A little bit of History

English Christmas Traditions

Christmas in England is a magical experience, full of traditions, fun and delicious food.
Here you can see how some of these traditions developed to what we experience today

The Christmas Tree

While Christmas trees were already popular in northern Europe, the first one did not appear in the UK until the 1800s.
 
Many people think this tradition in Britain started with the Victorians when Prince Albert put up a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in 1841. However, the tradition actually dates back further than that.
 
It originally came from Germany, where Prince Albert was born, but was introduced to England during the Georgian period, when King George III was on the throne. 
 
King George IIIs’ German wife Queen Charlotte, set up the first known English tree at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor, in December,1800.
 
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are said to be the ones who made it popular and fashionable to decorate a tree at Christmas after a picture of Victoria's Christmas tree was shown in a London newspaper decorated with glass ornaments and baubles from her husband Prince Albert's native Germany which is why a lot of people think that they started the tradition in Britain.
 
During the Victorian times, Christmas trees were decorated with candles to remind children of the stars in the sky at the time of the birth of Jesus.
 
Today, candles have been replaced by the strings of coloured lights, to symbolise of the 'Light of the World'.
 
Christmas trees were also traditionally decorated with sweets and cakes hung with ribbon. It was not until 1880 that Woolworths first sold manufactured Christmas tree ornaments which proved to be very popular and took over as the traditional way to dress a Christmas tree .

Trafalgar Square Christmas Tree

Ever since 1947, Norway has donated a tree to London to say thank you for helping them during World War II.
 
A special ceremony is held in Norway in November, when the tree is cut down in the forest in Norway.
 
It is then put up in Trafalgar Square in London and decorated in the traditional Norwegian way, with strings of lights going down the tree, rather than criss-crossing it.

Turkey

Turkeys originated in Mexico and were first brought to Britain more than 500 years ago by William Strickland who acquired six birds from American Indian traders on his travels.
 
Before that, the meat of choice for Christmas was goose, boars' head and even peacock.
 
Henry VIII was the first king to eat turkey on Christmas day making it fashionable in high society, but it was not until the mid twentieth century that the turkey overtook the goose as the most popular Christmas Day meal.
 
However, even by 1930 it took a week’s wages to buy one and turkey remained a luxury until the 1950s.

Mulled Wine or Wassail Cup

The term “Wassail” in Anglo-Saxon means “Be Well” which was traditionally a greeting made at the start of the New Year.
 
The act of Wassailing - going door-to-door with a bowl of
spiced alcoholic beverage - was performed on the “Twelfth Night,” (January 5, 6, or 17, depending on which calendar you go by) and met with replies of “Drink well.”
 
Depending on where you lived, Wassail was made with either wine or cider which would be heated up and mixed with various fruits and spices.
 
It is more commonly known as “mulled wine” nowadays which basically follows the wassail recipe.
 
Mulled Wine Recipe Ingredients
2 bottles of medium to full bodied red wine
1 orange stuck with cloves
2 oranges sliced
2 lemons sliced
6 level tea spoons of brown sugar 
1 two inch piece cinnamon stick
2 level teaspoons of finely grated fresh ginger or ground ginger
10 to 12 gratings of nutmeg
2 star anise
2 tablespoons of Cointreau

Method
Put the sugar and enough wine to cover the sugar into a pan.
Heat and stir until all the sugar has dissolved then bring to the boil.
Add the Nutmeg, Star Anise Cinnamon Stick Ginger and Cloves
Keep on a rolling boil for about 4 to 5 minutes, or until you have a thick syrup.
Turn down the heat and stir in the rest of the ingredients until the fluid is warm
Do not boil or all the alcohol will evaporate. T
his can be made in advance, then re-heated just before required.
Serve it warm in heatproof glasses

Holly and Ivy

Both holly and ivy were originally used in pre-Christian times to celebrate the winter solstice and ward off evil spirits.
 
When Christianity came into Western Europe Holly and Ivy became used as symbols of the faith
 
The prickly holly leaves represent the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified, whilst the red berries are the drops of blood that were shed by Jesus because of the thorns.
 
The use of ivy which stays green throughout the year symbolizes eternal life and rebirth.
 
With its tendency to cling, Christians use ivy symbolically to remind them that they need to cling to God for support in their lives.

Mistletoe

Hanging mistletoe in the home is an ancient pagan practice adopted by early Christians. The word itself comes from two Anglo Saxon words ‘Mistel’ (which means dung) and ‘tan’ (which means twig or stick)! So you could translate Mistletoe as ‘dung on a stick!
 
The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe originated in England. Each kiss required a berry to be plucked until none remained.
 
