In the UK today, Christmas is largely a Christian festival intended to celebrate the birth of Jesus. However, before the 19th Century, Christmas was barely celebrated in Britain and the celebrations we hold these days on 25th December have very little to do with the origins of Christmas.
To find out how the customs and traditions around Christmas have grown up, we need to go back in time, thousands of years to when celebrations were based around the midwinter solstice.
The pagan Vikings and other early European peoples would celebrate midwinter time each December, when the days were at their shortest and the nights at their longest. They rejoiced that the worst of the winter was behind them and looked ahead to the coming of lighter and longer days ahead. Friends and relatives would get together and enjoy food and drink in a festival known as Yule. The word “Yule” comes from the Norse word, jól referring to the midwinter period starting with the winter solstice (nowadays the 21st or 22nd December). Gathering around a roaring fire, the Norse believed that each spark represented a new pig or cow that would be born during the coming year.
A huge ‘yule’ log would be dragged inside and burnt in honour of Yggdrasil (igdrasil), (the sacred tree of life), as a harbinger of good fortune. People in large houses would drink, dance and feast until the log burned right down (which could take up to a couple of weeks) and anyone in the house would not do any work while the ‘yule’ log was burning. A small piece of the wood was usually saved to light next year's yule log.
The Romans also celebrated midwinter with several days of feasting and partying called the Saturnalia, which began in late December. Honouring Saturn, chief of the Roman gods. It was a time when all the usual rules about rank and etiquette were turned upside down. Slaves and servants dressed in fine clothes and were served meals by their masters. Gambling with dice (usually forbidden) was allowed, and instead of white togas or dresses everyone wore bright party clothes. Public feasts were followed by continuing the celebrations at home, and people exchanged small gifts.
Medieval celebrations combined the servants-as-masters antics and gift-giving of Roman Saturnalia with customs left over from the pagan Saxon Midwinter feast of Yule.
During Tudar and Stuart times, “The Lord of Misrule” was central to British mid-winter celebrations. An elected individual was charged with coordinating the seasonal revels of the royal court and in houses of nobility across the kingdom. After often fasting until late December, medieval people really let rip with twelve days of festivities. The festive period saw servants and the poor being given boxes of food and sometimes money. There were parties with dancing, drinking and feasting, all reaching a crescendo on 'Twelfth Night', when presents were exchanged.
The early followers of Christianity thought all this worship of the old pagan gods was wrong, but found that people enjoyed the winter celebrations that went with that and did not want to give them up. They decided during the 4th century, to introduce a celebration around the same time of year, including the important pagan festivals, but that would mark the birth of Jesus (even though Jesus is speculated to have been born sometime in April). The celebration was given the name Christmas which essentially means ‘Christ’s mass’ - a service marking the birth of the Christian saviour. The rowdier celebrations of earlier periods were toned down into a quieter, family-focused festival.
The first examples of the abbreviation Xmas being used can be found in 15th century ecclesiastical writings. The X originally represented the first letter of the Greek word Christos Xριστóς (the "ch" sound is an X in the Greek alphabet), meaning anointed one.
Another enduring pagan tradition is to bring evergreens into the home which, it was believed, would keep away witches, evil spirits and illness. The barbed leaves and red berries of the holly plant have long been identified with eternal life and protection.
At first the Christian church took a disapproving stance to holly, forbidding it from appearing in churches, but the spiky leaves still appeared in people’s houses so, once again, the church decided to sanctify the custom saying that the spiky leaves represented Christ’s crown of thorns, and the berries His blood. Ivy was the female partner plant to the male holly and is another symbol of everlasting life and resurrection. Before it became a romantic symbol, mistletoe was considered sacred - so sacred in ancient Britain that it could only be cut by druids with a golden sickle. The plant had connotations of peace, and people who met underneath it were forbidden from fighting and homes decorated with mistletoe offered shelter and protection to anyone who entered. To the druids of the old religions, it was a potent symbol of fertility, and the Greeks and the Romans regularly parleyed peace beneath its boughs. It was the Victorians that helped give the plant its modern, lip-smacking tradition. Still today we bring greenery into our home as well as putting a wreath on the door. The evergreen circle represents the cycle of the seasons. A winter reminder that spring would return again. To Christians it’s meaning is the never-ending love and eternal presence of God.
In the early part of the 8th century, St Boniface went to Germany as a missionary. On one trip, around the time of Winter Solstice, he was said to have come across a group of pagans worshipping an old oak tree and, horrified by what he saw as blasphemy, he hacked the tree down. As he did this, a fir tree grew spontaneously in the oak's place.
