The Medieval Christmas – the history of Christmas part one

The history of Christmas in four podcasts: here’s the first, with historian Sophie Jackson.

Written, presented and produced by me, Wayne Clarke and originally broadcast on BBC Local Radio.

Go to the next in this series on the Tudor Christmas

Goodbye to 2014

So that was the year that was 2014.

What made it distinctive for me was the amount of travelling I’ve done. This year I’ve travelled more miles and visited more countries and spent longer outside the UK than any other year.

I’ve been to Malta, Germany, Netherlands and Moldova, with brief stops in Ukraine and Romania. The trip to Moldova was extraordinary. I spent time there with friends from the Tidings of Salvation Church in Chisinau and lived at their summer camp. They have a lot less than us in material resources, but so much more in determination and faith.

I had a just one day in the Netherlands including a stop in Demeter but it still rates as my favourite place to be. Malta was a special holiday, two weeks in the sun celebrating our thirtieth wedding anniversary.

Next year: my hopes are mainly with my family. I’m hoping the shop my wife manages can thrive. I’m praying for my son as he graduates, and then gets married in July – that will be the highlight of the year. I’m praying just as hard for my daughter who will also be graduating and looking for work. I also wish to take better care of my health, to maintain it. I have been looking online for health supplements that might help me with this, and I think I may have found the right one. They are called kratom capsules, and if this is something that you wish to look into further you can visit our website. Maintaining good health is extremely important obviously, and I hope that it works as well for you as it has for me.

Our church will be studying Mark’s gospel through the year and I’m about to spend a few weeks immersing myself in Mark. I’m looking forward to the challenge and preparing to have the Bible speak to me in new ways.
I’m hoping for a few things for myself in 2015: Develop my musical skills; write more, including this blog; lose weight (yeah, I know).

Oh, and this blog needs a name. All the good blogs have a name. Any ideas?

Thanks for following and have a great 2015.

Read the Bible: Lee Mack on Desert Island Discs

Here’s Lee Mack on BBC Radio 4’s Desert island Discs with Kirsty Young.




Welcome to the new Archbishop

The appointment of Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury marks the ascendency of bold, socially engaged evangelical faith within the Church of England. In some ways Justin Welby has the background that has marked many primates of the Church before him. He studied at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge and is related to a former prime minister. But Justin Welby is a different kind of educated gentleman from those of a previous generation. His faith is rooted in Christ who came to serve, not to rule, and while his background has opened doors, his ambitions have been for the growth of God’s kingdom, not for personal aggrandisement.

Welby’s previous experience in the oil business and in the world of high finance has marked him out as the man for the job, but it is his worldly-wise gospel commitment that continues to encourage many in the Christian community. What has been mentioned less often is Welby’s international role as a peacemaker – particularly in central Nigeria where he was a major factor in the successful peace negotiations between fighting factions. And don’t forget that the Church of Nigeria is now second only to the Church of England in the size of its membership of the worldwide Anglican Communion of which the Archbishop of Canterbury is the head.

Justin Welby’s appointment also marks the rise and rise of the influence of the Alpha Course. When he worked in London, Welby was a member of Holy Trinity Brompton, and is still close friends with Nicky Gumbel, whose work leading and promoting the Alpha Course has made such a mark on British Christianity. The faith that arises from Alpha is unashamedly evangelical, founded on a belief in the Bible. It is also charismatic, depending on the Holy Spirit’s works and gifts. It is at the same time socially engaged, taking seriously the material needs of the world and the place of Christian faith in the political and economic structures of society.

Welby lives by what he calls a “confidence in the gospel”. The gospel he bears is the gospel of personal salvation and the gospel of the continuing work of the Holy Spirit and the gospel that can speak into the problems of the whole of society.

Welby prefers words to music, but the music he does enjoy demonstrates the breadth of his experience and spirituality, from Handel to Wesley to Matt Redman and Stuart Townend.

Another reason that Justin Welby is the right man for the job is his ecumenical experience. His strong working relationship with Roman Catholics in Europe and in Liverpool will encourage those who want to see the Church of England retain its ties with Rome even as it sets itself apart with the appointment of women as bishops.

