Christmas is probably the planet’s most popular celebration.
Most houses will have a Christmas tree up this year but its introduction to Great Britain goes back to 1841 when Queen Victoria’s husband Albert brought a tree over from Germany to put up in Windsor Castle. The Royal couple were featured in a newspaper by way of an illustration which showed them standing around the tree and from thereon in the tradition became fashionable with households everywhere.
Yule is an old word for winter that dates back to the time of the Vikings. Most people today would describe a Yule log as a chocolate cake but traditionally it represents a special log that was first lit on Christmas Eve and then left to burn for the twelve days of Christmas until Twelfth Night. The Celts were the first to foster this tradition, believing that for twelve days up to the end of December the sun stood still and that by burning a log brightly for that period they would encourage the sun to return.
The Christmas pudding used to be known as a Christmas porridge called Frumenty, a dish that was made of wheat or corn boiled in milk. As time went on, other ingredients were added to the recipe such as dried plums, prunes eggs and even lumps of meat. When cooked it was then poured into a dish and eventually became called “Plum Pudding”. Traditionally, a Christmas pudding should be made up at the beginning of Advent and each member of the family is supposed to give the pudding a stir and make a secret wish. A coin is also sometimes placed in the pudding and whoever finds it is supposed to have good luck for the year to come.
To most people, Father Christmas is a kindly old man in a red suit who lives at the North Pole and delivers presents to all the children every Christmas Eve. However, much of what we know of this character is thanks to the Americans who fashioned everything from his image to his outfit. In 1866 a cartoonist first suggested he was a maker of toys and soon after another artist portrayed him as an overly fat, happy, white bearded elf wearing a spotted red-brown suit. Coca Cola also played a great part in popularising the outfit he is most associated with today.
Of course Santa Claus as he is also known is said to be based upon the character of St Nicholas, a shy man who wanted to give money to the poor without them knowing about it. It is said that one day he climbed onto the roof of a house and dropped a purse of money down the chimney. It landed in the stocking which a girl had put out to dry and this is believed to be the origin of why Father Christmas comes down the chimney and places gifts in stockings.
Advent Calendars first came to prominence in Germany in the late 1800s and soon became popular throughout Europe and North America. Originally the images they portrayed came from the Hebrew bible but today many have no religious content. In fact it is as common to find a piece of chocolate or a teddy bear behind an opened door as it is an angel.
The word “Carol” derives from the ancient Greek word “Choros” which means dancing in a circle. Most Christmas Carols have a religious, mainly Christian association and some date back as far as medieval times. During the Middle Ages carols were actually dances that were accompanied by singing and it is believed that these dances were first introduced to England by the French.
Kissing under the mistletoe has become a tradition synonymous with Christmas and it originates from Scandinavia. Any two people who meet beneath a sprig of mistletoe are obliged to kiss to encourage Christmas cheer and the fact that the plant bears its fruit around the winter months is probably another reason why it has become part of festive celebrations, although there is no allusion to it until the 18th Century.
The traditional colours of Christmas owe much to Christian beliefs. Green is said to represent the continuance of life through the winter and the religious passage of eternal life through Jesus Christ. Red symbolizes the blood he shed at the Crucifixion. However, today much of this history has been lost and religion plays less of a part of the celebration for many nations.
Centuries ago, boar’s head and fattened goose were the main course on most Christmas dinner tables in England. However, once the turkey was imported from the USA to Europe, reaching the UK in the 1520s, it soon took over as the traditional English Christmas meal.
Christmas Crackers were first invented by Thomas Smith in 1846. Whilst visiting Paris he came across the bon-bon, a sugar almond wrapped in tissue paper (with a twist at either end) and copied the idea for the English market. In the early 1850s he came up with the idea of including mottos with the sweets. Then in 1860, Thomas added the banger to his design and such was the success of his invention that many imitators appeared on the scene. His business continued to thrive even after his death and in the early 1900s paper hats were added to the cracker with jokes first making an appearance by the end of the 1930s.
George R Vaughan