The fir was seen as an image of God and many believed its evergreen symbolised the everlasting love of the Maker. In the UK the Christmas tree was first introduced in 1800 by the wife of King George III, Queen Charlotte, who brought the tradition from her native Germany, where it was common custom to have a tree in your home. Prince Albert popularised the idea of the Christmas tree and it rapidly caught on, as did decorating the tree with lights and placing presents on or under the tree.
In fact, the Christmas we know today mostly took shape in Victorian times. For the early Victorians, Christmas was an antiquated curiosity (many of the celebrations had died out) but Queen Victoria and her beloved Albert, played a big part in revitalising and changing the customs to what we know today. When the Victorians did rediscover Christmas, they couldn’t stop themselves and soon we had Christmas cards, crackers and the sense that Christmas was a time for family and presents were now given on Christmas Day itself.
In 1843 John Calcott Horsley sent the first printed Christmas card for his friend, Sir Henry Cole. Henry Cole was instrumental in reforming the British postal system, helping to set up the Uniform Penny Post which encouraged the sending of seasonal greetings cards.
Carol singing was a very different tradition when it started. Originally carols were written and sung for all four seasons. And it is believed that the early Christians took over the pagan tradition of singing about the seasons and introduced songs that celebrated Jesus Christ.
Singing carols and indeed celebrating Christmas itself was made illegal for a short time in England in the 17th century. The Puritan Christians at the time disagreed that Christmas should be a time of feasting, drinking and being merry and made this view law. As an act of parliament in 1644, Christmas celebrations were banned for 16 years. People were not permitted to cook a Christmas meal, sing carols or attend church. This law was obviously unpopular and in 1660 the law was overturned.
Our modern Father Christmas is a fusion of ancient myths, legends and folklore being an amalgamation of at least three figures.
People used to honour the pagan god Odin during the mid-winter holiday. The Norse god was said to be 'the father of all gods'. Described as a bearded old man wearing a hat and a cloak, Odin would often ride his eight-legged horse Sleipnir across the midwinter night's sky, making these nocturnal flights through the sky to observe his people deciding who would prosper or perish and delivering blessings to those who pleased him. Does that sound familiar? It is a heck of a spin on trying to work out who’s naughty or nice!
A 3rd century monk named St Nicholas became known for his kindness and generosity.
Born what is now part of the southern coast of Turkey, Nicholas’s wealthy parents died while he was still young. A devout Christian, he used his inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made a Bishop while still a young man. Legend has it he rode around on his horse in his red Bishop’s robes and secretly give gifts to the poor. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships. He was said to have warded off a tempest, ended a famine and bought three murdered children back to life.
In one story he anonymously threw bags of gold coins down a chimney to provide dowries for the children of a poor man who was on the brink of selling his own daughters into slavery. The gold landed in their shoes and stockings, which were drying by the fire. This has led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas. Sometimes this story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas (I always wondered why we got oranges in our Christmas stockings).
The popularity of the Saint spread across the world and was adopted in much of Europe, especially by the Dutch who shortened the Saint’s name to ‘Sinter Klaas’, (from which the American name Santa Claus was derived). He died December 6 (AD 343). The anniversary of his death became a day of celebration, the Feast of St. Nicholas. December 6th (or the eve before) is still the main day for gift giving and merrymaking in much of Europe.
Thirdly, some sort of jolly, fatherly figure has been around since medieval times (5th century). The Father of Midwinter originally represented the coming of spring and his attire included a long green hooded cloak, adorned with holly, mistletoe and ivy. Remember the Ghost of Christmas present in Dicken’s Christmas Carol? – think him! Various stories and legends talking about a merry old man who presided over midwinter festive parties. His role was to make people happier throughout the winter months. Back then there was much more emphasis on raucous entertainment for adults!
Much of our understanding of Ye merrie olde English Christmas has more to do with the writings of Charles Dickens than how our ancestors would actually have celebrated Dickens’s. It is thought that 'A Christmas Carol' is more an idealised romance based on his own privileged childhood memories rather than a chronicle of what was really happening at the time. Tales of St Nicholas came to Britain when the Normans arrived in 1066 and the stories were quickly absorbed into the British legend of this fatherly figure (which had already mixed with tales of Odin).
Stories of 'Santa Claus' and his reindeer sleigh came here from America (via the Dutch settlers) in the 19th century. The first reference to Santa's sleigh being pulled by a reindeer appears in Old Santeclaus with Much Delight, an 1821 illustrated children's poem published in New York. This was followed by another New Yorker, Clement Clarke Moore, writing a long poem for his daughters in 1822, featuring 8 reindeer, a sleigh and a jolly man who came down the chimney and left presents. His poem became universally popular and is commonly referred to as “Twas the Night Before Christmas“.
‘The Night Before Christmas’ (A Visit from St. Nicholas)
'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ’kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St. Nicholas too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle,
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night."