On a personal level, Welby has a knack of relating to everyone at their own level, a skill he has found very useful in Durham and one he will need to draw upon as Archbishop. He has recently become a grandfather and is “acquainted with grief”, as the first of his six children was killed in car crash in 1983.

Twelve months ago, when he became Bishop of Durham, Justin Welby said that his first priority in the new role was “to listen”, and then to encourage the work of the church in its worship of God and in its growth in numbers. As Archbishop of Canterbury he will need to raise his sights again to a wider role in the nation, but it is likely that he will be more interested in leading the church to growth and working behind the scenes, and will feature less in the media that his predecessor has done.

Welby’s appointment will not please everyone in the Church. He represents a move to an open evangelical position that some at the liberal end of the Church will not be delighted about. Neither will he please the most conservative of evangelicals. But he stands in a strong place to represent mainline evangelical opinion in the Church and may just be the man to hold the Church of England and the whole Anglican Communion together.

Christians of all denominations and none should now get on their knees and pray for Justin Welby – pray that the job won’t squeeze him into its own mould, and that he will have the strength to be the Lord’s man for this calling and for such a time as this.

Christmas Peace

Part of a series on the traditions of Christmas

One remarkable tale of Christmas is the day peace broke out in 1914. By Christmas of that year fighting on the Western Front in World War One had claimed one million casualties. Those still alive were living in rat-infested trenches.

On Christmas Eve the sky was clear and the night was crisp and fresh. Lights appeared from the German trenches and the allied soldiers thought an attack was imminent. But the Germans raised their voices not their weapons and started singing. The carol Stille Nacht reached the Allied trenches, which they recognised as Silent Night. The lights were small Christmas trees the German soldiers had set up.

Without authorisation soldiers started climbing out of the trenches and wandering into no-man’s land. Enemies ate and drank together. Some British infantrymen ate their Christmas dinner in German trenches. Others joined forces with the enemy to bury their dead. A game of football started, though it’s not recorded who won.

Unfortunately the soldiers’ humanity alarmed their leaders and both sides prevented a repeat of the Christmas truce in the years that followed. But the idea that the peace and goodwill of Christmas could even bring a pause to a war is a remarkable testimony to the power of this season.

The Man who stole Christmas

Part of a series on the traditions of Christmas

The man who stole Christmas was Oliver Cromwell. Well to be honest it had to more to do with the Puritans who supported Cromwell. In the 1640’s most people loved Christmas as much as we do today. But the English Puritans and the Scottish Presbyterians had two problems with it. One was that they thought a religious festival was being hijacked by people who just wanted to get drunk. But they were also suspicious of any religious festivals which seemed to them to be part of the Catholic teaching they rejected.

In 1644 Parliament passed a law that Christmas was to be a fast and a penance rather than a celebration. For twelve years the law was rigorously enforced. Shopkeepers were arrested for closing on Christmas Day. Evergreen decorations were prohibited. Parliament sat as usual on Christmas Day. Even churches were not allowed to open.

What happened in practice was that people still celebrated Christmas at home and found reasons not to be at work. What lost out was the religious observance of Christmas, while the secular Christmas survived.

Nowadays most Christians are happy to be part of the secular celebration of Christmas and most churches make room for a Christmas tree. Some will even include Father Christmas as part of their services. Most Christians are happy to combine the birthday of Jesus with the old midwinter festival. It is true that more people go to church at Christmas time than any other time of the year, which shows that British people still want something of the Christian festival as well as the secular one that goes alongside it. Even many Jews and Muslims in Britain celebrate Christmas, exchange presents and have the traditional trimmings of the day. British Christmas these days is not wholly religious or secular it’s a mixture of the two, as it has been ever since it began.

Father Christmas

Part of a series on the traditions of Christmas

Now here’s a long and complicated story and one which I will tell carefully.

St Nicholas was a bishop in Turkey as long ago as 300 AD. By all accounts he was a generous man. One story told about him is that there was in his town a family with three daughters, but not enough money to pay the dowry necessary to see the daughters married. Nicholas went to the family’s house at night-time and threw through the window, or in some versions down the chimney a bag of gold to provide the first daughter with her dowry. A second night he threw in another bag of gold, and then a third, but by this time the father was so curious he stayed up to see who was giving the gifts. He discovered it was Nicholas and told everyone about the generosity of the man.

