Christmas is a time filled with gift giving, food, drink, and spending time with our friends and family. But where do all of these traditions actually come from?
You probably know that the Romans did not celebrate Christmas, but what you may not know is that the Romans did celebrate their own winter festival which could be said to be a Christmas equivilant.
The Roman festival of Saturnalia was celebrated around mid Dececember and was the most popular of all Roman Festivals. Saturnalia celebrated the god Saturn, the god of agriculture and time.
During Saturnalia, work and business came to a stop. Schools and other official places, such as courts of law were closed, and the normal social patterns were suspended.
People decorated their homes with wreaths and other greenery, and shed their traditional togas in favour of colorful clothes known as synthesis. Even slaves did not have to work during Saturnalia, but were allowed to participate in the festivities; in some cases, they sat at the head of the table while their masters served them.
Instead of working, Romans spent Saturnalia gambling, singing, playing music, feasting, socialising and giving each other gifts. Wax taper candles called 'cerei' were common gifts during Saturnalia, to signify light returning after midwinter.
It won’t come as a surprise to hear that the Vikings did not celebrate Christmas as we do today. However, they did have their own festival at this time of year known as Jól. This festival started on midwinter (around December 21st) and lasted for three nights. The festival of Jól is where we get the term yule today.
The Old Norse festival of Jól involved a lot of feasting and drinking (much like today). Animals were sacrificed and used in the feasts. Horse meat, especially horse liver, was considered a delicacy at this festival. In the saga of Hákon the Good, Hákon, the King of Norway from 934 to 961, insisted on a minimum amount of alcohol consumption, so men could prove that they were celebrating.
Part of the festival of Jól involved the swearing of oaths. Oaths made at this festival were considered more significant than oaths made at any other time of year, much like how our New Year Resolutions are considered more important than resolutions we may make throughout the rest of the year. However, unlike modern, new year resolutions, the oaths made at Jól were considered ‘iron bound’ and you could be punished by death if you didn’t fulfil them.
The Norse got Odin was part of the festival of Jól, at this festival he was known by many names, one of which was the Jólfaðr, which means the ‘Yule Father’. Odin was often portrayed as having a long white beard and is thought by some to be where the idea of Father Christmas may have originated from.
People would sometimes give each other gifts at this festival too. Gifts such as toys, jewellery, small carvings of the gods, and treats, such as small cakes were often given. The Hávamál is a collection of poems which were popular during the time. One verse in the Hávamál reminds people about what is important during the Jól festivities. It roughly translates as ‘Gifts don’t need to be extravagant, a little praise is often enough, sharing food and something to drink, has secured many friendships.’
By the Tudor period England was an almost entirely Christian country and Christmas was widely celebrated.
In Tudor times people fasted throughout the forty days of advent. During this time people atoned for their sins. Devout Christians fasted and stuck to a strict, plain diet throughout all this time. Christmas Eve was viewed at the strictest day for fasting and no meat, eggs or cheese was allowed to be eaten.
On Christmas Day people would have a huge feast, which they would have been preparing for throughout advent. Rich Tudors would celebrate with a whole array of meats including Wild Boar, Goose and even Roasted Peacock. Turkey was introduced into England in 1523 during the reign of King Henry VIII and quickly became a part of the wealthy Tudor Christmas dining table.
The Tudors did have minced pies, but not like the ones that we have today. Instead of being small and round, a Tudor mince pie was large and cuboid, or sometimes crib shaped, in order to represent the manger that Jesus was put in when he was born. These mince pies were made from meat (usually mutton or beef) and a mixture of spices and dried fruit. Tudor mince pies were supposed to be made from meat and twelve other ingredients (chosen by the chef) to symbolise Jesus and his twelve apostles. It was seen as unlucky to cut these huge pies with a knife so they would be cut using large spoons.
Tudors did not have Christmas pudding like we do today, but they did have a variation know as plum porridge. However, plum porridge was eaten as a starter and not a dessert. Plum porridge was a thick broth made from mutton or beef, boiled with plums, spices, dried fruits, oats and wine. The idea was that this porridge would line the stomach to prepare it for the large amount of rich food that was soon to come.
In 1541 King Henry VIII brought in the ‘Unlawful Games Act’. This Act banned people from participating in any form of Sport on Christmas Day, other than Archery. Henry VIII was fond of Archery and was supposedly concerned about the growing popularity of other sports. He declared that all mean must be proficient with the bow and arrow.
