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Christmas traditions from history

Christmas tree in the decorated dining room at Lanhydrock, Cornwall
Christmas tree in the dining room at Lanhydrock, Cornwall | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

We all have festive traditions at Christmas, but have you ever wondered where these customs began? From stirring silver charms into Christmas puddings to kissing boughs, learn more about the ways our Roman, Victorian and medieval ancestors prepared for the season.

Midwinter parties and entertainment

Roman origins

The custom of partying in December comes from the Roman festival Saturnalia. Saturn was the Roman God of agriculture and plenty. Wealthy Romans, such as those who lived at Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire, would've celebrated by playing games as well as eating and drinking lavishly. One game involved throwing dice to decide who should play the part of the Saturnalian monarch.

Winter decorations

People decorated homes in the dark winter months, long before Christmas began. At medieval castles servants hung up evergreen boughs and lit fires to brighten up the winter days. Kissing boughs adorned the ceiling, decorated with seasonal fruit. Later people used mistletoe, which was believed to bring good luck and fertility. Even Christmas trees originate from Pagan tree worship and midwinter festivals.

Music and storytelling

Many Tudor houses like Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk would invite musicians to entertain them during the festive season. Storytelling round the fire appears in many historic accounts of Christmas. In Victorian times, house parties included games like charades or musical chairs. Sometimes a travelling theatre company would set up in the hall of large country houses to perform to the guests.

Dancing and skating

Dancing has been a central part of Christmas celebrations for centuries. Owners of country houses would engage live musicians to accompany set dances. Charles Paget Wade, former owner of Snowshill, Gloucestershire described the ‘rare adventure of a drive by night in the carriage’ to a Christmas dancing party. Country houses like Lyme Park in Cheshire invited guests to skate when their lakes froze over.

Seventeenth century Christmas food display on the table in the kitchen at Ham House in London, with traditional decorations and candles.
17th century Christmas food display in the Kitchen at Ham House, London | © National Trust Images/Chris Davies

Food and feasting at Christmas

Medieval feasts

People have over-indulged during midwinter for centuries. In medieval times, no treats or luxuries were allowed during the four weeks before Christmas, and there was a fast on Christmas Eve. You can imagine the relish with which people tucked into their plum porridge, meat and Yule loaves on Christmas Day.

The great table laden every inch is a sparkle of scintillating lights, silver, glass, dishes, tinsel, candles and crackers.

A quote by Charles Paget Wade Former owner of Snowshill Manor, Gloucestershire

The original Christmas pudding

The earliest form of Christmas plum pudding was plum porridge. In the Middle Ages this was made of a shin of beef, stewed with dried fruit. By the 1800s there was a tradition of stirring a sweeter plum pudding on the Sunday before Advent. Children would add silver Christmas charms including coins, a ring to foretell a marriage, a horseshoe for luck and a thimble for a life of blessedness.

Christmas gifts and an old-fashioned model train on a circular track, on the floor of a room at Standen House and Garden, West Sussex.
Christmas gifts and a model train at Standen House, Sussex | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Christmas gifts and Advent treats

Edwardian traditions

In Edwardian times wealthy people would thank staff working in their homes at Christmas. At Lyme Park in Cheshire there would be tea in the servants’ hall followed by a children’s party with gifts like oranges or small toys. Servants might be given clothing, money, a piece of meat or even an umbrella. Sometimes presents were buried in a 'lucky dip' tub full of bran, set next to a Christmas tree.

The first Advent calendar

There are many references to people marking the days of Advent by burning candles or marking the wall with chalk. However, the first printed calendar is credited to Gerhardt Lang in Germany. In the late 19th century his mother taped a sweet to a piece of cardboard for each day of Advent. As an adult Gerhardt set up a printing business and produced his first Advent calendar in 1908 – an idea that soon spread across the world.

Christmas superstitions

Many ancient superstitions surround the Christmas season. A large log of oak too heavy for one man to lift would be put on the hearth in Victorian houses like Tyntesfield in Somerset. If it was still smouldering on Christmas Day, then it was said that the home would be prosperous for the coming year.

On New Year’s Eve, there was a tradition of opening every door and window just before midnight, to let out the ‘burden’ of the old year.

Overhead view of an octagonal table with the figure of Silenus, a drunken follower of Bacchu, in The Library at Claydon House in Buckinghamshire

Immerse yourself in history

Meet people from the centuries gone by, learn about the unique artworks in our care and understand more about historic traditions.

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