Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:50 am
A version of this feature is included in the book, ‘A Bit about Britain’s High Days and Holidays’.
Of course, Christmas is Christmas and the basics are ubiquitous in any country with a Christian tradition. That said, everybody celebrates it, if they celebrate it at all, in their own way. Each family seems to have its own traditions, which change over time and as people come and go. Each country has its own unique foibles as well; and, like it or not, Christmas is an ever-changing feast (it always has been). Anyway, this brief guide will help you understand the basics of Christmas in Britain – if you’re visiting or if, like me, you’ve lived here all your life and are still confused.
If you do not like Christmas, do not waste your time reading any further…
A Christmas Carol
‘A Christmas Carol’ is a short tale, a novella, written by Charles Dickens (1812-70). It was first published in December 1843 and only took the author about six weeks to produce. The story introduces us to the character of Ebenezer Scrooge, a bitter, anti-Christmas, miser, who one Christmas Eve is visited by the ghost of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley. Marley’s Ghost tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three spirits. Much to Scrooge’s dismay, the spirits – in turn, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to come – do pay a visit. As a result, Scrooge is transformed into a kind benefactor. It is a wonderfully uplifting tale that, personally, I never tire of hearing. There have been numerous film and TV versions, many of them excruciatingly awful; but the very best of all has to be the 1951 film starring Alastair Sim.
Advent is the period before Christmas in the Christian calendar, commencing on the 4th Sunday before Christmas. An advent calendar simply counts down 24 days to Christmas, often in the form of a festive scene printed on cardboard, and with a little numbered door to be opened each day to reveal a chocolate and appropriate illustration beneath. Advent candles are fairly common too, with rings numbered 1 to 24. Advent calendars are not unique to Britain and originated in Germany, where Protestants counted down the days to Weihnachten by leaving chalk marks on walls, burning candles or, later, by hanging up little symbols or images each day. The first-known advent calendars as we would recognise them were carved of wood in the 19th century; by the 20th century they were printed on card; the doors arrived in the 1920s and chocolates in the 1950s. When I was growing up, hundreds of years ago, we had a beautiful advent calendar made of cardboard that would be unpacked and re-used every year; every day, a door would be opened to reveal a little biblical scene beneath.
This, normally ironic, expression of disgust comes to us courtesy of Ebenezer Scrooge who trots it out when his nephew wishes him “Merry Christmas”. ‘Bah!’, an expression of contempt, is thought to be French in origin. I once experienced a French mechanic who did a magnificent ‘Pah!’ of disgust at the intricacies of my old Saab. The origin of ‘Humbug’, a noun meaning fraud, sham, deception or imposter, is unknown, but dates from the 18th century. One theory is that it derives from the Italian uomo bugiardo, a lying man. See ‘A Christmas Carol’
Boxing Day is the day after Christmas Day and a public holiday. In days long gone, boxes were placed in churches to collect money for the poor and needy. Heads of houses would give small sums to their underlings to put in the box. The boxes were opened by priests on Christmas Day and the contents distributed next day. It was called the ‘dole of the Christmas box’, or the ‘box money’. Later, apprentices would carry a box round to their masters’ customers to gather gratuities and it became a tradition to give ‘a Christmas box’ – what would now be simply called ‘a tip’ – to those who provided a regular service over the year, such as postmen, dustmen, milkmen, newspaper boys, corrupt politicians and so on. Some people referred to Christmas presents as ‘the Christmas box’ well into the late 20th century.
Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without the festive fragrance of paraffin, mingled with cheap, sweet, chemicals, in a scented candle. Lanterns or candles were used in ancient winter solstice celebrations as a reminder of light in the darkness and the coming spring, as well as by Christians. Romans gave gifts of white candles as part of their celebration of Saturnalia. Jesus described himself as ‘the Light of the World’ (for example, John 8:12 “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”). He is also quoted using the expression elsewhere.
Candles of course were a main source of light in pre-electric homes and small candles were used to decorate Christmas trees, despite the risk of fire.
We often speak of a ‘Dickensian’, or ‘Victorian’, Christmas. Much of our Christmas iconography – cute, snow-covered streets with comfortable looking bow windows, a group of Victorian-clad carol-singers, whiskered gents in top hats, ice-skaters – belongs to this period. We owe some of this to Charles John Huffam Dickens, not just through ‘A Christmas Carol’, but his other writings too. The Victorians helped revive a flagging Christmas, at a time when few were in a position to have a particularly happy one. Dickens was born on 7 February 1812 at Landport, Portsmouth, Hampshire and died on 9 June 1870 at his home, Gad’s Hill Place, in Higham, Kent. Places associated with him, like the Dickens Museum in London, and Portsmouth, often stage Dickens themed festive events.
It’s impossible to avoid bells at Christmas – and who wants to, anyway? Church bells ring out, hand-bells are rung by choirs or in market-places – and, of course, sleigh bells jingle enticingly, but elusively, in the night sky. The song, Jingle-Bells, was written by American James Lord Pierpont and originally published in 1857 as a song for Thanksgiving entitled ‘One Horse Open Sleigh’.
