Each year, millions of people around the world celebrate Christmas. Primarily a religious holiday, Christmas is steeped in traditions, as many people embrace the opportunity to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
It’s also a wonderful time when many people take a hard-earned break from the long, cold days of Winter. They get the chance to recharge their batteries and get-together with families and friends to enjoy the festivities.
Although Christmas is hundreds of years old - the ritual of celebrating Christmas is not as old as many people think. It is believed that it was rarely commemorated until the Victorians brought in the idea in the 1800’s.
Since then, we have adopted hundreds of Christmas traditions. A lot of these are engrained in our history as a nation. Others have evolved over the years; some may be personalised and part of our family celebrations.
Many of us will have dozens of childhood memories – a number may be sad, but hopefully there are happier ones. We may remember specific ones from putting out our dad’s socks on Christmas Eve, to Christmas morning breakfast rituals or setting the pudding alight with brandy poured on top.
Whatever the custom we embrace, it has made me wonder about the history behind several of these Christmas traditions. So, after some time researching, I am happy to share three popular ones with you:
1. Christmas Cards – As a child I remember checking the post each December morning for cards from far and wide. It was well before the days of the internet, email and text messages. Over the past number of years this custom has started to decline. But where did it start?
It is stated that Queen Victoria sent the first official Christmas Card in 1843. However, it was Sir Henry Cole (instrumental in reforming the Postal Service) who commissioned his friend, the artist Calcott Horsley to paint two scenes (one of which was quite scandalous as it depicts a child drinking wine). One thousand of these cards were printed and sold for one shilling each. Today, only 12 cards remain with a value of well over £20,000 each.
2. The Christmas Tree – Symbolising the tree of life (and tree of light), some people believe bringing a tree into the home at Christmas time goes back centuries. Several say the origins of the tree are unknown and may go back to pagan times. Whatever the origin, the fact is, we can thank Germany for popularising the tradition in the early 1600’s.
Originally, they decorated the tree with gingerbread, nuts and apples. It was in the 17th century when people started to decorate the tree with roses made out of coloured paper, apples, wafer and tinsel. Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s consort) is normally accredited for bringing the Christmas tree to the UK – however it was Queen Charlotte (wife of King George III) and a German native who introduced the idea to England in 1800.
3. Santa Claus (and his red suit) – Legend has it there are two origins. The first goes back to Pagan times, when a similar character wore a hooded green cloak and a wreath of holly, mistletoe and ivy. Symbolising the coming of Spring, he had a similar role to the Santa of today as he brought joy and happiness into people’s lives.
The other patron was Saint Nicholas - the bishop of Myra, Turkey in the 3rd Century. The patron saint of boys and girls, he was a shy man but known as a gift-giver to the poor and a miracle worker. It was said he secretly gave families money by dropping money down the chimneys.
It was not until around 1822, when Father Christmas became as well known as he is today. Clement C Moore was instrumental in bringing back the tales of Saint Nicholas when he wrote his poem “T’was the night before Christmas”.
Many also deem the tradition of wearing a red suit is owed to a Coca Cola advertisement. However, it was Thomas Nast, an American Cartoonist who depicted Santa Clause in his red suit, fur collar and black belt in 1870.