Christmas: What’s that all about then?

A Short History – Part 2

In Part 1, I briefly mentioned the 12 Days of Christmas without expanding on what these 12 days are and what they represent. Depending on where you look and what you read, this period can have different meanings (much like many other Christmas traditions).  If we look at the whole festival (actually a series of festivals) in order, it might make more sense.

Mr QM, Going Postal

Advent is also known as Advent Sunday in some parts and is the beginning of the Western church’s, year and starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. The word ‘advent’ is from the Latin for ‘coming’, i.e. the coming birth of Christ and is the preparation period before Christmas but it is also regarded by the church as preparation for the 2nd coming of Christ.   Advent fell on Sunday 2nd December this year.

According to Saint Gregory of Tours the celebration of Advent began in the fifth century when the Bishop Perpetuus directed that starting with the feast of St. Martin on 11th November until Christmas, with fasting three times per week; this is why Advent is also named Lent of St. Martin (Quadragesima Sancti Martini). This practice continued through to the 13th century by when it had transformed into a fast where little actual fasting took place and began on different dates throughout Europe.   The liturgy of Advent then remained relatively unchanged until 1963 when the Second Vatican Council introduced minor changes, differentiating the spirit of Lent from that of Advent and emphasising Advent as a season of hope for Christ’s coming now as a promise of his Second Coming.  Modern practices associated with Advent include the daily opening of an Advent calendar to reveal an image associated with Christmas or more commonly, a small chocolate. Other practices include lighting an Advent wreath, putting up a Christmas tree and decorating homes with Christmas decorations.

Once we get to 25th December then begin the 12 days of Christmas. Unknown by many is that most of these 12 days are feast days for a saint:

Day 1: Christmas Day, celebrating the Birth of Jesus.

Day 2: St. Stephen’s Day, the first Christian martyr.

Day 3: St. John the Apostle.

Day 4: The Feast of the Holy Innocents.

Day 5: St. Thomas à Becket.

Day 6: St Egwin of Worcester.

Day 7: New Year’s Eve. Pope Sylvester I.

Day 8: 1st January – Mary, the Mother of Jesus.

Day 9: St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen.

Day 10: Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. This remembers when Jesus was officially ‘named’ in the Jewish Temple.

Day 11: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American saint.

Day 12: Epiphany Eve. St. John Neumann who was the first Bishop in America.

Epiphany (meaning ‘revelation’) is celebrated 12 days after Christmas on 6th January (or January 19th for some Orthodox Church who have Christmas on 7th January) and is the time when Christians remember the Wise Men (also sometimes called the Three Kings) who visited Jesus.  Epiphany is also when some Churches remember when Jesus was baptised and started to teach people about God.


Mr QM, Going Postal

As the days around Christmas celebrated as feasts, it would be remiss of me to not talk about food.

In medieval Britain, a main course of boar or beef was sometimes served and through the 16th and 17th centuries goose or capon was commonly eaten with the rich sometimes dining upon peacock and swan. Turkey appeared on Christmas tables in England in the 16th century, and popular history tells of King Henry VIII being the first English monarch to have turkey for Christmas.  The 16th century poet and farmer Thomas Tusser noted that in his 1573 publication ‘Five Hundreth Pointes of Good Husbandrie’ that turkey was commonly served at English Christmas dinner and the tradition of turkey at Christmas rapidly spread throughout England in the 17th century; it also became common to serve goose which remained the predominant roast until the late Victorian era.  It was quite common for ‘Goose Clubs’ to be set up, allowing working-class families to save up over the year towards a goose.

In the middle ages spices and fruits were used in meat pies as an expensive treat and a sign of wealth and prestige. Originally mince pies contained minced beef, and were flavoured with a tiny amount of expensive imported spices, raisins and candied citrus peel. As time went on the price of spices and fruit fell, and the price of meat rose. This led to the modern sweet mince pie, where all that’s left of the meat in some recipes is the beef suet, but plenty of spice.  Spices were used in drink as well as food, with mulled wine being a continuing example.

The night of the 12th day of Christmas (Epiphany Eve) was known as Twelfth Night and was regarded as a night to celebrate. During these celebrations, often the roles in society were reversed with the servants being served by the rich people. This dated back to medieval and Tudor times when Twelfth Night marked the end of ‘winter’ which had started on 31st October with All Hallows Eve (Halloween).  At the start of Twelfth Night the Twelfth Night cake was eaten. This was a rich cake made with eggs and butter, fruit, nuts and spices. In a tradition that goes back to the Roman celebrations of Saturnalia, a dried pea or bean was cooked in the cake and whoever found it became the Lord (or Lady) of Misrule for night. The Lord of Misrule led the celebrations and was dressed like a King (or Queen). in later times, from about the Georgian period onwards, two tokens were put in the cake (one for a man and one for a woman) and whoever found them became the ‘King’ and ‘Queen’ of the Twelfth Night party. Eventually, this practice developed in the 20th century by the use of a silver sixpence or a thru’ppeny bit but into the Christmas pudding eaten on Christmas Day.  Over the 19th and 20th centuries the eating of rich fruit cake gradually shifted to Christmas and Twelfth Night Cake became modern Christmas cake.  The modern Italian version of Panettone is the cake that’s most like the traditional Twelfth Night cake.

