Chances are, everyone has a favourite part of Christmas. Perhaps it’s stuffing your face with mince pies, dishing out hundreds of Christmas cards, or watching the queen at 3pm.
Many of these traditions are still going strong today, and while some are relatively modern additions, others are as old as the hills. As we approach the festive season, here we gorge ourselves on the history of 12 of our most beloved Christmas traditions.
In 1611, a German doctor sent King James of England and Scotland a long-winded and probably not-very-exciting Christmas card, but the modern Christmas card as we know it first shot through our letterboxes in 1843.
Designed by John Callcott Horsley, his colourful card showing a whole family knocking back wine, including a child, proved controversial at a time when the public’s love of drinking was seen as a serious problem.
By the 1870s Christmas cards had become so popular in Britain that they were inundating post offices and causing delays. In 1880 the General Post Office finally begged the British public to post their Christmas cards early in December.
Victorian Christmas cards could be a bit odd – some of the cards had as their front illustration children riding giant bats, dead robins, and a bloody battle between sword-wielding ants!
Fourteenth-century Franciscan monks created many of the first English Christmas carols, and five hundred years ago in 1521 Wynkyn de Worde printed one of the earliest known collections of Christmas carols.
The oldest-surviving carol in English which is still widely sung today is, probably, ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night’, which in its current form dates from the 17th century. The popular carol ‘Away in a Manger’ was written in the US in the late 19th century.
The tradition of carol singers touring neighbourhoods and serenading people on their doorsteps varies in popularity today but it is an ancient and widespread custom in Britain with its roots in the now largely forgotten traditions of Christmas house-visiting such as wassailing.
3. Christmas Pudding
For centuries the Sunday before advent was known to many as ‘Stir-Up Sunday’, when every member of the family would take their turn at stirring a pot containing a rich, boozy cake mixture – what would be the Christmas pudding.
First mentioned as a Christmas Day pudding in the 17th century, it was known as plum pudding, the ‘plum’ in this case meaning the assorted dried fruits. Before its present bowl shape, it was often spherical, like ‘a speckled cannon-ball as Dickens said, and today the old custom of drenching it in brandy and setting it alight before serving is still observed by some.
4. Christmas Trees
Contrary to popular belief, Christmas trees were in use in Britain before the Victorian era, but they were not very widespread. A Christmas tree of sorts was put up on Cornhill in London in 1444 and dramatically destroyed by a storm of thunder and lightning.
The German Christmas pine tree, with its famous burning candles, was a staple during the Bavarian boyhood of one Prince Albert. After he married Queen Victoria in 1840 he brought his beloved Christmas tree with him and made them a part of the royal Christmas. They’ve been hugely popular ever since.
During the Second World War, the king of Norway and his government were in exile in London, and every year since 1947 the Norwegians have sent a massive Christmas tree to London to commemorate that wartime friendship. This tree always takes pride of place in Trafalgar Square.
A source from 1817 describes blacksmiths’ apprentices making old ‘Christmas crackers’, which were gun barrels stuffed with wad and water, the holes plugged and then placed on a fire, where it would make a sort of fizzing and popping sound like a firecracker.
It was not until the mid-19th century when Tom Smith designed the first modern Christmas cracker, containing sweets at first and then trinkets. Paper hats were first put into crackers a little later on by his son.
It wasn’t always tiny trinkets inside, either. A newspaper from December 1867 describes a Christmas cracker that would explode and a full-sized article of clothing would fall out!
6. Father Christmas
The first record of a personification of Christmas in English is a 15th-century carol which features ‘Sir Christmas’ going house to house and singing with the occupants, inviting them to ‘make good cheer and be right merry’.
In the 16th and 17th centuries colleges, livery companies, and stately homes welcomed Christmas masters of ceremonies, or ‘Lords of Misrule’, who went by names such as ‘Captain Christmas’ and ‘Prince Christmas’.
The term ‘Father Christmas’ is recorded in 1646, but his conventional appearance of red suit and big white beard was slow to materialise. For decades he was either a Harlequin-type figure clutching a tankard or, like Dickens’s Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol, a merry man sporting a green gown and with a crown of holly.
