December - Christmas through the ages

Celebrating a medieval Christmas at Chirk Castle
Published : 08 Nov 2017 Last update : 29 Nov 2017

The ancient ‘winter festivals’ of light and fire offered temporary relief from the long, dark nights and short days. Beginning at the Winter Solstice, fires were kept alight to keep away dark spirits, and greenery such as holly, ivy, bay, and rosemary – all suggesting either fertility or eternal life - was brought indoors. It is from these simple beginnings that we can trace the evolution of the Christmas festivities we recognise today.

The Christian faith layered its own traditions onto this time as an occasion to celebrate the birth of Christ: the Eve of the Festival was now the time to bring in the Yule Log, and to carefully light it with the embers of the previous fire, to ensure continuity. It burned over the 12 official days of ‘Christmas’ celebration – and this remained the significant method of celebrating Christmas until the introduction of Carols and the Nativity Scene in the Thirteenth century. A favoured ‘porridge’ of the time, made with beef and mutton, may even have been the fore-runner of Christmas pudding.

However, it is to the Tudors, who loved eating, drinking and impressing, that we turn to see the appearance of our ‘modern’ Christmas. This was the time when sugar began to make its presence felt in Europe – irresistible and expensive, dazzling and edible delights made from sugar soon began to appear on the tables of wealthy families.

Whimsies such as ‘Collops of bacon’ made from almonds and sugar – became very popular, as did the decorated almond paste called ‘marchpane’ (we know it better as ‘marzipan’), which could even be decorated with gold leaf! Christmas pudding now began to take on a familiar semblance of that which we know, as by 1595 the meat content was generally replaced by eggs, sugar, apples and prunes.

Hot mulled wine is now a popular feature of Christmas, but the Tudors invented a hot beverage called ‘Lamb’s Wool’, which was made with piping hot sherry, cider or ale: this was topped with spiced apples, which exploded in the liquid, leaving a ‘woolly’ top to decorate it!

Merriment, spectacle and feasting continued under the Stuarts, but the emergence of the Puritan movement curtailed these revelries. Puritans regarded Christmas – or ‘Christ-tide’ as it was known, to avoid the use of the Catholic-sounding ‘mass’ - as a dangerous time for innocent souls to fall victim to the vices of drinking, eating and gambling.

The Puritan feeling was that public rejoicing was a direct contradiction of reflective, personal worship they favoured, and some of their measures included the banning of singing carols and eating mince pies. This may well have (unintentionally) been a foundation block of the more private, ‘family Christmas’. With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, ‘good times’ were restored, and merry songs were once again sung by all.

By the time George I came to the throne in 1714, the ‘British Christmas’ was quite well-established, but it is the Hanoverians that we must thank for at least two features of Christmas which are almost as well-known today: the ‘typical’ plum pudding, and the standardisation of the notion of Twelve Days of Christmas!

The technique of meat preservation had improved considerably by this time, and the savoury elements in the Christmas pudding and the mince pie were removed, and replaced with sweetness, although their names remained the same. (George I had such a sweet tooth that he was known as the ‘Pudding King’!)

Much greater emphasis was now placed on the Twelve Days of Christmas - Twelfth Night in particular - and not just Christmas Day itself. Celebrated on 5th January (if you assume that Christmas Day is the first day of feasting) on the ‘Epiphany’ when, traditionally, the Magi visited the birthplace of Jesus, it became so important to the Georgians that by the end of their era, presents were being given on Twelfth Night, which became the time for feasting and games. (This tradition held fast through much of the Nineteenth century, when Twelfth Night was the most popular day of Christmas). It also became the custom to bake a ‘Twelfth Night Cake’, which would eventually be highly decorated, and shared by the masters and servants within a household: the origin of our ‘Christmas Cake’ can be seen here.

Without doubt, Queen Victoria’s reign is associated with the birth of ‘modern’ Christmas traditions – indeed, it is often claimed the Charles Dickens ‘invented’ the Christmas we know today – but there are one or two ‘facts’ which we must not take for granted…

If it often said that Prince Albert introduced the Christmas Tree to Great Britain, but this is simply untrue. Victoria and Albert were indeed pictured by the family tree in 1848, but the idea of bringing a tree into the house, and decorating it for the Festive Season, was the idea of George III’s Queen Charlotte, as early as the 1790’s – and she was following a long-existing German custom.

