Christmas: What’s that all about then?

A Short History – Part 1

Mr QM, Going Postal

What is Christmas?  When can we put the Christmas decorations up?  When can we start talking about Christmas?  Should we start Christmas shopping now?  All of these examples of questions have become all too familiar over recent years, where people have their individual and sometimes strongly-held views of when certain aspects of Christmas should happen, even if at all.  How did we get here?  Is there no one-size-fits-all set of rules for Christmas?  Thankfully no, but if we examine the history of the various aspects of Christmas, then we can perhaps understand why it now takes the form it does.

Originally the festival of Christ’s birth, Christmas now means many things to many different people.  For Christians, it is the second most important religious day of the year after Easter but the traditions for celebrating it vary between nationalities and cultures. I think it’s safe to say that these days, many people who describe themselves as Christians don’t treat Christmas as a religious festival but a secular holiday.

Mr QM, Going Postal
L’adoration des bergers. Georges de La Tour c. 1644

In Britain, Christmas traditions have been an important part of our national culture for centuries. They have a very long history with some traditions older than Christianity itself (I know this sounds odd but bear with me).  Other traditions are much newer and have been imported from other parts of the world over more recent times.

In Britain, we celebrate Christmas Day on 25th December each year and the earliest record which notes this celebration as being on December 25th is was in the writings of St. Hippolytus of Rome. In his Commentary on Daniel, which was written c. 204 AD, St. Hippolytus wrote: “For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, was December 25th, a Wednesday, while Augustus was in his forty-second year, but from Adam, five thousand and five hundred years.”  A Wednesday, well I never knew that but I don’t suppose many people do.

The 25th December appears to have been selected as it sat between the older and very important pagan Roman festivals of Saturnalia in mid-December and the Kalendae (the festival of New Year) on the first three days of January. It also coincided with the approximate date of the Winter solstice.  25th December wasn’t adopted by everyone. The Armenian Church celebrates on 6th January, while Coptic and Orthodox Christians celebrate on 7th January.  I have seen mention that the Roman festival of Sol Invictus was also considered butas this festival was decreed a feast day decreed by the emperor Aurelian in 274, it post-dates the writings of St. Hippolytus, so is unlikely.  The early Church eventually formalized 25th December as Natalis Christi (Christmas for those who don’t speak Latin) in 350 AD under Pope Julius I.

Mr QM, Going Postal
Saturnalia by Antoine Callet

In the middle ages, Easter was the most important festival in the Christian calendar, and Christmas was only one of many significant feast days. In the early modern period through to the early 19th century, Easter remained the focus of Christian worship in England, while Christmas was celebrated as a popular festival in the darkest of days around the winter solstice.

Under Cromwell in 1644, an Act of Parliament effectively banned the festival of Christmas and in June 1647 the Long Parliament passed an ordinance confirming the abolition. To Cromwell singing and related Christmas festivities were not only abhorrent but sinful; they viewed the celebration of Christ’s birth as a popish and wasteful tradition that derived, with no biblical justification, from the Roman Catholic Church thus threatening their core Christian beliefs. Nowhere, they argued, had God called upon mankind to celebrate Christ’s nativity.

However, the ban was unpopular and many people continued to celebrate privately, albeit in a far more restrained manner than in Elizabethan times.  Christmas remained banned until the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 when a more openly festive, if slightly subdued, celebration returned. Old customs were revived and Christmas as both a religious and social festival was celebrated again.

With the exception of the period 1644-1660, from the end of the middle ages to the 1830s, the main focus of the winter celebrations was the Twelve Days of Christmas and the celebrations around the New Year. During the Twelve Days of Christmas, the vast majority of trades shut up shop, and most agricultural work ceased except for the work necessary for looking after the animals. The majority of domestic servants still worked as did women who performed their own domestic labour, keeping households running. The work that ceased for the Twelve Days of Christmas was usually commercial and public which was then a traditionally male domain. Many people focused on revelry, visiting family and friends, dancing, playing games and feasting. Gifts were exchanged at New Year rather than Christmas Day.  Christmas was observed and marked the start of the festivities, but it wasn’t the form it is today. Indeed, into the first few decades of the 19th century, Christmas had been waning in popularity.

In the 1830s and 1840s all this changed.  In 1834, Christmas Day became one of only four days in the year on which banks closed. The Bank Holiday Act of 1871 extended the official Christmas holiday to include the following day (Boxing Day).  During the 1840s several key cultural events occurred which helped to cement Christmas as the central winter festival in the British calendar: the publication of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in 1843, and the popularisation of the Christmas tree by Prince Albert around the same time. It is often claimed that Charles Dickens invented the modern Christmas, and although this over simplifies the matter, he was certainly influential in the revival and popularisation of Christmas. The book seized the public imagination and combined with the popularisation of German Christmas traditions by the royal family it became instrumental in the popularisation of Christmas especially with middle class families.

This cultural shift coincided with a rise in consumerism and the Victorian period saw not only an huge increase in the popularity and celebration of Christmas, but a huge proliferation in the variety of goods people could buy at and for Christmas. Shops began to put on special Christmas displays, which got more and more elaborate from the late Victorian period into the 20th century, a practice that continues to become more elaborate today. Businesses began to put up Christmas banners, trees and lights which transform British cities and town centres every year.  The Victorians also pioneered the peculiarly British art of complaining about the commercialisation of Christmas. They were just as quick as we are today, to say that Christmas used to be far better in the past.