By the 1870s the traditions of St Nicholas and Santa Claus had taken hold and Father Christmas was less of a party host and now the nocturnal present-giver we know today.
He was still occasionally shown wearing green, and sometimes blue, but the holly crown slowly disappeared and the German tradition of St Nicholas being accompanied on his rounds by a gnome carrying a bag of toys gave way to elves and the familiar trappings of the chimney descent and Christmas stockings.
The holly branch is the traditional decoration of the home and hearth in English-speaking countries.
The exact origin of holly’s Christmas connection is unclear.
One legend says that a lamb brought to Jesus’s stable at his birth cut itself on holly, spilling drops of blood onto the leaves, giving green holly its red berries.
It wasn’t just holly that was put up around the home at Christmas traditionally, but other evergreens such as bay, laurel, ivy, and mistletoe. These plants have long been important in pagan cultures, and their place in winter festivals such as Yule no doubt fed into Christian traditions surrounding holly.
8. Mince Pies
The mince pie was popular in Britain in the medieval period, and later the Tudors made them oblong-shaped to represent Jesus’s manger and used 13 ingredients – the number of Jesus and his disciples - including lamb, spices and dried fruit.
By the 16th century, the pies were round in shape and still popular despite Puritan opposition to them. Samuel Pepys, who kept a diary in the 1660s, mentioned mince pies on five of the nine Christmases he covered. He clearly liked them, as one Christmas when his wife couldn’t make them he sent out for some.
The choice of meat filling varied over time, from chiefly pork, lamb, or mutton until the Georgians, who often made mince pies with tongue and sometimes tripe, and the Victorians who were keen on minced beef for a time.
Over time mince pies gradually became a bit sweeter and less meaty, until the late 19th century when they started to become just sweet and without any meat.
9. The Royal Christmas Message
On Christmas Day, 1932, the queen’s granddad, George V, gave the first of what has since become a staple of Christmas Day – the king or queen’s Christmas message.
That Christmas, George V broadcast live from Sandringham in Norfolk, but these days the message is pre-recorded and filmed at either Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle.
Until 1955 it was only on the ‘wireless’ (the radio), but since Christmas 1956 it has been televised.
The word ‘pantomime’ comes from the Greek pantomimos, meaning ‘imitator of all’. ‘Oh no, it doesn’t!’. ‘Oh yes, it does!’ Etc.
The Italian theatre tradition of the commedia dell'arte began in the 16th century and featured the famous stock characters of Harlequin and Columbine, among others.
These characters fed into the early English pantomime in the 17th and 18th centuries, but by the 19th century, the pantomime was incorporating fairy tales. A seminal production was the 1820 pantomime Harlequin and Cinderella at Covent Garden.
Aladdin came in 1881 and by the early 20th there was a firm tradition of famous comedians appearing in panto at Christmas, which we still have today.
11. Watching It’s a Wonderful Life
In the 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life, Hollywood legend James Stewart plays George Bailey, a man who dreams of escaping the small town of Bedford Falls and travelling the world. Misfortune drives him to attempt suicide, but a guardian angel visits him and shows him what the world would have been like without him.
The snow-drenched story is a modern twist on A Christmas Carol, but the Christmas message of the film failed to hit home initially. It was a box office flop and a critical failure. It spent years in relative obscurity after that, and the film’s owners failed to renew the copyright for the film in 1974.
Not wanting to waste the opportunity to screen a film for free, American TV stations repeated the film to death for years, until it became a classic. Almost always shown at Christmas, on both sides of the Atlantic, it has become inextricably linked with Christmas.
We end our festive tour de force with a Christmas tradition firmly rooted in the dim past.
Evergreens such as holly and mistletoe were important symbols of hope for pagan peoples – the promise of returning life in the coming spring – and were cut and put up everywhere in midwinter.
The wreath was another part of this tradition. Ancient Scandinavians would light candles inside the wreath, hang it up somewhere and then spin it, the dazzling light show providing protection in the long, dark nights of winter where spirits were also thought to be out and about.
Christians adopted the wreath later on and it has for centuries been a popular adornment of many a Christmas front door.