It was a legal requirement for every single person to attend a church service on Christmas Day. The only exceptions were for servants who were busy cooking the lavish Christmas Day feasts for the rich. In 1551 King Edward VI passed a law stating that everyone had to walk to the church for the service, no other form of transport was allowed.
Christmas trees started to become popular in Germany during the Tudor period but at this time were not part of Christmas celebrations in England. Instead during the Tudor time people would decorate their homes with other greenery, such as Holly, Mistletoe, Ivy, Laurel and Yew.
Christmas Carols were a massive part of a Tudor Christmas, but they were not how we think of them today. The world carol comes from the Latin word caraula, which means a dance with a song. Over time the dance part of carols has disappeared, but the song element lives on, usually telling the story of the nativity. The earliest recorded published collection of carols is in 1521, by Wynken de Worde which includes the ‘Boars Head Carol’.
Tudors exchanged gifts much like we do today. Gifts given and received could have included clothing, jewellery, toys, spiced fruit and money. However, gifts were traditionally given at New Year and not on Christmas Day.
Tudor Christmas feasting and celebrations went on for twelve days. The biggest celebration was on Christmas Day, but celebrations of varying scale happened for the following twelve days, this is because it was believed that the three wise men (magi) had taken twelve days to journey to see Jesus Christ after he was born. During this time ‘no free man was compelled to work’. Only necessary jobs, such as tending animals and serving lords were carried out. During Tudor times, poor women spent the majority of their time spinning and making clothes. Women were banned from spinning during the twelve days of celebration and would decorate their spinning wheels with flowers and greenery to discourage them from working. People would return to work as usual the first Monday after the Christmas period, a day known as Plough Monday, which is also thought of as the first day of the agricultural calendar.
The Victorian Christmas has many similarities to the Christmas that we know today. Many of the traditions we think of as an intrinsic part of Christmas have originated in the Victorian era.
Although the act of bringing of green foliage into the home had been around for many years the idea of a Christmas tree became popular during the Victorian times. The Christmas tree was brought over to England from Germany by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert in 1848 and placed in Windsor Castle. He decorated the tree with candles, sweets, fruit, small gifts and handmade paper decorations. A London Newspaper reported this, along with a picture of the royal family gathered around the tree, after this Christmas trees gained popularity until every home would have a Christmas tree.
Before the Victorian era gift giving was traditionally part of New Year celebration, but the Victorians used Christmas as an opportunity for giving presents. Children were rewarded for good behaviour. Rich Victorian children would get gifts of handmade wooden toys, games and books. Poor children would receive stockings filled with nuts and fruits, which is where today’s tradition of leaving out a stocking to be filled with gifts comes from.
Originally gifts would have been small in size and would have been hung on the Christmas tree, however throughout the Victorian era the availability and size of gifts started to grow, as more industries started to capitalise on the celebration. As the gifts started to get bigger people began putting their gifts under the tree, rather than on the tree.
The Victorians were the first to promote charity at Christmas. Organisations were set up to provide Christmas dinners for poor people and newspapers would advertise fundraising for poor, sick and elderly people. When Charles Dickens published his book ‘A Christmas Carol’ in 1843 it became popular and showed Christmas to be a time for happiness and goodwill, encouraging wealthy Victorians to give money and gifts to the poor.
Christmas cards were developed in the Victorian era. The idea of a Christmas card was first thought of by Rowland Hill who asked illustrator and artist John Calcott Horsley to come up with a design. John Calcott Horsley’s design was of a family toasting to Christmas and in 1843 1000 copies were printed and sold. Christmas cards became so popular that by 1880 over 11 million Christmas Cards were produced. Children were encouraged to make their own Christmas Cards as they were so expensive to buy.
Christmas crackers, which are nowadays present at most Christmas dinners were invented by the Victorians. London confectioner Tom Smith created the first crackers after he visited Paris and saw bonbons in a shop window. The first crackers were simple sweets wrapped in colourful paper and over time the sweets were replaced with small gifts, paper hats, riddles and wrapped in a festive twist of paper. The popularity of crackers developed when he developed the cracker snaps which give the well-known ‘pop’ as the cracker is pulled apart.