In history

Whether its eating mince pies, hanging mistletoe or putting up a Christmas tree, the things we’re used to doing each year all have an origin in history, so we thought we’d explore some of them in the lead up to the festive season.

While much of our modern Christmas celebrations have their roots in the Victorian era, it has been celebrated for much longer than that. In Tudor times for instance, the festive fun was organised by a member of the Court with the title of the Lord of Misrule. There was a similar role in the Scottish court known as the Abbot of Unreason – these people were in charge of hosting royal Christmas parties until the 17th century when the Puritans banned celebrations. The reason we likely think of Victorian Christmases is because it was around this time that Christmas started to come back into fashion. We also have Charles Dickens to thank, as his story A Christmas Carol is an idealised version of his own childhood Christmases.

What else did the Victorian’s give us when it came to Christmas? Quite a lot actually…

History of Christmas cards

Christmas cards first became popular in the 1800s and the Victorians have been credited with their invention. The first one however caused a bit of a stir, the first one was sent by John Calcott Horsely and featured a small child drinking wine. The card was sent to his friend Henry Cole who reformed the British Postal System, which in turn led to the concept of Christmas Cards becoming more popular.

History of Christmas Trees

While we credit Prince Albert with the popularisation of Christmas trees, it was actually Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III who brought the tradition of putting up a Christmas tree from her native Germany. Prior to this, it was common to have a tree in your home which was decorated in Germany but not in Britain. She started the trend by having a Yew Tree brought to her lodge at Windsor which she then personally decorated.

It is believed that the world’s oldest surviving Christmas tree is located in Wrest Park in Bedfordshire. The tree was planted in 1856 and was brought into the mansion on the grounds every year and then replanted back in the park once Christmas was over. Now, the tree is too big to be moved, but English Heritage who own the site, continue the tradition of decorating it.

History of mistletoe

Like many of our Christmas traditions, mistletoe has a basis in Paganism, so much so that you will rarely see mistletoe in religious buildings. In the times of the Druids, mistletoe was considered sacred and could only be cut with a golden sickle, it was said to bring peace and homes with mistletoe outside were said to offer protection. In the Roman times, it was a symbol of fertility and in the Middle Ages was used to ward off evil spirits. It was the Victorians who created the tradition of kissing beneath the mistletoe. Similarly, holly was also believed to ward off unsavoury visitors – in this instance, witches. The church also disapproved, banning it from appearing in services, until it was later sanctified in reference to the crown of thorns worn by Christ. Traditionally, holly decorations were taken down at Candlemas and had to be burnt, not discarded.

History of Christmas treats

One of the best things about Christmas is the abundance of food and drink that just isn’t readily available at other times of the year. Mince Pies traditionally should be eaten for the 12 days of Christmas and in the Middle Ages it was customary to eat one a day until 12th night. It is said that anyone who refuses to eat their 12 pies will suffer a year of misfortune, which is as good a reason as any to enjoy them!
The concept of having a turkey as the centrepiece of the meal came later. Over the years there have been several traditional dishes including everything from turkey, geese and even swan. In the Victorian era, the working classes would bound together to pay a few pence a week towards the purchase of a goose which would then be shared out between them. The more well off members of society would have a turkey each, preferably one that had made a three month long journey from East Anglia. To protect the birds’ feet, they were dressed in little boots.

While Yule Log is a Christmas treat these days made of chocolate, it used to literally be a large log that was brought inside and burnt on Christmas Eve – the tradition began with the Vikings and was brought to England when they invaded.

Of course, we can’t not mention Christmas Pudding. When it was first introduced, it was known as plum pudding and consisted off a porridge like substance with mutton and beef broth thickened with plums, raisins, currants, wine, spices and prunes and was eaten alongside the meat of the main course. Thankfully, this developed into the much tastier sounding Christmas Pudding, which was traditionally prepared on Stir Up Sunday, the last Sunday before advent.

History of Boxing Day

Boxing Day is a fairly new tradition in the sense that it originated sometime in the 1800s. Back then, Christmas gifts were received in a Christmas Box and the following day, wealthy people would fill the box with unwanted items and hand them out to the poor. For the serving classes, it would be their one day off during the holiday.

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