The legend of Nicholas lived on after his death and he became the patron saint of Russia, of sailors and of merchants. In some countries St Nicholas Day, December 6th, rather than Christmas Day, is the day children receive their presents.

In the Middle Ages Nicholas was everyone’s favourite saint, and all over Europe there are pictures of him, tall with a robe and long beard, and holding three golden balls in memory of his act of generosity, the same three balls that became the symbol of pawnbrokers. He was particularly popular in Holland where he is Sinter Klaas – St Nicholas in Dutch.

St Nicholas then went to America with the Dutch immigrants who settled around the city of New Amsterdam, or New York as it is known these days. In the 1800’s New Yorkers changed the Dutch Sinter Klass with his long robe and big beard into Santa Claus.

In 1823 a New York newspaper printed the poem “Twas the night before Christmas”.  The poem was written by Clement Moore to entertain his children and never expected it to be published. It was this poem that introduced the world to Saint Nick’s reindeers but still described the man himself as a short and jolly elf. The way we think he looks these days depends on a series of pictures by the American artist Thomas Nast and, strangely a series of adverts for Coca Cola in the 1930’s which dressed Santa in a  red coat to match the label on the Coke bottle.

And then there’s a character who’d been known in Britain for hundreds of years called Father Christmas. Back then Father Christmas was nothing like Santa. Britain had no tradition of St Nicholas but we did have a character who appeared in the traditional street theatre of the mummers. This character could be impish or he could be lean and gaunt and he was variously called Old Christmas, Sir Christmas or Father Christmas. He was a but like Old Father Time, the one who ushered in Christmas. If you know the way Father Christmas appears in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe to bring Christmas into a waiting world you’ll get the idea.

So Father Christmas as we know him now is a mixture of the European St Nicholas, the American Santa Claus and the British Old Father Christmas. By the way, one difference to look out for between Santa Claus and Father Christmas is that the American version is normally drawn with a red suit and a hat while the British way of picturing him is with a long red cloak with a hood. Watch out for that.

Cards and Crackers

Part of a series on the traditions of Christmas

Many Christmas customs have their origins lost in history or legend. But one which we can be sure about is the invention of the Christmas card. The modern Christmas card was invented in Britain in 1843. People have always sent Christmas greetings to one another, but a Victorian businessman called Henry Cole decided he wanted to send out printed cards. He commissioned a well-known artist called John Calcott Horsley to design a greetings card which showed a family Christmas dinner and carried the words ” A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you”. The card created quite a stir in its day because it had on it a picture of a woman giving a young girl a drink from a wineglass. People criticised Cole and Horsley for promoting drunkenness. Even so a thousand of them were told for the extravagant rise of one shilling.

Henry Cole was a businessmen who believed in products that were beautiful as well as useful and his was followed by many others, all designed to decorate the house as well as to send greetings. Cole himself went on to organise the Great Exhibition of 1851, to found the Victoria and Albert Museum, and even to design an award-winning tea set!

By the 1860’s Christmas cards were popular but they were mainly sent by better off people. In 1870 the halfpenny stamp for cards made sending them cheaper, and by the 1880’s everyone was sending and receiving Christmas cards. An article in the Times in 1883 welcomed this new tradition. It said that sending cards was now “the happy means of ending strifes, cementing broken friendships and strengthening family ties.” All that in one little Christmas card! Each year we in Britain spend £250 million on Christmas cards and the send one and a half billion cards to each other each year.

Another Victorian invention was the Christmas cracker which was born just three years after the Christmas card. Tom Smith sold sweets in London and in 1844 introduced the first French bob-bon into Britain. As he was sitting by his fireside one evening he heard a log pop on the fire and the idea came to him of wrapping up his new sweets in paper with two handles which detonated a little firecracker. His crackers were more popular than his sweets so he put a small gift inside instead, and later a paper hat.

Carols and Music

Part of a series on the traditions of Christmas

Music has always been an important part of celebrating Christmas, whether it’s Silent Night or Slade.