A British Christmas cake is normally a fairly heavy, moist, spiced fruit cake, covered in marzipan, then iced and decorated. It should be made about six weeks in advance and regularly ‘fed’ with a spirit – usually brandy – to add flavour and keep it moist. The marzipan coating comes later and, in my experience, it’s often not iced and decorated until Christmas Eve. The decorations often include little model figures – Father Christmas, a robin, snowman, Christmas tree; maybe even a penguin. What?! – you’ve never heard of the Christmas penguin??
There are regional variations – Welsh, Scottish and English Christmas cakes are all slightly different. In Yorkshire, and to some extent Lancashire, it’s considered quite normal to eat Christmas cake with cheese.
Christmas cake and Christmas pudding share a common origin, a kind of fruity porridge called frumenty, eaten on Christmas Eves long ago. By the 16th century, it became popular to take out the oatmeal, add flour and eggs, and boil the mixture for a cake to be eaten at Easter. The story goes that dried fruit and spices from the east were added to make a special cake to be eaten on Twelfth Night, a traditional time of feasting. Only larger house with ovens baked cakes, though; elsewhere, they would be boiled. Twelfth Night Cake became Christmas Cake as the traditions changed. In some great houses, it was common to bake a dried pea or bean into the cake and whoever got it became King of the Revels.
Even in these digital days, we spend millions of pounds every year on Christmas cards. The first commercial Christmas card is credited to Sir Henry Cole in 1843. Cole (1808-82) was a bit of a Victorian superstar, who helped organise the Public Record Office, assisted Rowland Hill in introducing the penny post in 1840, went on to manage the Great Exhibition of 1851, and was instrumental in the profits from this being used for, among other things, founding the Victoria and Albert Museum, the V&A. Cole thought that sending a generic, printed, Christmas greeting to his many friends would be a lot less laborious than writing individual letters, so he asked a chum, John Callcott Horsley to design one for him. About 1,000 sold for a shilling each (5p now) and the rest, as they say, is history.
Read a bit more about Christmas cards.
According to the Oxford dictionary, a carol is simply a joyous song. However, it was originally an improvised ring dance, to which the dancers added singing, with roots in medieval France, or perhaps ancient times. The tradition of singing at festivals is surely as old as Man – and certainly not unique to Christianity. Carols could be performed at any time of year – at Easter, perhaps, or harvest-time; so remember, a carol isn’t just for Christmas. Equally, hymns are sung all year round; a Christmas carol could be described as a Christmas hymn. In medieval Europe, hymns were mostly in Latin and it is St Francis of Assisi who is usually credited as developing Nativity hymns written and sung in the vernacular, in the 13th century. However, it seems that many carols were not particularly religious and were actually folk songs, sometimes bawdy, associated with wassailing (see ‘wassailing’!) and with words that were adapted to suit circumstances.
Christmas Carols as we know them became popular in the 19th century, partly through the efforts of Davies Gilbert (1767-1839) who published ‘A Collection of Ancient Christmas Carols, with the tunes to which they were formerly sung in the West of England’ in 1822 and William Sandys (1792-1874) with his ‘Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern’ of 1833 – which between them contain many of today’s favourites. Many carols have intriguing origins.
See ‘Nine lessons and carols’.
Christmas crackers are short tubes of cardboard covered with coloured paper, twisted at both ends, which typically contain some sort of novelty, a joke or wise saying and a paper hat. Two people hold the cracker at each end and pull it apart. A ‘snap’ runs through the cracker so that a small ‘crack’ is heard when this happens. The contents then fall out and are kept by one of the pullers. Crackers are normally found decorating dining tables and are pulled before or after the meal; etiquette – including who gets to keep the goodies – vary; though everyone should wear a hat.
It is generally accepted that crackers were the creation of a London confectioner, Tom Smith, in 1846. Smith was inspired by seeing bonbons (sweets) wrapped in tissue in Paris. He took the idea to England, later adding little mottos, novelties, more extravagant packaging, and the ‘snap’.
For a bit more, see The custom and history of Christmas Crackers.
Although Christmas Day celebrates the birth of Christ, we don’t actually know when Christ was born. There are many theories why 25 December was chosen to mark the event, possibly by the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine, sometime in the 4th century AD. Among other things, 25 December was dies natalis solis invicti, to the Romans, ‘the birthday of the unconquered sun’ – part of the feast of Saturnalia. In Britain, 6 January is sometimes referred to as ‘Old Christmas Day’. The calendar changed in Britain in 1752, from the Julian calendar to the more accurate Gregorian. This required a shift of 11 days; so 6 January would have been 25 December in the old calendar. Also, see ‘Twelfth Night’.
Until fairly recently, Christmas decorations were relatively modest, with coloured paper garlands and chains hanging from ceilings and homemade tree ornaments. It was unashamedly tacky. Nowadays, increased wealth has allowed tastelessness to flourish beyond imagination, in an apparent desire to light up entire neighbourhoods and outshine everyone else. That said, festive bling can be beautiful and elegant as well.
