OK, so we’re firmly in November now and can officially start thinking about Christmas! Planning your Christmas list is one thing, but it’s not all about presents. There’s lots of traditions that make Christmas brilliant, not all of them on the day itself.
Have you ever wondered where those once a year customs came from? Here’s a guide to our favourite five.
The Christmas Tree
The Victorians were crazy for Christmas and they brought a lot of our traditions into popularity. Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, was German and he brought his native country’s custom for Christmas trees over with him. The Royals were real style setters, and where the Queen’s family went, the nation followed. The Victorian Christmas tree was decorated with tinsel, made from strips of real silver, and home made decorations like paper baskets of sugared almonds and little paper stars and snowflakes. There were little embroidered pouches containing tiny presents for different people and, since Christmas trees were quite established in Germany, the best decorations were imported from there. It also had candles on – see below.
Of course, Christmas has always been dark, being in the middle of winter, so lights have traditionally been the answer to assure us that the sunshine will definitely be coming back, yes, this miserable weather won’t last forever. In the 12th Century the Yule log was lit every year, and when the Christmas tree became popular candles were added to it. However, they were very dangerous (candles + flammable tree = eek!) so they were only lit for a few minutes at a time until the invention of the electric light bulb and subsequent chains of fairy lights around the turn of the century.
Thomas Edison was the first to light up a tree with Christmas lights, as a publicity stunt. It was a good idea, although they took a bit of refining until they weren’t still a little bit too hot to be left unattended. However, the first ones to be manufactured actually cost about the equivalent of a couple of hundred pounds a string, so you couldn’t just pop down to the pound shop and stock up.
Christmas Pudding and Mince Pies
Mince pies are called mince pies because yes, they originally contained minced meat. At the end of the year any animals that couldn’t be fed during the winter months were killed and the meat preserved with dried fruit, fat, spices and alcohol.
There are lots of theories about the origins of Christmas Pudding, including that it’s a tradition going back to medieval times. It’s hard to prove, but what we do know is that both Christmas pudding and mince pies go back a long way. Bonus fact – Christmas Pudding is sometimes called Plum Pudding but this doesn’t mean it has plums in it. Plum is just an old word for any dried fruit.
Although it may seem that goose or duck might be the more traditional bird, turkey has been around as a Christmas dinner treat for quite a while. The birds originate in America, and the man who introduced them to England, William Strickland, was granted a coat of arms in 1550 for his stroke of genius. They are popular because they fatten up quickly and have a lot more meat than other birds.
Even in the evergreen classic “A Christmas Carol” Scrooge buys the Cratchit family a turkey the size of a small boy as an extravagant treat, not a goose.
Today buying the Christmas turkey is arguably the most important advance purchase you can make in the run up to Christmas. Retailers such as Sainsbury’s and Asda all have dedicated turkey sections on their website where you can find a wide range of deals.
Talking of “A Christmas Carol”, Christmas carols have been a community activity since at least 1426, when the first ones were noted down. They are not, in fact, always or even originally hymns to be sung in church, just popular songs. One Sixteenth Century song (not admittedly, a classic we’ve all heard of) called “A Bone, God Wot!” which is a drinking song more about calling for another round than calling for God’s blessings, is sometimes sung in church these days as a Christmas carol. Lots of our familiar Christmas Carols, like “Good King Wenceslas” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” were popularised during Victorian times.
Now you have a few fun facts to whip out over Christmas dinner, you’d better get back on with planning that Christmas present list and looking forward to the celebrations!