers’ shops  roundabout. In the days of roasting over open fires, or even in the days of the range in the nineteenth century, the richly fatty goose cooked well without drying out. It also provided rich fat which kept well and was used for cooking and making ointments.

Christmas pudding and mince pies both owe their existence to the Middle Ages. The early Christmas puddings were a variation on frumenty (see archived article) and were a great luxury as they incorporated both spices and imported vine fruits which were both expensive commodities. The inclusion of breadcrumbs, wheatflour and other bulking agents appear in the eighteenth century, and the custom of tying it all up in a cloth to boil was established by the time of Charles Dickens in the mid nineteenth century.  The rich regional speciality of Black Bun which is still available in Scotland is probably quite near to the medieval mince pie, which contained, in a pastry ‘coffin’, chopped meat, suet, dried fruit, and a wide range of spices. Over the centuries the proportion of ground meat became less and less, leaving only the suet and the mince meat, which is now a matured confection of apples, spices and vine fruit usually with alcohol to preserve it. As an excuse for gluttony, tradition holds that if one eats a mince pie each day of Christmas through to 12th night that the following year will be blessed not with deserved heartburn, but good health, prosperity and happiness. Nowadays mince pies have rather lost their way in the Christmas feast and tend to appear after everyone is sated with pudding – and because there are no takers they turn up like the ghost of Christmas at every other possible opportunity!

Crackers. That is what I’m told foreigners think we are when we all sit around wearing paper hats for no sensible reason. We know that somewhere deep in our collective memory we are honouring the visit of the Magi which falls at Epiphany, hence the crowns. Or are we remembering the ancient Roman feast of Saturnalia, the topsyturvy midwinter celebration when men became kings for the night and their masters the servants – a tradition carried on into the early 20th century in the great houses of the country with the New Year servants’ ball?  Possibly it is neither of these, and it actually only dates to the Victorian love of charades as even I can remember(vaguely in early childhood ) that the hats were more varied; mitres, Robin Hood style caps and other shapes were there too when the hats were still made out of crepe paper which is more forgiving than the tissue used today. Crackers were the brain child of the original Tom Smith who was sent to France by his father to study their confectionery. He came back with the notion of wrapping and decorating bonbons. Subsequently, in an effort to beat competition he added mottoes and charades, then tiny gifts – miniature silver charms and penknives were common – and subsequently he blew away all his competitors with the success of his exploding bonbon which incorporated the tiny gunpowder charge which we still enjoy today.

So there we have Christmas. What about carols, cribs, presents and so much else that hasn’t been touched on yet? Well, that’s for another year. I’m off to write cards and put up all those decorations and I wish everyone who reads this a happy and healthy celebration, and peace in the New year.

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