The practice of festive decoration goes back to at least the great Roman feast of Saturnalia, when temples would be decorated with greenery and little ornaments would sometimes be hung amongst it. The use of branches of evergreen trees reminding our ancestors of everlasting life in the depth of winter, and warding off evil spirits, probably dates back even farther. In Isaiah 60:13, which possibly dates from the 8th century BC, it says: “The glory of Lebanon shall come unto thee, the fir tree, the pine tree, and the box together, to beautify the place of my sanctuary.”
The evolution of Christmas decoration is uncertain ground and much of what is written refers to the Christmas tree – a subject in its own right (see ‘Christmas tree’). Most sources suggest that trees were decorated with apples in 16th century Germany and that wafers and pastries were then added, with glass baubles and beads first being produced in the Thuringian town of Lauscha in the 1590s. The Germans invented tinsel (lametta), too – originally made of real silver.
There’s a fallacy, maybe two, regarding the British Christmas dinner. Firstly, it is often not eaten at dinner time, but during some period in the afternoon between lunch and dinner. That said, the timing is fairly relaxed, in my experience; and quite right too; who am I to remind cook that it’s long past the Queen’s Speech when she’s overdone the port and lemon? (I know, it could be ‘chef’, but are you really that picky?). Secondly, you will see reference in restaurants and such to ‘traditional’ Christmas dinner ‘with all the trimmings’; this usually means roast turkey with stuffing, ham, bacon-wrapped cocktail sausages (pigs in blankets), cranberry sauce, bread sauce (maybe), boiled vegetables (typically Brussels sprouts and carrots), roast potatoes and parsnips and gravy. It is usually followed by Christmas pudding, served with cream, custard, or brandy butter. I suppose it depends on when something starts becoming ‘traditional’ – and I’m probably being pedantic – but the popularity of turkey at Christmas is relatively recent; I mean, the creature isn’t even native to these islands. I’m ambivalent about turkey myself; and, anyway, who likes ugly birds? And another thing; while the origins of Christmas pudding are medieval, brandy butter seems to be a 20th century creation, though rum butter, originating in Cumbria, was around in Victorian times. I suppose you could argue – with some justification – that potatoes aren’t traditional, either; like the turkey (and cranberries and tobacco), they were brought back from the New World.
It’s a personal thing, but I think the only way to eat Christmas pudding is with custard or ice cream. While I’m about it, I would not expect to see Yorkshire pudding served with turkey, as you see advertised on some menus; in my view, it should only be served with roast beef, or on its own with gravy.
Interestingly, there is no ‘traditional’ starter (aka ‘entrée) on the British Christmas menu. In fact, there is no hard and fast rule about a British Christmas meal at all, really – though you’ll often find an alcohol-laden trifle offered as an alternative to the Christmas pudding.
The point is, of course, that traditionally Christmas was simply a time of feasting for those that could afford it. And those that could, would dine on a variety of dishes; peacock, swan and boar were all widely popular with the idle rich in medieval Britain. Henry VIII is reputed to be the first monarch to gobble turkey, but up to the Victorian era, and before the turkey take-over, the roast of choice was goose.
Christmas is coming,
The goose is getting fat;
Please put a penny
In the old man’s hat.
If you haven’t got a penny,
A ha’penny will do;
If you haven’t got a ha’penny
God bless you.
Christmas Eve is big news in some countries; less so in Britain, where it is simply the day before Christmas. For the healthily disorganised, it is a time for last-minute shopping and preparation – though many shops and businesses close early.
Even if the Christmas decorations have been completed long before, it is considered unlucky to bring greenery – like holly and mistletoe – into the house before Christmas Eve. My dad used to say that was because It meant that the berries stayed on longer and if I trod one into the carpet it would be very unlucky for me indeed.
Christmas Eve might be a time for carol singing for some and many, even if they are not regular church-goers, will attend midnight mass (which rarely starts at midnight). In recent years, since the 1960s, ‘Christingle’ services for children have become popular on Christmas Eve. This is an import from the Moravian church. The children make ‘Christingles’, which are decorated oranges, representing the world. A piece of red ribbon tied around the orange symbolises the blood of Jesus, four cocktail sticks stuck into the orange represent the four seasons and sweets skewered by the sticks represent the fruits of the earth. To round it all off, a small candle inserted into the top of the orange symbolises the light of Jesus. Yes, well.
Christmas Eve is also the time to put out stockings (or maybe pillow cases) just in case Father Christmas decides to drop in. He will only visit if there are good children in the house, and then he might climb down the chimney and leave a present or two. It’s a tad awkward if you don’t have a chimney. However, It helps things along no end if you leave a mince pie and a glass of whisky out for him (Father Christmas is not subject to drink-drive legislation). If you’re feeling especially kind, a carrot and a bowl of water will be appreciated by the reindeer.
The Christmas fairy is a mysterious figure, often represented by a doll on top of the Christmas tree – though some believe it’s really an angel. Most people in Britain probably don’t think about it much, but fairies are not always benevolent creatures, and are sometimes quite frightening – though we have become used to the idea of a good fairy granting wishes and being a generally helpful kind of soul. Angels, of course, are normally male figures – and also quite frightening; the Archangel Gabriel visited Mary and told her that she would give birth to the son of God. Somewhere along the way, fairies and angels have got mixed up, so you had better check yours carefully; angels don’t carry wands.