In the 20th century, Christmas continued to rely on nostalgia. Commercialism led to a massive increase in branding and advertising where images from Christmas adverts began to exert a strong influence over peoples’ opinions and expectations. For the Victorians, the Middle Ages were the ideal period for nostalgic thoughts about Christmas.  The snowy medieval Christmas was seen as the quintessential image of the season. In the 20th century, the idealistic Middle Ages remained popular, and was joined by a sentimental vision of a Victorian Christmas. Into the 21st century the influence of Dickens on our idea of a perfect Christmas maintained its strength. The image of a Victorian Christmas with a family gathered together around a roaring fire for a hearty feast of goose and plum pudding while snow falls gently outside and carollers sing from door to door continues to exert significant appeal.

It is thought that many of the current  Christmas traditions developed from older midwinter traditions which included  the giving and receiving of  gifts; bringing greenery into the home and feasting with friends and family at midwinter.  The Romans gave each other gifts for the New Year feast, the Kalendae. They traditionally swapped gifts of figs, honey, and pastries, but in the later Roman period they began to give gifts of money.  Romans also gave presents for Saturnalia on 17th December, especially gifts of candles.

There is a commonly-held belief that it was Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert who pioneered the bringing of greenery, in the form of a Christmas tree into the home at Christmas.  Not so.  In Pagan Europe homes were decorated with greenery for festivals. In the 7th century Pope Gregory Great added to the debate as to whether the bringing of greenery into homes at Christmas was too pagan for the Christian church.  He thought it to be a good idea to continue the practice and actually recommended it at a time when the Church was actively expanding its influence across the continent.  Holly and ivy became associated with Christmas because they are evergreens. Other plants that people brought inside at this time of year included bay and broom. My lovely wife always brings our bay tree inside for the winter but this mainly due to protecting it from the frost.  In the middle ages people would decorate their local churches with holly, ivy, bay and broom for Christmas.

Mistletoe isn’t mentioned in any medieval or Tudor writings about Christmas and it appears to have become popular in the 18th century. The practice of kissing under the mistletoe was well established by the early 19th century.  Kissing bushes or boughs were popular decorations in the 18th and 19th centuries. They usually included mistletoe plus other greenery, apples and candles. One tradition was that young men were allowed to kiss young women under the kissing bough and for each young woman kissed they had to take a berry. When all the berries were gone the kissing had to stop.  Kissing boughs and advent crowns included four candles (not the Two Ronnies type) with one being lit at the beginning of each of the four weeks of Advent starting on the 1st December.

Yule logs were large logs specially cut to be burnt at Christmas. Yule logs are first recorded in England in the 17th century, when the tradition was imported from Germany.  They were often brought into the house with great ceremony, pulled by the men of the household, tied with ribbons, and ridden by the youngest child. Once lit it was considered unlucky for the Yule log to go out. A piece of the Yule log was traditionally saved so that it can be used to light the Yule log the following year.

Modern Christmas decorations are a continuation of the tradition of bringing greenery into the home which was further developed during the Victorian period.  The Victorians used glass baubles and garlands of glass beads, metal candle holders, fake fruit and birds, and even little models of Santa to decorate their Christmas trees and homes.  Into the 20th century, candles with open flames were replaced by electric lights which are obviously far less flammable and dangerous.

Mr QM, Going Postal
The Queen’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle, 1848

Christmas trees are a custom imported from the Rhineland of Germany where records of them date back to the 1520s. They may have originated with medieval mystery plays which were very popular all over Europe, where real and fake trees used as scenery, especially in the story of Adam and Eve.  Between 1789 and 1840 Christmas trees were frequently mentioned in the written record as being used in England by German settlers. They were rare, but not completely new, in British households by 1840. In 1841 Prince Albert set one up at Windsor Castle. He wasn’t the first to bring one into Britain, but he was certainly the most influential and by 1845 they became increasingly popular in British homes. Over the following 15 years, Christmas trees became an accepted central part of a middle class English Christmas traditions. In 1850 Dickens called Christmas trees ‘the pretty German toy’, and recommended having a tree lit by many tapers and hung all over with toys and gifts.  Britain was late to adopt the Christmas tree. By the 1840s they had spread throughout the whole of Germany, the USA, Finland, Norway and the Netherlands.  Christmas trees were notoriously flammable, especially combined with the open flames of candles or tapers. Victorian Christmas trees were mainly a middle class phenomenon. Working class families used traditional greenery that could be gathered freely to decorate their homes. The trees became a common site in most working class homes during the 1950s. Artificial Christmas trees are incredibly popular today and they also have a long history. The earliest were made in Germany in the late nineteenth-century from goose feathers. The feathers were dyed green and attached to wire branches. In the 1930s British company Addis made the first brush-style artificial trees, using the same machinery they used to make toilet brushes.  Tinsel Used to mimic the effects of frost) wasn’t always used to decorate Christmas trees. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was made of strips of silver, and used to ornament the clothing and interior décor of the extremely wealthy. In the early 20th century, aluminium was used to create Christmas tree tinsel, and tinsel enjoyed massive popularity in Britain after the end of the Second World War. Lead foil was also used, but this was phased out in the 1960s and 70s due to its inherent toxity. Modern tinsel is usually made of PVC foil.

Part 2, will cover food, Father Christmas, holidays, Christmas cards and shopping.

© Mr QM 2018

Audio file