The earliest mention of mistletoe's romantic powers was by Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder, who sneered at the Druids for believing that "mistletoe would impart fertility to all animals that are barren."
 
This was later expanded by the Norse myth about Baldur and his mother, Frigga, the goddess of love and marriage.
 
According to legend, Frigga got all the plants and animals of the Earth to promise not to harm her son—except mistletoe. Loki, the god of mischief, took that opportunity to kill Baldur with a spear made of mistletoe.
 
Frigga's tears then turned into mistletoe berries, which brought Baldur back to life, prompting Frigga to declare mistletoe a symbol of love.

Christmas Carols

Carols were songs and dances of praise and joy in pagan times and the practice of carol singing carried over into the Christian era.
 
Carols have been written through the centuries but the most familiar date from Victorian times. However, for thousands of years songs have been sung at the Winter Solstice - to celebrated and celebrate the turn from the shortest day towards longer ones.
 
The word 'carol' probably comes from the old French word 'carole', which - from around the mid-1100s - meant a popular circle dance accompanied by singing."
 
By the late Middle Ages, carols had become more associated with Christmas and the nativity with songs and dances of praise and joy.
 
Carols have been written through the centuries but the most are from Victorian times where there was a proliferation of writing, installing the virtues of Christianity

The Queen’s Speech

A traditional feature of the British Christmas afternoon is the Queen’s Christmas Speech.
 
At 3pm the Queen gives her Christmas Message to the nation which is broadcast on radio and television, both to the nation and throughout the British Commonwealth.
 
The idea for a Christmas message from the sovereign to the British Empire was proposed in 1932 by Sir John Reith, the “founding father” of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), as a way to establish the Empire Service (now the World Service).
 
George V was the first monarch to broadcast a Royal Christmas Message and it then took another 25 years for the first Queen’s Christmas Speech to be televised.
 
In 2007 the Queen launched her own channel on YouTube, which featured the message.
 
The launch marks the 50th anniversary of the Queen’s first televised festive address which you can visit at: https://www.youtube.com/user/TheRoyalChannel

The Paper Crown

It is quite common for British people to wear King’s paper crown on Christmas Day and at Christmas dinner parties and they are usually found in the Christmas Cracker along with a small toy and joke .
 
This tradition of wearing a crown at Christmas is believed to date back to Roman times when participants in the Roman Saturnalia celebrations held around 25th December wore decorative hats.
 
Furthermore, during the Twelfth Night celebrations, a King or Queen used to be appointed to supervise the proceedings hence the use for the crown

Boxing Day

The day after Christmas day is a nationally recognized holiday in the UK, and is also a bank holiday.
 
It is generally accepted that the name derives from the giving of Christmas “boxes”, and it is thought that the tradition began in churches in the Middle Ages.
 
Parishioners collected money for the poor in alms boxes, and these were opened on the day after Christmas in honour of St Stephen whose feast day falls on 26 December.
 
During the Victorian period Christmas boxes were given to domestic staff. Having served their employers on Christmas Day domestic staff were allowed time off on Boxing Day to visit their own families and often went away with boxes full of leftover Christmas food as well as a gift presented in a box from their employer.
 
It was also usual for tradespeople to collect 'Christmas boxes' of presents or money during the Christmas period as thanks for good service throughout the year.
 
Samuel Pepys mentions the practice in a diary entry from December 19th 1663: "Thence by coach to my shoemaker’s and paid all there, and gave something to the boys’ box against Christmas."
 
This practice has diminished over the years but the name Boxing Day still remains
 

Pantomime

Pantomime or Panto has to be one of the quirkiest, eccentric British institutions that we have.

Traditionally performed around Christmas time. Pantomime literally means “all kinds” of “mime” (panto-mime).

It features men dressed as women, and women masquerading as men presenting a tale of good and evil, where hope triumphs over adversity after danger and virtual despair all based on common fairy tales such as Cinderella, Aladdin and Snow White.

Thought to have evolved from the Italian commedia dell'arte tradition. meaning ‘comedy of the artists’ where in the 16th Century Small companies toured in Italy and France, setting up in market places and fairgrounds telling improvised stories of the old man Pantalone, the clown Pierrot, and Columbine - the girl in love with the naughty servant Arlecchino.

The actors often wore distinctive masks which enabled audiences to recognise the characters they were playing but also allowed the actors to make topical and risqué jokes without fear of being recognised.
 
From the late 1600s these characters appeared in English comic plays, introduced by the theatre impresario John Rich.
 
