The Origins of Christmas - A Victorian
again we are celebrating Christmas in true Victorian style. But to help you understand the Victorian festivities, we thought
we'd tell you a little about a typical Victorian Christmas.
For thousands of years people around the world
have enjoyed midwinter festivals. With the arrival of Christianity, pagan festivals became mixed with Christmas celebrations.
One of the leftovers from these pagan days is the custom of bedecking houses and churches with evergreen plants like mistletoe,
holly and ivy. Apparently, as well as their magical connection in protecting us from evil spirits, they also encourage the
return of spring. No era in history however, has influenced the way in which we celebrate Christmas, quite as much as the
Before Victoria's reign started in 1837 nobody in Britain had heard of Santa Claus or Christmas
Crackers. No Christmas cards were sent and most people did not have holidays from work. The wealth and technologies generated
by the industrial revolution of the Victorian era changed the face of Christmas forever. Sentimental do-gooders like Charles
Dickens wrote books like "Christmas Carol", published in 1843, which actually encouraged rich Victorians to redistribute
their wealth by giving money and gifts to the poor - Humbug! These radical middle class ideals eventually spread to the not-quite-so-poor
The wealth generated by the new factories and industries of the Victorian age allowed
middle class families in England and Wales to take time off work and celebrate over two days, Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
Boxing Day, December 26th, earned its name as the day servants and working people opened the boxes in which they had collected
gifts of money from the "rich folk". Those new fangled inventions, the railways allowed the country folk who had
moved into the towns and cities in search of work to return home for a family Christmas.
The Scots have always
preferred to postpone the celebrations for a few days to welcome in the New Year, in the style that is Hogmanay. Christmas
Day itself did not become a holiday in Scotland until many years after Victoria's reign and it has only been within the
last 20-30 years that this has been extended to include Boxing Day.
At the start of Victoria's reign, children's toys tended to be handmade
and hence expensive, generally restricting availability to those "rich folk" again. With factories however came
mass production, which brought with it games, dolls, books and clockwork toys all at a more affordable price. Affordable that
is to "middle class" children. In a "poor child's" Christmas stocking, which first became popular
from around 1870, only an apple, orange and a few nuts could be found.
Father Christmas /
Santa ClausNormally associated with the bringer of the above gifts, is Father Christmas
or Santa Claus. The two are in fact two entirely separate stories. Father Christmas was originally part of an old English
midwinter festival, normally dressed in green, a sign of the returning spring. The stories of St. Nicholas (Sinter Klaas in
Holland) came via Dutch settlers to America in the 17th Century. From the 1870's Sinter Klass became known in Britain
as Santa Claus and with him came his unique gift and toy distribution system - reindeer and sleigh.
Turkey for DinnerTurkeys had been brought to Britain from America hundreds of years before Victorian times. When Victoria first came
to the throne however, both chicken and turkey were too expensive for most people to enjoy. In northern England roast beef
was the traditional fayre for Christmas dinner while in London and the south, goose was favourite. Many poor people made do
with rabbit. On the other hand, the Christmas Day menu for Queen Victoria and family in 1840 included both beef and of course
a royal roast swan or two.
By the end of the century most people feasted on turkey for their Christmas dinner.
The great journey to London started for the turkey sometime in October. Feet clad in fashionable but hardwearing leather the
unsuspecting birds would have set out on the 80-mile hike from the Norfolk farms. Arriving obviously a little tired and on
the scrawny side they must have thought London hospitality unbeatable as they feasted and fattened on the last few weeks before
Christmas CardsThe "Penny Post" was first introduced in Britain in 1840 by Rowland Hill. The idea was simple, a penny
stamp paid for the postage of a letter or card to anywhere in Britain. This simple idea paved the way for the sending of the
first Christmas cards. Sir Henry Cole tested the water in 1843 by printing a thousand cards for sale in his art shop in London
at one shilling each. The popularity of sending cards was helped along when in 1870 a halfpenny postage rate was introduced
as a result of the efficiencies brought about by those new fangled railways.
Christmas Trees &
CrackersQueen Victoria's German husband Prince Albert helped to make the Christmas
tree as popular in Britain as they were in his native Germany, when he brought one to Windsor Castle in the 1840's.
Crackers on the other hand, were invented
by Tom Smith, a London sweet maker in 1846. The original idea was to wrap his sweets in a twist of fancy coloured paper, but
this developed and sold much better when he added love notes (motto's), paper hats, small toys and made them go off BANG!