In the previous centuries music came courtesy of the town waits: groups of singers who would go round the town entertaining people with the songs of the day and asking for money. One ancient tradition is wassailing, singing songs to wish people health in the new year. Usually wassailers were welcomed in to drink mulled wine or punch. In earlier times wassailing involved saluting the fruit trees in the middle of winter wishing them good luck and good fruit.

The word carol originally meant a circle dance, though carols have been associated with Christmas for 400 years. Most of the carols we sing these days were part of the revival of Christmas in the middle of the nineteenth century. They were collected into a book in 1871. When the book was published most of the writers were still alive it became the music that defined Christmas for the next hundred years. Many of the Victorian carols like “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “The First Nowell” have words that are very far removed from the Bible’s account of how Jesus was born and owe more to popular sentiment than to the true Christmas story.

The most famous and best-loved Christmas carol is Silent Night, which has a remarkable story of its own. The words were was written in 1816 by a priest called Joseph Mohr and the music was added by his school teacher friend, Franz Gruber, in 1818 for the Christmas service at St. Nicholas church in Oberndorf, Austria. Joseph  Mohr had asked Franz Gruber to write a tune for the song with a guitar arrangement.

A legend associated with the carol that says, Joseph Mohr wanted the carol to be sung by the children of the village at the midnight Christmas Eve service, as a surprise for their parents. But in the middle of practising, the organ broke down because a mouse had chewed through the bellows. So the children had to learn the carol only accompanied by a guitar. The truth is that there was no children’s choir and the organ wasn’t broken.

At Midnight Mass in 1818, Mohr and Gruber sang the carol with the church choir repeating the last two lines of each verse. The song has now been translated into many languages and is known throughout the world.

Christmas Food

Part of a series on the traditions of Christmas

So much of our Christmas tradition is linked to food. What we eat and when we eat it defines the way we celebrate the Christmas everyone is ready to share the best food, like cutting the Christmas turkey with the best knives, since online we can find the top five knifes in every category and for every use.

Let’s start with the turkey. Turkeys don’t come from Turkey – they come from America, and were never known let alone eaten in Europe.

A large Christmas dinner has always been part of Christmas. But the traditional English Christmas dinner used to be beef until about 1840, when large numbers of turkeys and geese came into Britain from the continent and became the fashionable meat to have on your Christmas table. A turkey was enough to feed a large family, but turkeys were still very expensive. If the budget wouldn’t stretch to turkey then goose was cheaper, though it was considered a lot tougher than turkey and not such a delicacy. By the end of the nineteenth century turkeys where cheaper and most families could not afford one and replaced the beef and the goose in most households.

Pudding on Christmas Day was always Plum Porridge but this was replaced by the Plum Pudding which became the Christmas pudding we know today. The tradition of putting silver sixpencees into the Christmas pudding seems to be dying out, but it’s on old tradition. Silver coins or tokens were part of a traditional cake made in the eighteenth century called the Twelfth Cake, which was eaten on Twelfth Night. Over the year the silver coins made their way into the new Christmas pudding and Twelfth cake has become our Christmas Cake as the celebration Twelfth Night has all but disappeared.

Mince pies were originally contained minced meat, which is why they’re called mince pies. They were most often made with minced lamb and used to be made into an oval shape as a reminder of the manger that Jesus slept in. Over the years they have become the fruit pies we know today, and which are now eaten al over the world.

One part of our Christmas diet that reminds us of a very old midwinter is the Yule log. Those Swiss Rolls covered in chocolate started out as the centre piece of the Midwinter festival of Yule. Yule was a time of feasting for Northern Europeans even before the birth of Christ. It was time to drink and party and scare away the dark forces of the midwinter night.

Communities would light a fire around the biggest log they could find and watch it burn, bringing light and warmth and good cheer into the darkest part of the year. Right up to the seventeenth century a Yule Log would be brought into the family household to burn in the fireplace for the whole of Christmas Day.

It was the French who first made the Yule Log into a chocolate cake. So now that chocolate Yule Log on the sideboard remains as the last reminder of the earliest midwinter festival that our ancestors celebrated.