At one time, people used to put a figure representing baby Jesus on top of their tree. Maybe it’s better to put a star there, representing the light that guided the wise men.
Christmas ghost stories
“Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories,” wrote Jerome K Jerome. “Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about spectres. It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders, and blood.”
The Victorians loved ghost stories, and of course one of the most famous examples is Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’. But it is said to have been a tradition long centuries before that. Are you sitting comfortably? I do hope not…
To be fair, Britain has often flirted with dodgy pullovers. Think of those naff little short-sleeve things you see in photographs of the 40s and 50s, the dreadful ‘tank-tops’ of the 70s and the infiltration of Fair Isle in the 80s. A Bit About Britain is not the kind of place to come for a fashion consultation, but even we know it wouldn’t be fair to entirely blame fireside crooners, skiers and golfers for every piece of hideous knitwear you’ve ever seen.
Which brings us to the Christmas jumper. Always a favourite unwanted gift, the 21st century Christmas jumper is in a class of its own. Indeed, this woolly wonder has gone beyond discomforting geometric patterns and embraced kitsch to an extreme that only those who think it’s tasteful to festoon their houses with illuminated inflatable nativity scenes can aspire to. The difference, of course, is that the Christmas jumper is meant to be ironic. What some experts believe began in 2001 in the UK, when Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) met Bridget Jones (Renee Zellweger) sporting a large reindeer head on his roll-neck, has evolved to a really ridiculous degree in which garish vulgarity is the new cool at Yule. Attach a few bells and lights, and it is possible to compete with your friends for wearing the most over the top jumper at the Christmas party. With the addition of a compact power supply and a mobile application, who knows where it will end?
There have been Christmas movies ever since there has been a movie industry. But, notwithstanding a few classics, it probably took the explosion of video and DVD to bring the genre into everybody’s home. Most Christmas movies are American (I was practically weaned on Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’), a reflection of Hollywood’s worldwide dominance; but we Brits have produced a few corkers – such as, ‘Scrooge’, ‘the Snowman’ and ‘Love Actually’. Personally, I’m a sucker for a good Christmas movie and I’d far rather watch a timeless classic than some of the rubbish that’s dished up on TV over the festering season. It just hasn’t been the same since they stopped doing the ‘Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show’. Anyway, for what it’s worth, here is A Bit About Britain’s top ten favourite Christmas movies:
Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001)
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Last Christmas (2019)
Love Actually (2003)
Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
The Holiday (2006)
The Snowman (1982)
White Christmas (1954)
Music is huge part of Christmas – not just carols, but popular, festive, numbers too. These seem to drift, uninvited and unwelcome, into my consciousness sometime in October; personally, I think it should be illegal to play Christmas music before December. At one time, every major star, including Paul McCartney and Elton John, was scattering bells through their festive offerings and, even in this digital download age, there’s still tremendous competition for the Christmas No 1. Britain’s best-selling Christmas No 1 of all time (so far) is Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ (1984). A Bit about Britain dusts off its collection about a fortnight before the Big Day and the top ten is:
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Judy Garland (1944)
Fairytale of New York – the Pogues with Kirsty MacColl (1988)
Happy Xmas (War is Over) – John & Yoko (1971)
Merry Christmas Everybody – Slade (1973)
The Christmas Song – Nat King Cole (1961)
Christmas Wrapping – the Waitresses (1981)
Santa Baby – Eartha Kit (1953)
I Believe in Father Christmas – Greg Lake (1975)
White Christmas – Bing Crosby (1942)
Run Rudolph Run – Chuck Berry (1958)
Received wisdom is that giving and receiving presents at Christmas reminds us of the presents given to Jesus by the wise men. Working in the UAE one year, I was tickled to bring back some frankincense and myrrh from the spice souk, which I boxed up, wrapped in gold paper and gave to the memsahib. In fact, the business of exchanging gifts on Christmas Day is a relatively recent phenomenon; traditionally, gifts of produce were given at New Year – and the Christmas Box (see Boxing Day) was distributed the day after Christmas. However, the practice of buying and exchanging Christmas presents really took off in industrial and Victorian Britain, particularly in the latter part of the 19th century with the development of department stores.
Despite what you may read, there is no established custom and practice in Britain regarding when Christmas gifts should be exchanged. Certainly, younger children are generally allowed to see if Father Christmas has visited as early as mum and dad will allow; but, beyond that, it really is a matter of family tradition and personal choice. The Royal Family, I gather, exchanges presents on Christmas Eve – maybe a hangover from their German heritage.