Christmas Carol SingersCarol Singers and Musicians "The Waits" visited houses singing and playing the new popular carols;
1843 - O Come all ye Faithful
1848 - Once in Royal David's City
1851 - See Amid the Winters Snow
1868 - O Little Town of Bethlehem
1883 - Away in a Manger
A Tudor ChristmasLong before the birth of Christ, midwinter had always been a time for merry making by the masses. The root of the
midwinter rituals was the winter solstice - the shortest day - which falls on 21st December. After this date the days lengthened
and the return of spring, the season of life, was eagerly anticipated. It was therefore a time to celebrate both the end of
the autumn sowing and the fact that the 'life giving' sun had not deserted them. Bonfires were lit to help strengthen
the 'Unconquered Sun'.
For Christians the world over this period celebrates the story of the birth of
Jesus, in a manger, in Bethlehem. The scriptures however make no mention as to the time of year yet alone the actual date
of the nativity. Even our current calendar which supposedly calculates the years from the birth of Christ, was drawn up in
the sixth century by Dionysius, an 'innumerate' Italian monk to correspond with a Roman Festival.
the 4th century Christmas could be celebrated throughout Europe anywhere between early January through to late September.
It was Pope Julius I who happened upon the bright idea of adopting 25th December as the actual date of the Nativity. The choice
appears both logical and shrewd - blurring religion with existing feast days and celebrations. Any merrymaking could now be
attributed to the birth of Christ rather than any ancient pagan ritual.
One such blurring may involve the Feast
of Fools, presided over by the Lord of Misrule. The feast was an unruly event, involving much drinking, revelry and role reversal.
The Lord of Misrule, normally a commoner with a reputation of knowing how to enjoy himself, was selected to direct the entertainment.
The festival is thought to have originated from the benevolent Roman masters who allowed their servants to be the boss for
The Church entered the act by allowing a choirboy, elected by his peers, to be a Bishop during the
period starting with St. Nicholas Day (6th December) until Holy Innocents Day (28th December). Within the period the chosen
boy, symbolising the lowliest authority, would dress in full Bishop's regalia and conduct the Church services. Many of
the great cathedrals adopted this custom including York, Winchester, Salisbury Canterbury and Westminster. Henry VIII
abolished Boy Bishops however a few churches, including Hereford and Salisbury Cathedrals, continue the practice today.
The burning of the Yule Log is thought to derive from the midwinter ritual of the early Viking invaders, who built
enormous bonfires to celebrate their festival of light. The word 'Yule' has existed in the English language for many
centuries as an alternative term for Christmas.
Traditionally, a large log would be selected in the forest on
Christmas Eve, decorated with ribbons, dragged home and laid upon the hearth. After lighting it was kept burning throughout
the twelve days of Christmas. It was considered lucky to keep some of the charred remains to kindle the log of the following
Whether the word carol comes from the Latin caraula or the French carole, its original meaning is the same
- a dance with a song. The dance element appears to have disappeared over the centuries but the song was used to convey stories,
normally that of the Nativity. The earliest recorded published collection of carols is in 1521, by Wynken de Worde which includes
the Boars Head Carol.
Carols flourished throughout Tudor times as a way to celebrate Christmas and to spread the
story of the nativity. Celebrations came to an abrupt end however in the seventeenth century when the Puritans banned all
festivities including Christmas. Surprisingly carols remained virtually extinct until the Victorians reinstated the concept
of an 'Olde English Christmas' which included traditional gems such as While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night
and The Holly and the Ivy as well as introducing a plethora of new hits - Away in a Manger, O Little Town of Bethlehem - to
mention but a few.
The twelve days of Christmas would have been a most welcome break for the workers on the land,
which in Tudor times would have been the majority of the people. All work, except for looking after the animals, would stop,
restarting again on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night.
The 'Twelfths' had strict rules,
one of which banned spinning, the prime occupation for women. Flowers were ceremonially placed upon and around the wheels
to prevent their use.
During the Twelve Days, people would visit their neighbours sharing and enjoying the traditional
'minced pye'. The pyes would have included thirteen ingredients, representing Christ and his apostles, typically dried
fruits, spices and of course a little chopped mutton - in remembrance of the shepherds.
Serious feasting would
have been the reserve of Royalty and the Gentry. Turkey was first introduced into Britain in about 1523 with Henry VIII being
one of the first people to eat it as part of the Christmas feast. The popularity of the bird grew quickly, and soon, each
year, large flocks of turkeys could be seen walking to London from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire on foot; a journey
which they may have started as early as August.
A Tudor Christmas Pie was indeed a sight to behold but not one
to be enjoyed by a vegetarian. The contents of this dish consisted of a Turkey stuffed with a goose stuffed with a chicken
stuffed with a partridge stuffed with a pigeon. All of this was put in a pastry case, called a coffin and was served surrounded
by jointed hare, small game birds and wild fowl.
