A BRIEF HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS
By Tim Lambert
Christmas is, of course, Jesus’ birthday. In England Christmas was originally called Yule. The old Saxon word Yule meant mid-winter. However when the Saxons were converted to Christianity the word Yule came to mean Jesus’ birthday. The word Christmas (Christ mass) was not used until the 11th century.
For most of history Christmas was just one of many festivals celebrated throughout the year. Until the 19th century Christmas was not particularly important in England.
Most of the things that make up a ‘traditional’ English Christmas were actually invented (or imported into England from other countries) in the 19th century. That includes Christmas trees, Christmas cards, Christmas crackers, paper decorations and, of course, Father Christmas or Santa Claus with his white beard and red costume.
During the 17th century and 18th century people continued to celebrate Christmas as they had done for centuries. For centuries it was traditional to burn a Yule log in the fireplace at Christmas. In the 19th century it was also common to light a large Yule candle.
Boxing Day was originally a day when alms-boxes in churches were opened and the money was distributed to the poor. Later ‘boxes’ were given to servants.
Our modern Christmas really began in the 19th century. Long before the 19th century people in England decorated their houses at Christmas with holly, ivy and mistletoe. However they also used many other plants, such as fir, yew and laurel. In the 19th century people began to use colored paper decorations.
For centuries it was common to give Christmas gifts to friends and relatives at Christmas. However hanging out stockings to be filled with presents was first recorded in parts of England in the early 19th century. It became common in the late 19th century.
The first Christmas card was designed in 1843 by John Horsley. Before 1840 it would not have been feasible for ordinary people to send cards because of the cost of postage. However Rowland Hill introduced the penny post in 1840. By the 1860s Christmas cards were very popular in England.
Christmas crackers were first made in 1847 by a confectioner named Tom Smith. While in Paris he saw sugar almonds sold wrapped in tissue paper and he invented the Christmas cracker. He added mottoes to the sweets (later these evolved into jokes). Smith added the ‘bang’ in 1860. Little gifts were also added to Christmas crackers.
Christmas trees were used in central Europe from the Middle Ages. By the 16th century they were decorated. By the 17th century tinsel was used. Other Christmas ornaments included paper flowers, candles, barley sugar, gingerbread and wax shapes. The first trees in England appeared in England about 1800 but they did not become popular till Queen Victoria married a German, Prince Albert. In 1848 they were shown in a picture in the Illustrated London News with a Christmas tree. As a result Christmas trees became very popular in England. Electric Christmas tree lights were invented in 1882.
Father Christmas and Santa Claus were originally two different figures. In England Father Christmas was a man dressed in green (representing the return of Spring) who was supposed to visit families and feast with them at Christmas. (He did not bring gifts). However in the 19th century in England Father Christmas merged with the Dutch Santa Claus. He is supposed to be based on St Nicholas a Christian bishop who lived in Turkey in the 4th century AD. According to tradition St Nicholas gave generous gifts to the poor. St Nicholas had a feast day on 6 December. (In Poland Santa still brings gifts on 6 December). On that day it was traditional to give gifts or to give to charity to remember the saint’s generosity.
The Dutch took the tradition of ‘Sinterklaas’ to America. In time Santa Claus evolved into a figure who brings gifts to sleeping children at Christmas. The modern Santa Claus or Father Christmas was invented in 1862 by a German-American artist called Thomas Nast. In the late 1860s Santa Claus was imported into England.
Mince pies have been eaten at Christmas in England since the 16th century. Originally they were made of minced meat but in the 19th century the meat was replaced with dried fruit and spices.
Christmas pudding dates from the Middle Ages. Originally it was called plum pottage and was made of chopped meat with ‘plum’ i.e. dried prunes or raisins. In time the meat was replaced by suet.
Originally Christmas cake was eaten on Twelfth Night (6 January). In the late 19th century people began to eat the traditional Twelfth Night cake at Christmas. So a Victorian Christmas contained all the elements of a ‘traditional’ Christmas such as Santa Clause, Christmas trees, Christmas crackers, Christmas Cards, Christmas cake and pudding.
Today Christmas is still celebrated on 7 January in Ethiopia. The Russian Orthodox Church also celebrates Christmas on 7 January.