Christmas pudding is served on Christmas Day. Its ingredients vary slightly from recipe to recipe, but generally include suet, flour, breadcrumbs, brown sugar, eggs, dried and fresh fruit, ginger, spices, treacle and brandy. It is boiled and keeps for months and months…
Once upon a time, people used to eat a kind of porridge, or pottage, (a sort of soup or stew simmered for a long time) on Christmas Eve. It was eaten to line the stomach after fasting for the day, which was customary on Christmas Eve – ‘the Vigil’ as it was once known. This pottage was called ‘frumenty’ and was made of beef and mutton with raisins, currants, plums (prunes), wines and spices. Over time, more ingredients were added – eggs and breadcrumbs, which made it more pudding-like – and ale, spirits and more dried fruit was put in to increase the flavour. By the late 16th – mid-17th century, it was a boiled Christmas dessert known as plum pudding – though the republican government of Oliver Cromwell decided it was not fit for God-fearing folk and it took George I to rediscover it. Somewhere along the way, the meat was dropped.
The first reference to Christmas pudding comes in the 1840s (Dickens mentions it in ‘Christmas Carol’). By this time, it was usual to roll all the ingredients into a large ball and wrap it in a hessian cloth to keep everything together while it was boiled. Hence, many early pictures of Christmas pudding show it as a round ball. Some Victorians, though, made their Christmas puddings in elaborate moulds. These days, most of them are pudding-basin shape.
It is customary to put a sprig of holly on top of the Christmas pudding before serving, then drizzle some brandy over the top, light it, and carry the flaming pudding into the room. Another tradition is to place silver coins in the pudding mix (wrapped in greaseproof paper), which are considered lucky and kept by whoever receives them in their serving. In pre-decimal times, silver threepenny pieces were used, then sixpences; these days, the closest equivalent is a 5p piece.
The Christmas tree is descended from the Scandinavian “Yggdrasil, the Tree of Time, whose roots penetrate to heaven, Niffheim and Ginnungagap (the gap of gaps). In Ginnungagap the frost giants dwell, in Niffheim is the great serpent Nidhögg; and under this root is Helheim, the home of the dead”. [Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable].
According to some, the use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolise eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Some trees were sacred to pre-Christian European peoples and survived the arrival of Christianity in the Germanic-Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens to scare away the Devil. It also reminded them of spring.
The modern Christmas tree is generally thought to have originated in western Germany – though, allegedly, the first documented Christmas tree was in 1440, in Tallinn, Estonia. Back to medieval Germany, where a popular play around Christmas was about Adam and Eve (Christmas Eve is regarded by some as Adam and Eve Day). A central prop to the performance was a fir tree hung with apples representing the Garden of Eden, and known as a ‘paradise tree’. This began appearing in people’s homes, where it would be decorated.
Most people think that the idea of the Christmas tree was brought to Britain by Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert (of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha). He certainly helped to popularise it, but the first tree in Britain was ordered by George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte (of Mecklenburg-Strelitz) in the 1790s.
Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus, Sinterklaas, Kris Kringle, or whatever you want to call him, is the personification of Christmas for many people. He is an intriguing figure and a fusion of fact and faction.
St Nicholas, who became ‘Santa Claus’, was a real person. He was a 4th century bishop of Myra in the Byzantine Empire (now in modern Turkey), is reputed to have worn red robes and renowned for his anonymous generosity. One story has him dropping coins down chimneys, where they popped into stockings drying by the fire. In pagan times, a ‘King Winter’ figure would have had a central role in festivities; and then there was the Norman red-robed ‘Lord of Misrule’, whose job was to ensure the Christmas party went with a swing. In Reformation Britain, saints were not universally popular and the less Catholic figure of Father Christmas evolved. He, in turn, was deemed too ‘Popish’ during the years of the Republic Commonwealth (1649-1660) – though joy made a come-back after the restoration of the monarchy. Father Christmas has had a variety of robes too – sometimes green, sometimes tan. However, many believe that our 21st century perception of Santa Claus, complete with reindeer and an arrival on Christmas Eve, derives from the poem ‘A Visit From St Nicholas’ (‘T’was the night before Christmas’) published as recently as 1823 and generally attributed to the American Clement Clarke Moore.
The Yule Swain is a kind of Santa Claus in Lapland. He rides a goat, is eleven feet high, appears on St Thomas’s Day (the Winter Solstice) and disappears on Christmas Eve. No one knows where he comes from, or where he goes.
Feast of Stephen
St Stephen was the first Christian martyr. He was stoned to death in around 34 AD and his feast day is 26 December.
Figgy pudding is a Christmas pudding made with figs. Surprise, surpise. It is a discrete recipe, though, which any householder will find in Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, first published in 1861.
Holly and ivy
Here again we are reminded of the ancient rites we celebrate each Christmas. Holly was used by the Romans to decorate their homes during Saturnalia, and they would send sprigs to friends to wish them health and well-being. Ivy has been regarded as a symbol of everlasting life for centuries and was sacred to Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, and Osiris, the Egyptian judge of the dead. Some associate holly with male and ivy with female; some with Jesus and Mary. Christians have also associated holly with the crown of thorns that Christ wore on the cross, with the bright red berries representing drops of blood.