And to wash it all down, a drink from the Wassail bowl. The word
'Wassail' derives from the Anglo-Saxon 'Waes-hael', meaning 'be whole' or 'be of good health'.
The bowl, a large wooden container holding as much as a gallon of punch made of hot-ale, sugar, spices and apples. This punch
to be shared with friends and neighbours. A crust of bread was placed at the bottom of the Wassail bowl and offered to the
most important person in the room - hence today's toast as part of any drinking ceremony.
Even Earlier - Old
Until the time of Julius
Caesar the Roman year was organized round the phases of the moon. For many reasons this was hopelessly inaccurate so, on the
advice of his astronomers, Julius instituted a calendar centred round the sun. It was decreed that one year was to consist
of three hundred and sixty-five and a quarter days, divided into twelve months; the month of Quirinus was renamed 'July'
to commemorate the Julian reform. Unfortunately,
despite the introduction of leap years, the Julian calendar overestimated the length of the year by eleven minutes fifteen
seconds, which comes to one day every on hundred and twenty-eight years. By the sixteenth century the calendar was ten days
out. In 1582 reforms instituted by Pope Gregory XIII lopped the eleven minutes fifteen seconds off the length of a year and
deleted the spare ten days.
This new Gregorian calendar was adopted throughout Catholic Europe. Protestant Europe
was not going to be told what day it was by the Pope, so it kept to the old Julian calendar. This meant that London was a
full ten days ahead of Paris.
By the time England came round to adopting
the Gregorian calendar, in the middle of the eighteenth century, England was eleven days ahead of the Continent.
A Calendar Act was passed in 1751 which stated that in order to bring England into line, the day following the 2nd
of September 1752 was to be called the 14th, rather than the 3rd of September.
Unfortunately, many people were
not able to understand this simple manoeuvre and thought that the government had stolen eleven days of their lives. In some
parts there were riots and shouts of 'give us back our eleven days!' Before the calendar was reformed, England celebrated
Christmas on the equivalent of the 6th of January by our modern, Gregorian reckoning. That is why in some parts of Great Britain
people still call the 6th of January, Old Christmas Day.
Even Earlier - Origins of the Christmas Festival
In the Western world, the birthday of Jesus Christ has been celebrated on December 25th since
AD 354, replacing an earlier date of January 6th. The Christians had by then appropriated many pagan festivals and traditions
of the season, that were practiced in many parts of the Middle East and Europe, as a means of stamping them out.
There were mid-winter festivals in ancient Babylon and Egypt, and Germanic fertility festivals also took place at this time.
The birth of the ancient sun-god Attis in Phrygia was celebrated on December 25th, as was the birth of the Persian sun-god,
Mithras. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a festival dedicated to Saturn, the god of peace and plenty, that ran from the
17th to 24th of December. Public gathering places were decorated with flowers, gifts and candles were exchanged and the population,
slaves and masters alike, celebrated the occasion with great enthusiasm.
In Scandinavia, a period of festivities
known as Yule contributed another impetus to celebration, as opposed to spirituality. As Winter ended the growing season,
the opportunity of enjoying the Summer's bounty encouraged much feasting and merriment.
The Celtic culture
of the British Isles revered all green plants, but particularly mistletoe and holly. These were important symbols of fertility
and were used for decorating their homes and altars.
New Christmas customs appeared in the Middle Ages. The most
prominent contribution was the carol, which by the 14th century had become associated with the religious observance of the
birth of Christ.
In Italy, a tradition developed for re-enacting the birth of Christ and the construction of scenes
of the nativity. This is said to have been introduced by Saint Francis as part of his efforts to bring spiritual knowledge
to the laity.
Saints Days have also contributed to our Christmas celebrations. A prominent figure in today's
Christmas is Saint Nicholas who for centuries has been honored on December 6th. He was one of the forerunners of Santa Claus.
Another popular ritual was the burning of the Yule Log, which is strongly embedded in the pagan worship of vegetation
and fire, as well as being associated with magical and spiritual powers.
Celebrating Christmas has been controversial
since its inception. Since numerous festivities found their roots in pagan practices, they were greatly frowned upon by conservatives
within the Church. The feasting, gift-giving and frequent excesses presented a drastic contrast with the simplicity of the
Nativity, and many people throughout the centuries and into the present, condemn such practices as being contrary to the true
spirit of Christmas.
The earliest English reference to December 25th as Christmas Day did not come until 1043.
don't expect Santa to be this good!"
"I just turned a corner and there he was - it made my day"
the grown ups got to tell santa what they wanted - and we got a present too!"
"I might be 30, but now I believe in Santa Claus - Fantastic!"
"Last year we went to the North
Pole and this was a better experience - brilliant!"
"We're coming back next year and telling