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December Festivities

December 2013

Christmas has moved on from being just a religious festival and today is celebrated across the world as a time for families to come together. Certainly Christmas carols and nativity stories play a major role but things have changed and today people of many faiths join in Christmas celebrations.

Interestingly, at the beginning of the 19th century Christmas wasn’t really celebrated at all, and many businesses remained open on Christmas Day.

It is really thanks to Germany that we celebrate Christmas as we do today with a decorated Christmas tree. When Prince Albert came over to the UK to marry Queen Victoria, he brought with him many traditions from his childhood in Coburg including putting a tree up for Christmas. In 1848 the Illustrated London News magazine published a drawing of the royal family celebrating Christmas around a decorated tree and the idea took off. After that every home had to have a tree decorated with candles, sweets and small gifts at Christmas time and the custom has remained.

The idea of sending Christmas cards originated in the same era when an English civil servant Sir Henry Cole commissioned an artist to design a card for Christmas. Henry was involved in many business innovations and he started selling these cards at one shilling each. The idea was liked however, and Queen Victoria’s children were encouraged to make their own Christmas cards. When the halfpenny postage stamp came in, then sending Christmas cards quickly became popular among the general population.

It was another forward thinking Victorian that came up with the idea of Christmas crackers. British confectioner Tom Smith was inspired by a trip to Paris where he saw sugared almond sweets wrapped in twists of paper.  He copied the idea, wrapping sweets up with tissue paper and even better, he then came up with the idea of including a love motto in the tissue paper. This started creating interest and sales and, astute businessman that he was, he thought about other ways to enhance his new product.  This time the inspiration came when he threw a log on a fire and it cracked; and after a great deal of experimentation he came up with the basic idea of coating combustible chemicals with fine sandpaper on the end of two strips of card.  Working this into his cracker design, the first proper crackers were launched.

 

Christmas pudding is a tradition that goes back a lot further than the Victorians. The original plum pudding originates from medieval England when it was a custom that a pudding should be made on the 25th Sunday after Trinity Sunday. This is a religious milestone a week after Pentecost, one of the most ancient feasts of the Catholic Church. In the 14th century a frumenty or porridge was made of beef and mutton with raisins, currants, prunes, wines and spices and was often eaten as a fasting meal before Christmas festivities. One hundred years later this had changed into a plum pudding and was thickened with eggs, breadcrumbs and dried fruit. It became a Christmas dessert in the mid 1600s and in 1714 King George 1 helped to establish its nationwide popularity by including it in his Christmas meal.

Hanging mistletoe and the custom of kissing below it is another ancient tradition that has evolved as part of tradition Christmas customs. In the times of the ancient Druids, mistletoe used to be hung in a house to ward off evil spirits and bring in good luck. In Norse mythology mistletoe was also used as a sign of love and friendship. The two have gradually come together and today these long traditions remains part of modern Christmas decoration and custom.

Father Christmas. There are lots of different stories and myths about this very Christmassy character, but generally the belief is that St Nicholas, who was the Bishop of Myra in Turkey in the 3rd century, was a key character that helped start this story. It was said he travelled in red robes giving gifts to the poor, and especially to poor children.

However, the Father Christmas that we know today probably also included ideas from other similar characters. In the fifth and sixth centuries there was a King Frost and a King Winter where someone would be welcomed into homes and fed with food and drink.  When the Vikings arrived in Britain, they brought with them the Norse God Odin who had a long white beard and travelled the world on his eight legged horse giving out gifts to the good.

When the Normans arrived, they had already adopted St Nicholas and brought him into Britain in various forms. One form, Pere Noel, was a depiction of the Christmas spirit of cheer but was not associated with gift bringing.

And so the legends and stories became intertwined until our modern genial, plump, bearded and kindly Father Christmas emerged. But legends continue to change, and today Father Christmas can be seen playing guitars and leading Christmas music festivals; driving snowmobiles and jumping out of trains instead of a reindeer driving sleigh. No doubt in years to come there will be a new type of Father Christmas to enthral young and old alike.

 


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