Mr QM, Going Postal

It is believed that the tradition of Christmas stockings originated in Germany and arrived late in Britain in the 20th century. They were popular in France and Italy in the early 19th century but didn’t become truly popular in Britain until much later.  Traditionally in Germany one or more presents would be put in the stocking by an adult pretending to be the Christ Child. Stockings became very popular with working class families who could afford only a few toys. Middle class families liked to hang many toys from their Christmas trees, and there are records of Christmas trees in the late Victorian period being laden with ‘toys, nick-knacks and sweets’.  The Christmas stocking (or pillowcase for some) crammed with toys was very much a 20th century development. The mass manufacturing and global economic conditions enabled cheap toy imports, which meant parents could afford more toys for their children.   In the 18th and early 19th centuries people gave their seasonal gifts at New Year rather than on Christmas Day. The date for gift giving began to change in the mid-19th century, but not all at once. Queen Victoria was still giving New Year’s gifts in 1900 and rural families in Shetland and Orkney gave them on this day well into the 1960s.  In the 19th century, institutions such as schools, hospitals and workhouses held Christmas tree events. People donated small items such as toys, sweets, oranges and fancy articles (small gifts like combs, snuff boxes and sewing sets) to be hung from the  tree, then at a pre-determined time these were given out to the children or poor in attendance.

Mr QM, Going Postal
Father Christmas:.  Christmas card, 1889

One of the central images of modern Christmas is probably Santa Claus or Father Christmas, but originally these were two different ideas.  Christmas was first personified in Britain in the early 17th century, when Ben Johnson used a figure representing the festival in a play called ‘Christmas his Masque’. Christmas was shown as a man in a doublet and hose with a truncheon, a long thin beard and a high hat with a brooch.  Other personifications of Christmas were popular throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, including Sir Christmas, Lord Christmas and Father Christmas. These were all figures of fun, and represented adult festivities such as drinking and gaming. Father Christmas was not yet linked with children.  Santa Claus developed from the medieval patron saint of children, St. Nicholas.  Dutch families put presents from Saint Nicholas in their children’s shoes or stockings the night before his feast day (6th December) and Dutch migrants took the tradition to America, where it was popularised by the writings of Washington Irving in the very early 19th century who changed the date from the feast of St Nicholas to Christmas Eve.  New York academic Clement Clark Moore created the modern Santa Claus in a poem he wrote for his children in 1822 called ‘A visit from St. Nicholas’. Santa Claus is a colloquial pronunciation of Saint Nicholas, used first in Northern Europe. Santa Claus became popular in Britain during the 1870s and 1880s, where he merged with the native British idea of Father Christmas. In Victorian Christmas cards he wears green, yellow, red and occasionally blue. In the 1930s the Coca Cola Company used a red-robed Santa in their Christmas advertising campaign, cementing the look of the modern Santa in the modern human psyche.

Christmas cards developed from the calling cards people left at friend’s houses at New Year. These were very popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries. In 1843 Henry Cole, a social reformer, commissioned the artist John Calcott Horsley to design a card showing a family Christmas dinner. This became the first ever Christmas card and didn’t take off commercially straight away, probably because it was too expensive for most people; In 1846 just 1000 cards were printed. In 1862, the stationers Messrs Charles Goodall & Son of London began to print cheap New Year and Christmas cards and in the 1870s Christmas cards started to become more popular spurred on by a special halfpenny post, which was introduced in 1870. With cards and postage far cheaper people began to send vast quantities of Christmas cards and in 1880 11.5 million Christmas cards were made.  By the 1890s the Christmas card was well established.

Christmas crackers were invented in 1846 by Tom Smith, a confectioner from London who made confectionary. Tom was inspired by the crackle of logs in his fire, and invented a kind of enlarged bon-bon a sweet in paper wrapping with two handles that could be pulled to detonate a firecracker. He later developed this into the Christmas cracker by putting a small gift into the cracker instead of a sweet.

We tend to complain these days that Christmas has just been too commercialised but, Christmas in the Victorian era was very commercial.  Shops and traders transformed their windows into festive displays, offering messages of good will as well as Christmas discounts.  Most shops remained open until late on Christmas Eve, more than likely because of the lack of domestic cold storage required to preserve large amounts of food over any long period.   Making money on the back of Christmas is nothing new.

So there we have it.  Christmas is a bit of a mish-mash of different traditions from all over the world, pulled together over quite a long period of time to take its current form. I have no doubt that it will further develop over time to include things that we may find unnecessary and irrelevant.  Take for example the Coca cola advertising campaign using their ‘Christmas Truck’.  I read on the Internet recently that “It isn’t Christmas until you’ve seen the Coca-cola truck.”    “… holidays are coming, holidays are coming…”  Oh my word.

© Mr QM 2018

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