Enjoying a jolly holly-day
What are your family Christmas traditions? Sixpences in the pudding? Snoozing afer dinner? Every home has its own favourites. But there are some Christmas traditions we all share, and while some go back centuries, there are others which are more recent than you might think.
Take the tradition of bringing greenery into the home during the darkest months of the year. This harks back to pagan times. For ancient people Christmas marked the turning of the year and the hope of spring and evergreen branches symbolised fertility and the renewal of life.
That explains our holly and ivy, the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe goes all the way back to Druid beliefs about eternal life symbolised by the mistletoe, which grew on their sacred oak tree. But the most common greenery we bring into our homes at Christmas is the Christmas tree, as traditions go it is a very new practice indeed.
We owe our Christmas tree to a famous love affair, the passion of Queen Victoria for her German husband, Prince Albert. Together, the two dreamed up a new vision of solid family life which would revolutionise the way their subjects lived and which still affects us today. And one of their first targets for a revamp was Christmas. Christmas before Victoria was a wild affair which dated back to pagan times.
The fun was presided over by the Lord of Misrule, full of lewd and naughty pranks, and usually strictly for the grown-ups. Stern Victoria, a family woman through and through, disapproved of this uncontrolled revelry. So she and Prince Albert cooked up a new-style celebration more in keeping with the strict values and morals they wished their society to follow. Out went the boozy Lord of Misrule, but Victoria did borrow some of the best pagan traditions.
Greenery, for instance, has been brought into our homes since pagan times. Victorians adopted them with a vengeance. As well as swags and wreaths, they embraced the idea of Christmas trees with enthusiasm. This was a tradition brought from Albert’s homeland of Germany, where trees were once worshipped. When Christianity came along the ancient Germans were still anxious not to offend the tree spirits, and so they brought them into their homes for the celebrations.
Victoria loved Christmas trees, especially bedecked with candles, which were first introduced in the 17th-century to symbolise the starlit sky on the night of the nativity. Before that, they were hung with paper roses and apples to honour Mary. Christmas trees had been a Royal favourite for many years, but led by Victoria and Albert the general population adopted them.
The Royals loved them to extremes, the royal children had one, and so did the ladies in waiting. Victoria wrote a card for each member of the Royal Household to hang on yet another. Victoria, her mother and her husband each had one to themselves, hung with candles, toffees and gingerbread.
No baubles, however, they did not come along until 1870 from Bohemia, where they were said to ward off the evil eye. The family even had them on the dinner table, thanks to a new trend for serving the dinner in dishes for guests to help themselves; this left plenty of room for festive decorations on the table itself and remains with us as a tradition today.
Feasting has been a tradition at Christmas time since pagan days, designed to ward off the harsh winter conditions and bring back the good times. Rich people would have perhaps decked their table with a boar’s head until the start of the last century, when it was replaced by a goose. Turkeys came along in Victoria’s time, and as they were imported from America they were at first a luxury only the very wealthy could afford. The plum pudding we know today also became popular in Victoria’s time, replacing an earlier plum porridge which was once served with the meat course.
And as for one tradition, we have taken it further than any generation before us. Christmas gifts were once only available to people with money, poor children might get a hand-made doll or wooden toy if they were lucky.
And as for that jolly bloke with the red suit who climbs down chimneys, he is very recent indeed. Although Santa is based on St Nicholas, Siner Klaas, a bishop brought to America by Dutch people, today’s version was invented by Thomas Nast in a Christmas cartoon in the American magazine Harper’s Weekly in 1863.