See the Christmas through the ages themed decorations at Chirk Castle
A traditionally dressed Christmas tree in the Grand Staircase at Chirk Castle
See the Christmas through the ages themed decorations at Chirk Castle

The Victorian era certainly did see the beginning of a more intimate, family celebration, in preference to more public display, and sharing the Christmas spirit with loved ones became easier in the 1840’s, when the Christmas card was invented – just about the time that the penny postal service was introduced. A cheap and efficient way of sending thoughts, was now available, and there were up to four deliveries a day! 

Incidentally, that we see a robin on so many Christmas cards is a coded acknowledgement of the first postal service – the uniform of the Victorian postman included a bright red vest, and they were known as ‘Robins’. Crackers were also invented in England in 1844 (the jokes are older) and so, with the exception of one important element, all the features of Christmas as we know it were now present.

Father Christmas, or ‘St Nicholas’, ‘Santa Claus’ or ‘Pere Noel’ had been a shadowy figure in the British Christmas tradition for many centuries, but we tend to associate his first formal appearance with the nineteenth century American poem ‘A Visit From St Nicholas’, and the accompanying illustrations: the modern assumption that he is dressed in red and white because of a successful Coca-Cola campaign is, unfortunately, wrong – his dress colouring is based on the robes of the Archbishop of Myra, from where St Nicholas is believed to have originated!

‘He’ probably first made an appearance in the myths of Lapland, where homes were built underground in the winter to avoid the terrible cold – the entrance was through a gap for the fire smoke to escape… this may explain his traditional entrance down the chimney? Belief in ‘Flying reindeer’ may well be explained as the result of the Laps drinking the urine of animals which had fed on red and white Fly Agaric (hallucinogenic) mushrooms (all other surface water being frozen) and suffering the consequences. Nonetheless, it is from the nineteenth century that Father Christmas becomes the major focal point… especially in the commercial world.

Visit Father Christmas in his cosy, traditional grotto
Father Christmas in his cosy, traditional grotto at Chirk Castle
Visit Father Christmas in his cosy, traditional grotto

Commercialism has been an ever-present facet of ‘our Christmas’ from the beginning of the twentieth century: inventions, trade and communication have led to a huge range of available gifts. The first ‘Christmas catalogue’ of 500 pages, was brought out in 1913 by Gamages store, in London. Not surprisingly, the children’s market was seen as a most lucrative one… and it is also about this time that the ‘Christmas stocking’ – where yet more, smaller gifts could be stored, became another Christmas ‘tradition’.

The boom time for shops and shoppers crashed with the outbreak of the Second World War, when people switched from purchasing presents to buying War Bonds and National Savings Certificates to support ‘The War Effort’. But there was still jollity at Christmas – in fact the government insisted on it.

" If we are merry at Christmas, we shall be showing the Nazis that we are winning the war of nerves"
- Winston Churchill

Travel became very difficult, and there was a scarcity of luxury goods – sugar, butter and eggs were in short supply, and substitutions were created. Decorations were home-made, and there was no room in an air-raid shelter for a Christmas tree!

The war ended in 1945, but rationing of certain foodstuffs continued for some years to come, so the delicacies of canned and bottled food began to take over as the staple diet of the nation. Whereas the ‘home Christmas’ had been traditional in the sense that each family passed down its own, individual way of celebrating, the trend now was to ‘seek advice’ from any one of the many Home Hints type of magazines which sprang up, or even to try and emulate the Christmases of Hollywood stars. Visits to the cinema were now at a record level, and the images of stars and their ‘typical Christmases’ began to seep into the British consciousness.

The media gradually came to govern how families spent their Christmases . . . advertisements for ‘essential’ toys are now screened from early Autumn, and now indispensable television chefs help you to plan your careful use of calories, Christmas lunch may only be eaten after the Queen’s Speech was over, everything has to be cleared away for whatever the successor to the  ‘Morecambe and Wise Special’ may be, and silence now reigns for an hour as yet more Yuletide gloom sags out of Albert Square… what will our grandchildren’s Christmas be like?