Taking centre stage was the acrobatic Harlequin - the English name for the Commedia dell’arte’s Arlecchino - who evolved into a impish magician. Known as Harlequinades, Rich’s plays were an early form of pantomime
 
By the Victorian era Harlequinades had evolved into pantomime as we know it. With scripts telling stories adapted from fairy tales with a witty style that included topical content, men dressed up as women, and animals being played by human beings.
 
The last traditional Harlequinade was staged at the Lyceum Theatre in 1939 and pantomime as we know it has been with us ever since …
 
I hear you cry in true traditional pantomime fashion - “Oh no it hasn’t” “Oh yes it has”!
 

Father Christmas

Although they are generally thought of as the same person today, Santa and Father Christmas have very different origins.

Santa Claus originated from Dutch settlers in America with stories about Sinter Klass, the Dutch name for St Nicholas, and how he gave presents to girls and boys.

St Nicholas was Bishop of Myra, in Turkey in the 3rd century AD, who travelled in his red bishop's robes and gave gifts to the poor. It is thought that he was kind to children but was also very shy. Legend has it that one day, wanting to give money in secret to  a poor man who had no dowry for his unmarried daughters, he dropped some gold coins down their chimney and the gold fell into stockings left hanging to dry.

The story of St. Nicholas didn't appear in Britain until after the Norman invasion, but was quickly absorbed into the legend of Father Christmas who had already been around for many centuries.

The earliest Father Christmas appeared during ancient British mid-winter festivals. He wasn't known as Father Christmas then, but as a general pagan figure who represented the coming of spring. He would wear a long, green hooded cloak and a wreath of holly, ivy or mistletoe His ability to lift people's spirits during the darkest days of the year was the role of this ancient Father Christmas.

During the fifth and sixth centuries AD, Father Christmas took on the characteristics King Frost or King Winter. Someone would dress up as King Winter and be welcomed into homes, where he would sit near the fire and be given something to eat and drink. It was thought that by being kind to King Winter, the people would get a milder winter in return. Thus Father Christmas became associated with receiving good things.

When the Vikings invaded Britain they brought their own midwinter traditions with the 20th to the 31st of December being known as Jultid the time when the Norse God Odin takes on the character of Jul, one of his twelve characters, and visits the earth. The name lives on today as Yuletide.

During Jultid Odin, a portly, elderly man with a white beard and a long, blue, hooded cloak was said to have ridden through the world on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir, giving gifts to the good and punishments to the bad.

By the arrival of the Normans the creation of the British Father Christmas was complete. The first written reference is found in a 15th century carol, which includes the line "Welcome, my lord Christëmas."  From this point onwards, Father Christmas is seen to represent the spirit of Christmas:

In Tudor and Stuart times Sir Christmas or Captain Christmas was called upon to preside over the Christmas entertainment in large houses, and in 1638, we Thomas Nabbes created the first known image of Father Christmas, illustrated as an old man in a furred coat and cap.

During the rise of the Puritans and the commonwealth in Britain the celebration of Christmas and as a consequence Father Christmas was banned. Father Christmas then went underground and it is thought, took a greater role in Mummers Plays, often striding onto the stage at the beginning of the play to say "In comes I, old Father Christmas, be I welcome or be I not? I hope old Father Christmas, will never be forgot."

It took until the Victorian age for Father Christmas to be truly revived as the spirit of Christmas, and by then was drawn as a jolly, pagan figure in a long, hooded coat -- the colour of which could be red, blue, green or brown.

By the middle of the 20th century, our Father Christmas had changed again. This time he was heavily influenced by America including Clement C. Moore's 1822 poem "The Night before Christmas", and by the Coca Cola Company.

In Moore's poem, we got the idea that Santa lives at the North Pole, has a list of good and bad children and reads letters from them. Off course in England the letters were posted up the chimney!  And although Father Christmas had worn red before, it was the Coca Cola Company's advert of 1931 that helped to make red the standard colour for Father Christmas's coat.

Thus Santa and Father Christmas became one. But although they are similar today, Father Christmas is not Santa; he is much, much more than that.

A Visit from St. Nicholas 

By Clement Clarke Moore - 1823

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds;

While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;

And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,

Had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap,

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew like a flash,

Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,

Gave a lustre of midday to objects below,

When what to my wondering eyes did appear,

But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,

With a little old driver so lively and quick,

I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,

And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:

"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!

On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!

To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!

Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"

As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,

When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;

So up to the housetop the coursers they flew

With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too—

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof

The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,

Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,

And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;

A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,

And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.

His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,

And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,

And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;

He had a broad face and a little round belly

That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,

And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head

Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,

And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,

And laying his finger aside of his nose,

And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,

And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”