Are you hanging up the stockings on the wall? Have you decked the halls with boughs of holly? Are you roasting chestnuts on an open fire? Are you rocking around the Christmas tree?
Cheesy Christmas songs are as much as part of Christmas as turkey, presents, Santa Claus, and the John Lewis advert, and a word that’s almost synonymous with Christmas is tradition. How many quirky games do you play, bizarre foods do you eat, eccentric relatives do you put up with, in the name of Christmas tradition?
Modern Christmas traditions seem to be Bucks Fizz for breakfast, Quality Street tubs, and facetiming family, but it’s the old ones that are the best. I’ve rounded up and researched my favourites, and I hope that ‘yule’ enjoy my rundown of the origins of some of the most loved Christmas traditions.
There’s some rumours that say the Christmas pudding dates back to medieval times and was made of thirteen ingredients, signifying Jesus and the twelve apostles. However its first appearance is in the 17th century as more of a thick, meaty stew. It’s sometimes called Plum Pudding, despite the fact it doesn’t contain plums, but this comes from the Victorian usage of plum to mean raisins.
So many traditions surround the Christmas pudding, which start late in November with Stir Up Sunday. On the last Sunday before advent, the ingredients for the Christmas pudding are prepared, mixed, and the pudding steamed. Everyone in the household gives the pudding a stir and makes a wish, stirring from East to West to honour the journey of the three wise men who visited Baby Jesus. Silver sixpences are also added to the mix for good luck although this has died out thanks to health and safety (and costly dentist fees). And on Christmas Day, the pudding is warmed, turned out onto a plate, doused with plenty of brandy, and then set alight, a blazing ball of fiery dessert to adorn the festive dinner table (and a tradition which my French friend thought I had made up).
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Mince Pies did originally contain ground meat. Its origins can be traced back as far as the 1200s when crusaders brought meats, spices, and dried fruits back to Britain from the Holy Land. Pies were created by mixing sweet and savoury foods, and by Tudor Times the Mince Pie (or Shrid Pie as it was) consisted of shredded meat, suet, and fruit. A 1615 recipe recommends mixing mutton, suet, currants, raisins, cloves, pepper and salt, prunes, dates, and orange peel.
During the English Civil War, they were banned by Puritans and viewed as an abomination, but they came back with a bang when King Charles II returned. They got sweeter and sweeter, and by Victorian times the meat was a long-forgotten addition.
Oranges are a staple part of the Christmas stocking, usually buried at the very bottom and a slight downer to an otherwise gift-laden sock. For us, this is a Terry’s Chocolate Orange, because at Christmas this counts as one of your five-a-day (fact).
The oranges are supposed to represent gold bags. The legends of Saint Nicholas are vast and varied (see below!), but one variation goes that Saint Nicholas heard of a poor man who could not afford the dowries for his three daughters, meaning he would have to send them to the brothel to work. Wanting to help, but knowing the man would not accept charity, Saint Nicholas saved them from this fate by throwing three bags of gold through their window at night.
The tradition of Santa Claus is often cited as beginning around the 4th century with Saint Nicholas of Myra, who was renowned for his exceptional generosity and was the patron saint of children. Many stories exist of his kindness, and old Saint Nick and his bags of gold is the tale which gave him his reputation of being a gift-giver. This figure is often also linked with the European holiday figure ‘Sinterklaas’ and the British folklore character ‘Father Christmas’, who was not traditionally associated with gifts or children, rather of the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, and the merger of these characters has resulted in the Americanised, and more widely known, ‘Santa Claus’.
SANTA’S RED SUIT
Whilst Coca-Cola is often credited to creating the modern image of Santa Claus, it was an illustration by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly in 1881 that depicted him as a plump, jolly, white-bearded man wearing a red coat with white collar and cuffs, white-cuffed red trousers, and black leather belt and boots, which was itself influenced by the 1823 poem ‘The Night Before Christmas.’ But even this was inspired by the legends of Saint Nicholas and a local Dutch handyman.
Christmas crackers were invented by Thomas Smith in 1846 when, after a visit to Paris, he came across a bon-bon- a sugared almond wrapped in tissue paper- with a twist each side of the wrapper. He tried selling similar sweets in Britain, but they were only popular in the run up to Christmas. In the early 1850s he included mottos with his sweets, often simple poems, and the banger was added in around 1860. These pieces of paper, which would make a loud noise when pulled apart, were originally called ‘cosaques’, but quickly became ‘crackers’. The sweet was replaced by a small gift when other manufacturers copied Smith’s idea. The final element– the paper hat– was added in the early 1900s when his sons took over his business, and by the 1930s the poems has changed to limericks or jokes.
One of the earliest stories of the Christmas tree dates back to 722 and is about St Boniface, who saw a group of Pagans gathered around a huge oak tree about to sacrifice a child. To prevent them he chopped down the tree, and a fir tree grew up in its place. He told everyone that this evergreen was a holy tree- with its branches pointing to heaven, and a symbol of Christ’s promise of eternal life. Trees have been a popular Christmas addition in Germany as far back as the 16th Century, and they arrived on British shores in the 1700s with England’s German King George and the House of Hanover. They didn’t gain prominence until Queen Victoria’s husband Albert, who came from Germany, introduced the tradition in the 1840s after he bought one to England and made the tree part of the celebrations at Windsor Castle. The angel or star placed at the top represents the angels or the star of Bethlehem in the nativity. Every year since 1947, the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square, London, has been donated by the city of Oslo as a symbol of thanks for Britain’s support of Norway during WW2.
BARMY BRITISH HISTORY
Oliver Cromwell, 17th century Puritan ruler and self-proclaimed Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, famously banned Christmas. These rumours are perhaps a little exaggerated; the parliament at the time passed laws restricting Christmas celebrations. In the 1640s, they observed ‘Christ-Tide’, as they had christened it, but it was only a day of fasting and worshipping the lord. By the 1650s, more severe legislation was passed, prosecuting anyone who attended Christmas Church services, and it was ordered that shops and markets were to remain open on 25th December. Cromwell also made it illegal to eat Christmas pudding, minces pies, or anything to do with gluttony on Christmas Day, so anyone planning on scoffing a few (hundred) mince pies on Christmas Day would have been breaking the law.
And a century previous another barmy law was passed. The Holy Days and Fasting Days Act of 1551 stated that everyone must attend a Christian church service on Christmas Day, and must not use a vehicle of any kind to get there. Perhaps not so much a problem in the 1500s, but the law is yet to be repealed- which means, technically, it’s still in force.
This post could go on forever, but these are just a few of the best-loved traditions and their (sometimes quirky) beginnings. So when you’re gathered at the dinner table, adding spoonful after spoonful of mashed potato onto your already over-flowing plate, whip out your new Christmas facts and wow Grandma with your ‘book knowledge’, before you all retire to the lounge to get completely plastered on Brandy butter and Bailey’s hot chocolate.
Merry Christmas, everyone.