Christmas for many of us is a time for fun and frivolity. It is a time to enjoy the company of family and friends as we celibate the holiday season, observing customs and traditions which began with our ancestors many centuries ago. Surprisingly, some of the celebrations we associate with a typical English Christmas began a long time before Christianity. Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Christ, gradually incorporated many of the old pagan celebrations; but it was not until the reign of Queen Victoria that many of today’s special Christmas traditions became a wonderful part of the yuletide experience. Discover the origins of some quaint traditions in England -Christmas past!
A Medieval Christmas
The Yule log was carried into the house on Christmas Eve and put into the fireplace of the main room family room. It was decorated with greenery and ribbons and then ceremoniously set alight together with the end of the previous year’s log, which had been saved for this special day. The log was then burnt continuously for the Twelve Days of Christmas, providing much-needed light, warmth and cheer in the cold winter solstice. A kissing-bough was sometimes hung from the ceiling. This would consist of a ball of twigs and attached greenery which was decorated with seasonal fruit, such as apples and oranges. It was later to be replaced mistletoe; under which no lady could refuse a kiss…Although many may have tried!
An Elizabethan Christmas
The expression ‘eat, drink and be merry’ characterised Christmas in Elizabethan England. The highlight of the holiday was the Christmas feast, in which the wealthy entertained their guests with lavish displays of elaborate dishes. In households wishing to impress important guests, this culminated in a ‘banqueting course’ of sweet and colourful delicacies. Pride of place, was the marchpane, a round piece of almond paste that was iced and elaborately decorated, often with figures made from sugar. Sometimes Gold leaf was used to gild lemons and gingerbread which added colour and splendour to the banquet. The feast would be accompanied by hot drinks of delicious spiced wines.
A Georgian Christmas
Twelfth Night, the 5th of January, has long been celebrated as the end of the Christmas holiday. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Twelfth Night parties were very popular and usually involved playing games, drinking and eating luxurious foods. The special Twelfth Cake, which eventually evolved into the traditional Christmas cake, was the centrepiece of these parties and a slice of the cake was given to every member of the household, including the servants! By the early 19th century, the Christmas cake had increased in popularity. It became very elaborate, with frosting and specially made trimmings and was often decorated with delicate, handmade figures made from sugar paste. If writings from the time are to be believed, the cake looked wonderful and tasted delicious!
A Victorian Christmas
The image of the decorated fir tree, its branches twinkling with lights, is one of the most recognisable images of a ‘traditional’ English Christmas. The Christmas tree was made widely popular by Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert. The custom of the Christmas tree originated in Germany and was introduced into England during the Georgian period. Prince Albert is usually given credit for starting the tradition in England, although his role was actually, to make an existing custom more fashionable! Victoria and Albert shared a heart-warming enthusiasm for Christmas and decorated fir trees became a celebrated feature of Christmas in Victorian England.