As the Christmas holiday period comes to an end, we publish Brian Stote’s third and final Christmas feature. This one looks at the history of some of the Christmas traditions across the world.
The ancient Christmas began on December 6th with the Feast of St Nicholas who was the Bishop of Lycia in Asia Minor. He was known for saving three virgins from a fate worse than death by throwing three bags of gold through their window. In the light of this, he is the patron saint of prostitutes, though also of sailors, pawnbrokers and children. In this last capacity he became particularly associated with Christmas.
One tradition, from Oxfordshire, was that a single girl should bake a loaf on December 24th to discover the identity of her future husband. She had to fast throughout the day, name the loaf a ‘dumb-cake’ and prick it with her initials before leaving it by the hearth and going to bed. At the stroke of midnight, the future groom’s double would enter the room and mark his initials next to hers and leave. For this to happen, she had to leave the front door ajar. If she neglected to do this, she would remain a spinster for life.
On the same day, you needed to light the yule candle as a protection against fire, lightning strikes and electric storms throughout the year. You had to ensure that it remained lit throughout the night, for if it went out it was a very ill omen.
One Christmas Eve custom which began centuries ago was the ringing of church bells and in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, the Devil’s Knell still begins with a tolling bell at 11pm which continues until it has sounded once for every year since Christ was born and celebrates the Devil’s departure from the world in general and Dewsbury in particular.
January 5th was a pagan festival (which we still recognise) known as Wassail, when youths roamed around the fields beating drums and clashing metal to frighten off evil spirits. This was the fore-runner to carols. A wassail cup was then drunk which consisted of warm brown ale, wine, spices and roasted apples.
This part of the year gradually became a Christian festival and it became a tradition to decorate your house with greenery, particularly evergreens such as ivy, holly, bay, mistletoe and yew. These were originally believed to be protection against fire, lightning and the evil eye but happened to be the plants which gave winter colour when all others had gone into hibernation.
The yule log had to be big enough to burn slowly over the whole celebratory season and in France, if the heart of the log remained unburnt it was believed that a piece of it incorporated into a new plough would quicken the soil and ensure a good harvest. In Provence, into the 19th century, the strongest members of the family carried the yule log around the supper table three times before it was laid on the hearth and the eldest in the room poured a libation over it. This was to ask the old gods for help in the new year. The early church took over some of these traditions, with reservations, and decided that ash wood should be used because the Infant Jesus was warmed by a fire made with the wood by the shepherds.
It was customary to bank up the log with ashes at night and then fan it back into flames for the next day. In the Deep South of America, slaves were given a rest from labour while the log kept burning so it was often damped down to extend their holiday.
Boxing Day is so named because the alms boxes in churches were opened on that day to distribute the contents to the poor. This was known as ‘the dole of the Christmas box, the word ‘dole’ still being used for money received whilst out of work and ‘a Christmas Box’ being a gift – usually of money – to those who have served us well throughout the year.
The Christmas tradition in England gradually developed until it was stopped in its tracks by the Puritan dictats during the Civil War. In June 1647, a Parliamentary ordinance abolished the feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun, and substituted as a regular holiday for students, servants and apprentices, the second Tuesday of every month. During the Christmas of 1647 a number of ministers were taken into custody by the authorities for attempting to preach on Christmas Day, and one of them subsequently published his intended sermon under the title ‘The Stillborn Nativity’. Despite this government pressure, however, Christmas festivities remained popular, and successive regimes throughout the 1650s felt obliged to reiterate their objection to any observance of the feast.
Christmas was to be marked by fasting rather than feasting and although the law was repealed at the restoration in 1660, many of the old customs had been lost.
In the post-parliamentary era, which lasted more than 160 years, some of the old traditions resurfaced, though in far fewer numbers and, although Christmas Day became rather more the focal day of celebration, the seasonal festivities were much less extensive and enthusiastic. The old Twelfth Night custom of the King and Queen being established did, however, return to popularity during the 18th century and the 1820’s saw the beginnings of a revival. With the dawning of the Victorian era it received a hefty boost and began to develop into what we would generally recognise as the Christmas of today.
House decoration in Victorian times, in the wealthier homes, was quite lavish. Garlands of ivy were wreathed around bannisters, and of nuts over mantelpieces. Holly and yew boughs were placed where children couldn’t reach them as their berries were poisonous.
Our modern concept of Father Christmas derives from a poem, ‘A Visit from Saint Nicolas’ written in 1822 by an American, Clement Clark Moore.
“…. A miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer, with a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be Saint Nick…”
And it continues –
“Down the chimney St Nicolas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot.
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedlar just opening his pack.
His eyes how they twinkled! His dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow.
He was chubby and plump – a right jolly old elf –
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.”
The pagan yule log was only perpetuated in Victorian times on greetings cards or in the form of bisque models as cake decorations. The cylindrical shape was easy to convert into containers for gift boxes which were made from papier mache and decorated with moss, flowers or crossed ribbons. The chocolate roll was made in imitation of the yule log and it was sprinkled with icing and dusted with sugar to simulate snow.
In the Victorian era, parlour games at family gatherings became popular such as Charades, Ha Ho Hee, Blind Man’s Bluff, Hunt the Slipper, Twenty Questions, Dumb Crambo, Reverend Crawley’s Game and Snapdragon.
Most of the very earliest Christmas carols were originally written in Latin as canticles and were difficult for lay people to sing with enthusiasm because they were not understood.
St. Francis of Assisi, in 1223, changed this when he started his Nativity Plays in Italy. The people in the plays sang songs or ‘canticles’ that told the story during the plays. Sometimes, the choruses of these new carols were in Latin; but normally they were all in a language that the people watching the play could understand and join in! The new carols spread to France, Spain, Germany and other European countries.
The earliest carol, like this, was written in 1410. Sadly, only a very small fragment of it still exists. The carol was about Mary and Jesus meeting different people in Bethlehem. Most Carols from this time and the Elizabethan period are untrue stories, very loosely based on the Christmas story, about the holy family and were seen as entertaining rather than religious songs. They were usually sung in homes rather than in churches. Travelling singers or Minstrels started singing these carols and the words were changed for the local people wherever they were travelling. One carol that changed like this is ‘I Saw Three Ships’.
Christmas carols remained mainly unsung until Victorian times, when two men called William Sandys and Davis Gilbert collected lots of old Christmas music from villages in England Before carol singing in public became popular, there were sometimes official carol singers called ‘Waits’. These were bands of people led by important local leaders (such as council leaders) who had the only power in the towns and villages to take money from the public (if others did this, they were sometimes charged as beggars!). They were called ‘Waits’ because they only sang on Christmas Eve. This was sometimes known as ‘watchnight’ or ‘waitnight’ because the shepherds were watching their sheep when the angels appeared to them.
Many of our traditional carols were written in the Victorian era, though some, such as the ‘Coventry Carol’ (Lullay, Lulla), were survivors from much earlier, as were ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, which could be 1000 years old and of pagan origin, ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ (12th Century) but with music by John Mason Neale 1851, ‘God Rest You Merry Gentlemen’ – words from 15th century and ‘The First Nowell’ – 16th century – both first published in 1833 by Sandys.