Some believe that ivy should not be used inside the house for decoration – and I have certainly never seen it, though Christmas would not be the same without some holly about the place (not before Christmas Eve, though). The carol, ‘the Holly and the Ivy’, is an old folk hymn – and I have to say that it always sounds very ancient, almost pagan, to me; something about the rising of the sun and the running of the deer…
We can say ‘Happy Christmas’ or ‘Merry Christmas’ – but we don’t say ‘Merry Birthday’, or Merry Anniversary’ (etc). Does this suggest we don’t want people to be joyous on their birthdays? I haven’t found a satisfactory explanation for this – not one that doesn’t ramble, anyway. ‘Merry’ is an older word than ‘happy’ and used to mean ‘favourable, pleasant’. ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen’ (note the comma) is an old carol and the phrase means something like, ‘stay well, chaps’. Merry Christmas was used extensively in Victorian Britain – the first Christmas card said, ‘A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.’ But by this time, the meaning of ‘merry’ had changed to ‘mirthful’ – and could also mean ‘slightly tipsy’. So the temperance brigade may have preferred to use ‘happy’. My own fudge on the subject is that it’s generally bad English to use the same adjective twice in the same sentence, so if you are wishing someone seasonal greetings for Christmas and the New Year you have to choose a different one for each; and Merry Christmas and Happy New Year sounds better than Happy Christmas and Merry New Year, even though either would be appropriate.
There’s a theory that eating a mince pie every day over the Christmas period is good for you.
Mince pies are small round pies with a sweet filling of mincemeat, not – as you may imagine – mincemeat. The mincemeat that goes into mince pies is a mixture of currants, raisins, candied peel, apple, spices, brandy, suet and sugar. The meat component was dropped a long time ago. Originally, mince pies were emblematical of the manger in which Jesus lay, and were shaped accordingly; they became round, allegedly, because the puritans disliked the symbolism. I wouldn’t blame them.
Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on the branches of deciduous host trees, including oak, apple and birch. The European variety has pale green foliage, long, oval, leaves and clusters of milky-white berries. The Christmas tradition is to hang up a sprig or two and, should a woman stand underneath then a man may kiss her. The mistletoe must never touch the ground, for that brings bad luck. In days gone by, a berry had to be plucked for each kiss and, when no berries were left there could be no more kissing. In these less wasteful times, though, the berries are left on for as long as possible; a wonderful ice-breaker.
The Druids who practised their religion in these islands before the Romans came believed that mistletoe was sacred and had magical, healing, properties. Apparently, it really does – though, confusingly, the berries can be deadly poisonous, so do not eat them. There is, inevitably, an association with fertility; it has even been suggested that the berries were associated with semen. It’s anyone’s guess how the kissing started, though…
Legend has it that the god Balder, son of Odin and Frigg, was killed by a mistletoe arrow given to his blind brother, Hoder, by Loki, the god of mischief. Balder was restored to life but Frigg determined that mistletoe should never again be an instrument of evil, until it touched the earth.
The name mistletoe comes from the Anglo Saxon word for dung, mistel, and twig, tan, reflecting the observation that the plant is propagated by birds eating the berries and depositing their waste on the branches of trees.
A Nativity play (from the Latin nātīvitas, meaning birth) tells the story of the birth of Jesus and is a common feature of any decent primary school’s Christmas calendar. It usually features the shepherds, wise men, the fully booked innkeeper and a cast of animals ranging from the donkey to sheep and cows. In the 2003 film, ‘Love Actually’, they even remembered the Christmas lobster and octopus, which some versions of the Gospels omit to mention. It’s a wonderful opportunity for kids to perform, and all to be involved, though competition for the parts of Joseph and Mary can be fierce. I remember being intensely jealous of the toe-rag that got to hold Mary’s hand and was only slightly mollified by winning the coveted role of 2nd Centurion.
Legend has it that the first Nativity play was performed by St Francis of Assisi, in a one-man show to bring the story to life for people who could not read or write.
Nine lessons and carols
The carol service we are most familiar with today, the ‘Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols’, which tells the story of the Nativity interspersed with Christmas carols, was the creation of Edward White Benson (1829-1896), in 1880 when he was the first Bishop of Truro and Truro Cathedral was little more than a wooden shed. Benson went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury. The best-known form of that service was adapted by Eric Milner-White (1884-1963) at King’s College, Cambridge, and was first held on Christmas Eve in 1918. It is now broadcast around the world every Christmas. For more about this, see Kings and Carols.
Noël is simply French for Christmas, derived from the Latin natalis (dies) birth (day).
We’re not really sure where Father Christmas (aka Santa Claus etc) lives, but a 19th century American cartoonist, Thomas Nast, suggested it might be the North Pole. No one knows where Thomas got his inside information from, but he possibly reached this conclusion from the knowledge that Santa’s reindeer lived somewhere northern and very cold, coupled with the fact that the North Pole is nicely remote and receives few visitors.
Pantomime is a uniquely British – some might even say English – form of seasonal entertainment. Based on a simple plot in which the goodies always win, such as a fairy story like ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ or ‘Cinderella’, it relies on skilful ham acting, audience participation, bad – and often topical – jokes, a bit of slap-stick and some singing and dancing. There are a few other essential ingredients: firstly, a pantomime dame, always played by a man, and a principle boy, always played by a girl. Those who don’t know any better suggest this is cross-dressing; it is not; the dame is meant to be a parody of a woman and the boy normally looks exactly like a girl. There has to be an outrageous villain, who attracts boos and hisses whenever s/he enters the stage. A fairy godmother is always useful to have around and, if animals are involved (including horses and cows), they have to be played by humans. Though pantos are primarily aimed at children, good ones operate on two levels; we Brits love our double entendre.
