The big day is almost here. And I am excited! Wandering around the busy shops at the weekend I was thinking about all the traditions new and old, the history and the origins of this mid winter festival we call Christmas.
The Christmas Tree Modern Christmas trees originated during early modern Germany and are associated with Protestant reformer Martin Luther, who is said to have put lighted candles on a tree and is the first person thought to have brought a tree inside the home. Evergreen Fir trees have been used to celebrate pre-Christian winter festivals for thousands of years. During the winter solstice, branches would be brought in to decorate homes as a reminder of spring just around the corner. Centuries later, medieval mystery plays often featured a tree decorated with apples (to represent forbidden fruit) and wafers (for salvation). The apples and wafers were gradually replaced by the round shiny decorations and baubles we have today.
Holly was revered as a sacred plant by the Druids because it remained green all winter. It was thought to be a symbol of fertility and eternal life, and to have magical powers. Later Christian belief associated the holly with the crown of thorns worn by Jesus at the Crucifixion.
Boxing Day. Nothing to do with boxing matches, it’s name and tradition stem from the boxes of gifts containing money and other presents given to those in need. It has been dated back to the Middle Ages, but the exact origin is uncertain. It is also possible it is a reference to the Alms Box in churches to collect donations for the poor.
Twelfth Night. Christmas Day is the first day of the 12 Days of Christmas and the last day is January 6, also known as the Twelfth Night, and the coming of the Magi (The Three Kings). Twelfth Night marks the Epiphany and is traditionally associated with Wassailing, or blessing of the fruit trees, which involves a lot of drinking and singing to the health of the trees to encourage a rich harvest.
Carols. The Victorians can be thanked for reviving and popularising Carols, which were sung around the centrepiece piano as part of the Christmas family gathering in well to do households. Carols, (the word means dance or a song of praise and joy) used to be sang at all times in the year, but when St. Francis of Assisi started the tradition of the Nativity Plays in Italy in the thirteenth century, the cast would sing ‘canticles’ that told the story during the plays.
The Twelve Days of Christmas is a very old English carol. The words were first published in the late 1700s as a rhyming poem in a book called Mirth without Mischief, which came from a much older French piece, Les Douze Mois. The tune we sing today was written around 1905 by the English composer Frederic Austin who adapted it from a traditional English folk melody.
There are 12 verses and each verse is added on top of the previous one, making it a memory game as well as a song. The first line, “On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me, a Partridge in a Pear tree” is said to have religious connotations… as have the other verses: Two Turtle Doves representing peace and friendship, three French Hens representing faith, hope and love, and four Colly Birds (Calling Birds?), the four gospels. ( This verse started as ‘Collie Birds’ in the original version and only later became ‘Calling Birds.’ The original ‘colly bird’ was a European Blackbird as ‘colly’ meant ‘black’ as in ‘coaly’) The next gift is Five Gold Rings, but for those who think this means jewellery, you are sadly mistaken: The “five gold rings” were not actually gold rings, but refer to the five golden rings of the neck of a ringed pheasant.
Father Christmas is based on the legend of St Nicholas who was born in present day Turkey (yes really) in the third century. St. Nicholas was a Christian bishop who helped the poor and hungry by giving gifts. After his death, he became Santa Claus, who brings Christmas presents to children around the world. But spare a thought for the children of Austria where a terrifying creature called ‘Krampus‘; the evil version of Santa, wanders the streets in search of badly-behaved children. During December terrifying masked figures wander the streets scaring kids and adults alike.
Christmas stockings. Traditionally, we put a stocking out for Father Christmas on Christmas Eve and he fills it with small presents including, usually, an orange. Any child that has been naughty all year may be faced with a piece of coal instead of an orange in their stocking. Legend has it that Santa filled up stockings with gold coins in a house where the inhabitants had no food or money, and as the household would not accept charity, his gift had to made in secret.
Mistletoe The Druids first used mistletoe in rites and ceremonies but the kissing tradition started around the time of the ancient Greeks, who would kiss under it to encourage fertility. Mistletoe also represented peace and Roman soldiers would use it to represent a cessation in hostilities during war. They also decorated their homes with mistletoe in mid winter to appease angry gods.
Robins have long been a symbol of Christmas and postmen in Victorian Britain were nicknamed “robins” because of their red-breasted coloured uniforms. There is also a story that links Robins with the baby Jesus. In the stable where Jesus was born it was very cold with only a small fire that was going out, but a brown Robin appeared and started flapping its wings in order to breathe life into the fire. The little bird also collected small twigs in its beak to help feed the flames. As the robin flew around, the flames reflected on the brown bird’s breast, making it glow a bright red.
Pantomime developed from the Italian street theatre of the Commedia dell’arte in the 1500’s , with funny costumes, jokes, songs and slapstick characters falling over. We have the Victorians to thank for our modern pantomimes (Oh no we don’t). They were topical and witty and the Principal Boy was usually played by a woman. Augustus Harris, now thought of as the creator of modern pantomime, encouraged lavish productions and encouraged light-hearted competition between productions across the country.
Reindeer. Traditionally, Santa Claus’s reindeer pull a sleigh across the sky on Christmas Eve. The names of the eight reindeer are Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. Rudolph the Red–Nosed Reindeer, popularly known as “Santa’s ninth reindeer”, was created by Robert Lewis May in 1949. Rudolph is usually depicted as the lead pulling Santa’s sleigh, as although he is a young inexperienced reindeer, he has a large heart and a glowing red nose which lights the way.
Christmas time has long been a period to indulge in special food and drink. In early Victorian recipes Mince Pies were initially made from meat, dating back to Tudor times. It was during the 19th century that fruit and brandy began to gain popularity and became the filling in the mince pies we have today.
Our Roast Turkey also has its beginnings the Victorian era. Previously beef and goose and even swan were the centrepiece of the Christmas dinner. The turkey was introduced by the wealthy in the 19th century, and its perfect size, feeding a family of 4-6 meant it became the most popular Christmas Day meat dish by the beginning of the 20th century.
Finally, I can’t write about Christmas traditions and not mention Charles Dickens who is widely credited to have invented the Victorian Christmas. His book, A Christmas Carol certainly helped popularise and spread the traditions of Christmas and the Dickensian Christmas is a fantasy we all still buy into in the 21st century. Why? Because we all still want Christmas to be about family, goodwill, charity, peace and happiness. For all it’s critics and commercial standing, it’s still a powerful message and a beacon of light in the middle of the long dark of winter.