The inspiration for this blog post has actually come from a quiz I took part in as part of an International Cafe. It was just a fun quiz to demonstrate the English customs at Christmas and to see how much us more local people knew, but I thought it an interesting topic; I certainly learnt something along with our international friends. To be honest, I’d never really thought about it before. How long have I been taking part in certain traditions without having a clue about the history of them or why I’m even doing it?
So I thought it’d be fun to have a look into the most common traditions we have in England. Starting with….
The Christmas Tree – It is thought that evergreen fir trees have been a staple of winter festivals before Christianity. The Romans used them for their festival of Saturnalia in honour of Saturn, which was their god of agriculture, while the Vikings thought that they had special significance for their sun-god, Balder. For Christians, the fir-tree is a symbol of everlasting life with God, and as such takes a leading role in the Christmas decorations. The Christmas tree as we know it today originated in Germany in the sixteenth century. A popular conception is that the father of the Protestant reformation, Martin Luther, was the first person to put candles on the tree. They really became popular in England when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were pictured around a tree with their children. The candles on the tree were eventually replaced with electrical lights, which although not as bright, helped to prevent the problem of trees burning down.
Mistletoe – The initial idea of hangings it in houses came from a Druid custom, and it was thought to prevent evil spirits from entering the house. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes from the fact that it was a symbol of love and friendship in Norse mythology. Traditionally, people could only kiss under the mistletoe if there were still berries on it, and a berry would be plucked off for every kiss completed.
Santa Claus – Quite a few people will probably already know that Father Christmas has his origins in the form of the catholic saint, Nicholas. He was born sometime in 280 AD and was naturally renowned for his generosity and piety, and was eventually established as the protector of children. The idea of hanging up a stocking for Santa is based on one of the acts of kindness undertaken by St. Nicholas, when he sent sacks of gold down the chimney to provide a dowry for three sisters so that they could get married. These were caught in the sister’s stockings, and this is where the tradition of hanging stockings up for Santa comes from. The inspiration for the Santa that we know today comes from the poem ‘An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas’ by Clement Clarke Moore in 1822. The poem itself starts off with the immortal lines ‘’twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house. Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse’, and I know that for me personally, these lines make me think of my Christmases as a child. It was here that the image of Santa Claus as a jolly man with a large figure comes from. This was later developed by Thomas Nast with his cartoon of Santa in the Harper’s Weekly newspaper, which added the idea of Santa being dressed in red, having a white beard and being married to Mrs. Claus. Rudolf came later in 1939, and was created by Robert L. May in a story based on the poem by Moore.
Carols – Like many other Christmas traditions, the custom of singing Christmas carols come from existing traditions associated with pagan winter festivals. With the conversation of the Romans to Christianity, the focus on these carols developed into a Christian one. St Francis of Assisi is considered to be the person who started the tradition of telling a tale through carols when he started his nativity plays in 1223. Carols in their current form became popular in the Victorian era, and it was then that the custom of special carol services in churches and singing carols on the street became popular.
Christmas Pudding – This has its origins in the fourteenth century, where it was a porridge based dessert with mutton, beef, raisins and other fruits, and by the Victorian period it had been developed into the fruity desert which we now eat at Christmas. The holly decoration which is usually put atop the pudding is symbolic and is meant to represent the crown of thorns that Jesus wore at the Crucifixion. The silver coin put in the pudding is also another English custom, and is meant to bring good luck to the person who finds it in their portion of the desert.
These are the top five Christmas traditions which I thought would be interesting to look in to. If you think I’ve missed your most important tradition in this post, feel drop us a comment here and tell me so!
I thought that I’d leave you with some interesting international traditions. :]
In Russia, Christmas is celebrated on the 7th of January in accordance with the Russian Orthodox calendar.
In Venezuela, a daily service is held between the 16th and 24th where it is traditional for people to travel to it on roller skates. Children tie a piece of string to their big toes when they go to sleep and hang the end of out the window for passersby to tug in the morning.
In Sweden, they have Tomte the Christmas gnome instead of Santa Claus – although there are certain similarities between the two in appearance. He hands out Christmas presents on Christmas Eve while saying funny rhymes.