Any town desirous of Christmas credibility will have a pantomime running over the festive period (to make up for Parliament being in recess?) and the cast often includes celebrities as well as classic actors. But you’ll come across amateur productions almost anywhere. Oh yes you will.
The history of pantomime can be traced back to a form of Roman theatre with mime, which evolved into Italian and French street theatre that involved stock characters: the heroine, Columbine, the old man, Pantalone, and the clown, Pierrot. Crossing the Channel, this became more outrageous and bawdy and then received an injection of British music hall.
The Royal Christmas broadcast is an intrinsic part of Christmas for many in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. The first Royal Christmas broadcast was in 1932, when King George V spoke on the ‘wireless’ to the Empire from a small office at Sandringham. George VI carried on the practice, delivering a Christmas message every year from 1939, through the war years, until his death in 1951. Our late queen, Elizabeth II, broadcast every year except 1969, and the broadcast has been televised since 1957. As well as reflecting on Christmas, the Queen mentioned global, national and personal events which have affected her and her audience over the year. Now it’s the King’s turn – it’s normally at 3pm on Christmas Day, by the way.
Some foreign chappie wrote that some Brits – especially older ones – stand while this is going on and even remove their hats. Well, the things you learn about yourself and your country from the Internet…but I can’t stop to natter – I feel a genuflection coming on.
Why do robins feature so much at Christmas? The short answer is we don’t know. The usual explanation is that the robin, Britain’s national bird and a bold little thing, is often seen during winter looking for food – and the red breast makes the cheeky chap stand out, particularly against the snow. Now, I’m no ornithologist, but as someone who has turned the odd spade in my time, I reckon robins are ubiquitous all year round.
Some will tell you that robins became associated with red-coated Victorian postmen (nicknamed ‘robins’), who brought the Christmas post. Robins were even depicted delivering Christmas cards. Others suggest that a robin protected the baby Jesus from the glowing fire in the stable (I didn’t know there was one, did you?) – thus gaining its red breast from the heat. Another tale is that as Christ was on the way to His crucifixion and was, mockingly, given a crown of thorns, a robin plucked one thorn that had bitten deeply into Christ’s head and, as it did so, a drop of Christ’s blood stained its breast. Or it could just be that red, along with green, is one of the colours of Christmas.
See ‘A Christmas Carol’. The name of Dickens’ main character in ‘A Christmas Carol’ is now in the dictionary, meaning someone who is tight with money, or miserly. It is thought the name may have came from an archaic verb, ‘scrouge’, meaning to squeeze or to press. But I think ‘Scrooge’ is almost onomatopoeic anyway.
The sprout – Brussels sprouts – seem to be an essential part of the British Christmas meal. They are really mini-cabbages. And, like Marmite, you either love ‘em or detest ‘em. I’m in the latter camp and can’t figure out why they are foisted upon us at what is otherwise a reasonably joyous time of year. They smell awful, taste worse and have predictably unpleasant side-effects. Unfortunately, they are very good for you; a single sprout contains more vitamin C than an orange. They originated in the Mediterranean, but are easily grown in northern Europe, became popular in the low countries (hence the name) and common in Britain in the 19th century, when people didn’t know any better. The only explanation I can find for the inclusion of this hideous vegetable in our Christmas feast (other than the plot to get me) is seasonal availability.
St Boniface was born Wynfrid, in Devon, sometime in the late 7th century. By the early 8th century, he was working in Germany, converting the heathen volk to Christianity. The story goes that he came across a group of pagans who were just about to cheerfully celebrate the winter solstice by sacrificing a young man under Odin’s sacred oak. Furious, Boniface picked up an axe and cut down the mighty tree – which was instantly recognised as a divine act demonstrating the power of Boniface’s God over the other ones. The astonished pagans understandably wanted to know what they would do for solstice without their tree. Some say that a fir tree instantly grew where the oak had been, and Boniface urged all to take home one of those; other versions of the story say that a tiny fir tree was already there, a symbol of life growing in the roots of the oak. Thus, it is claimed that Boniface invented the Christmas tree.
St Nicholas (who morphed into Santa Claus) is the patron saint of children (as well as of sailors and pawnbrokers). He was a 4th century bishop of Myra in the Byzantine Empire, now in modern Turkey. He is reputed to have worn red robes and to have been renowned for his anonymous generosity. One story is that he had a habit of dropping gold down chimneys; naturally, the gold fell into stockings drying conveniently by the fire. St Nicholas’s feast day is 6 December. According to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, it became the custom, on 5 December, for someone “to assume the costume of a bishop and distribute small gifts to good children.”
