December - Christmas at the castle
Today we have a very clear idea of what we consider our Christmas traditions, and it may feel like it has always been so, but many of our modern traditions only date back to the mid-19th century...
By the Middle Ages, the importance of Christmas itself had largely faded in Britain, as Easter was by far the more important Christian festival. Things began to change in the 13th century when the influence of St Francis of Assisi’s ‘Nativity Plays’ spread through Europe. Incorporating songs of worship which became known as ‘carols’, they were sung in the language of the peasantry, and not in Latin, the popularity of Christmas began a revival.
However, in the early 17th century under Oliver Cromwell the celebration of Christmas with music, laughter and frivolities like the consumption of mince pies (originally made with meat) were again virtually abolished, only to return after the Restoration with vigour.
Today we may wistfully recall the Christmases we enjoyed as children, with deep snow, Christmas trees, carol-singing, eating and generally enjoying a sense of goodwill to all men. The advent of television introduced Morecambe and Wise and the Queen’s Speech into this ‘traditional’ image, but for the origins of many of our ‘traditional British Christmas’ images we have to thank the Victorians – and most especially Charles Dickens.
Dickens had been motivated to write ‘A Christmas Carol’, a metaphor of a rich man’s redemption, by a visit to Manchester in 1843, in which he had seen the effect of poverty and lack of education on the cold and hungry working populace: written in six short weeks, he gives us images of Christmas we believe to be our own.
Many of us may describe the snowfall we enjoyed over our own early Christmases, but actually there have been only seven white Christmases in Britain since 1900! By contrast, six out of Dickens’ first nine Christmases were white – including that of 1812/13, in which the Thames froze so hard it took an elephant’s weight! Immortalised in 'A Christmas Carol', ice and snow still form a central part of our image of Christmas – from pictures on Christmas cards, to animated snowmen and festive TV advertisements!
Scrooge begrudges his clerk Christmas Day off. Today we are used to ‘public holidays’ but the concept of Christmas Day being an ordinary working day was commonplace in Dickens' time. In fact, it was only the Twentieth century when this was formally reconsidered!
Christmas carols are often Victorian too. ‘We Three Kings,’ written in America, being responsible for the commonly-held, and totally-unfounded belief that three kings were in attendance in Bethlehem! The most significant thing about these carols, however, is that they are sung at home and not just in the confines of a church. Christmas was becoming a family event, no longer an organised religious one.
Bringing greenery into the home around Christmas time was British tradition going back to the Middle Ages, and possibly beyond, however the idea of the Christmas tree as we know it today was imported by the Royal Family from Germany, and was popularised in the Victorian era by the Queen and Prince Albert.
Chirk Castle is open for the Christmas period from 3 to 23 December, with our main medieval events on 10&11 and 17&18 December. We also have plenty of craft activities to get you in the festive spirit throughout December. For more details on all of our Christmas activities, and for booking details for those activities which require it, please see our Christmas at Chirk Castle article.
If you’re coming to visit Chirk Castle this Christmas, you’ll get the chance to see the festive spirit in abundance! Merry Christmas all!