Stir-up Sunday is the Sunday before Advent. People who are more concerned with puddings than their souls believe this is when Christmas puddings and mince meat should be made – and everyone in the family should have a go at stirring in the ingredients. That might make good sense, but it actually comes from the service for the day in the Book of Common Prayer, which says, “Stir-up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Turkeys – the birds – are native to North America and Mexico. It is said they became popular at Christmas because they provided plenty of lean meat – and for Thanksgiving in the US because they were in plentiful supply. They got their name – allegedly – because we Brits confused them with guinea-fowl, which were imported through Turkey. It could have been worse; we could have called them after Galloping Bottom in Somerset. See Christmas dinner.
Twelfth night, Twelve Days of Christmas
There’s a bit of confusion about this. If Christmas Day is the first day of Christmas (which makes sense), then twelfth night is 5 January. But some maintain that the twelve days of Christmas begin on Boxing Day and end on 6 January, which is twelfth night. 6 January is the Christian festival of Epiphany, traditionally marking the arrival of the magi, or three kings, at Bethlehem. The Epiphany meant that the person of Christ was revealed, or manifested, to the magi; today, we use the word in the sense of meaning a great revelation.
Twelfth night used to mark the end of winter and be a time of very great celebration and feasting. It still is in some countries, but it has largely fallen into disuse in Britain and many of its traditions – like Christmas cake – have transferred to Christmas Day. A Twelfth Cake was eaten at a Twelfth night party and was originally an iced and decorated heavy fruit dough.
A variety of explanations are given for the origins of the song, ‘The Twelve days of Christmas’. It dates from at least the 18th century, it’s probable that some meaning was attached to each of the gifts – and there are different versions of these. Twelfth Night used to be a time for exchanging presents, so perhaps the song is a folk memory of this practice.
Perhaps most people remember twelfth night as the day when the decorations are meant to come down.
Wassail was (and still could be) a mulled ale made with a variety of ingredients, including curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and honey. The word comes from the Anglo-Saxon wes hael, meaning ‘be in good health’ and the practice of drinking wassail from a special cup or bowl to mark the New Year is said to have begun in those pre-Conquest times. Over the centuries, it evolved into a tradition to go ‘wassailing’ – essentially, it seems, going from house to house, singing, and getting more and more drunk as the night wore on. Ridiculous. At some point It became a tradition particularly associated with Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night. These days, it’s called carol-singing.
Who was Good King Wenceslas? Wenceslas was a 10th century Duke of Bohemia known as Vaclav the Good, who was martyred after being assassinated by his nasty pagan brother, Boleslaw the Bad. Wenceslas’s remains are interred in St Vitus’s cathedral in Prague and he is patron saint of the Czech Republic.
The carol ‘Good King Wenceslas’ was written in Sackville College, East Grinstead, by its warden John Mason Neale (1818 – 1866) and first published in 1853. The tune is actually a spring hymn, Tempus Adest Floridum (it is time for flowering) published in Finland (at that time part of Sweden) in 1582.
It’s all very well old Bing warbling on, as he does every year, about dreaming of a white Christmas; the chances of snow at Christmas in Britain are fairly remote. And that’s even allowing for the Met Office’s extremely broad definition “for one snowflake to be observed falling in the 24 hours of 25 December somewhere in the UK.” In Britain, snow is more likely in January or February. So what’s with all the business of snow, sleighs and all the other arctic paraphernalia? Well, it’s because two things came together. Firstly, from the mid 16th to the late 19th century, the whole world was colder than it is now; it was a period known as ‘the little Ice Age’. Secondly, this coincided with a revival of the Christmas feast – some might say even the creation of much of the Christmas we know – in the Victorian age. So writers like Dickens, and illustrators, would have been quite used to experiencing snow over Christmas – and therefore that was the way it was portrayed.
Will it be a white Christmas? Contact the Met Office to find out.
Xmas is simply an abbreviation for Christmas using the Greek letter chi (pronounced ‘kye’), which looks like an Χ and is the first letter of the Greek word for Christ, Khristos. The early church used the first two letters of Khristos in the Greek alphabet ‘chi‘ and ‘rho‘ to create a symbol representing the name of Christ, or Jesus.
It is not correct to say ‘Ex-mas’ – you should say ‘Christmas’.
Yule is an ancient celebration of the winter solstice, from late December to the New Year, and is one of the oldest winter celebrations in the world. The word is older than Christianity; it comes to us from the Anglo-Saxon géol and the Old Norse jól, but its ultimate origin is unknown. In modern Britain, Yule, or Yuletide, is still used as a term to describe the festive season.
The Yule log was a carefully selected log, or tree trunk, lit from the burnt stump of the previous year’s log – which had been carefully stored. So there was continuity from one year to the next. It was important to keep the Yule log burning for 12 days (the twelve days of Christmas?) through the shortest, dark, nights of winter. The custom is common, with variations and using different woods, throughout northern Europe.
However, today’s Yule log, more often than not, is a chocolate-covered sponge cake.
I can’t think of a particularly festive Z, but Zzzz is similar to the noise I often make while snoozing after Christmas dinner. Merry Christmas!
Don’t forget, a version of this feature is included in the book, ‘A Bit about Britain’s High Days and Holidays’. Click on the image to read the details and decide whether to buy a copy.