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 season.

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.

Presents

Part of a series on the traditions of Christmas

Christmas has always been a time to give and receive presents. It all goes back to the gifts of gold, incense and myrrh given to Jesus by the Wise Men. A few centuries ago it was the custom for the rich to give gifts to the poor. Wealthy householders were obliged to open their homes to the local poor. It was also customary to give your feudal lord a gift at Christmas to show your loyalty

The tradition of children receiving gifts has grown with the rise and rise of Santa, which we’ll come back to later. But more generally the giving of gifts has been driven by the commercial pressures of Christmas. We see more on sale, we want more and we expect more. Long gone are the days when children were delighted with a chocolate doll and an orange.

The first shop to see the commercial possibilities of Christmas was Woolworth’s  which began to sell Christmas as a time to spend, spend, spend as far back as the end of the nineteenth century. At the beginning of that century the main Christmas expenditure was had been on food and drink but by 1900 shopping for presents had become part of the Christmas ritual.

The Twelve Days

Part of a series on the traditions of Christmas

Why twelve days of Christmas? These days Christmas starts around about September and finishes when the sales begin on Dec 26th. But that’s not how it used to be.

The twelve days of Christmas begin on Christmas day and end on January 6th, which is called the Epiphany, the day we remember the visit of the Wise Men to Jesus. Earlier generations wouldn’t have seen Christmas as a day but season of twelve days, which would certainly take the pressure off Christmas day itself.

The period between Christmas and Epiphany was the time to celebrate. It was a time of feasting and a time when the rich were supposed to share what they had with the poor.

December 26th is St Stephen’s Day, in Britain known as Boxing Day. It got the name from the day that the poor boxes in churches were opened and the Christmas gift or Christmas box was given to the servants in rich households. The carol Good King Wenceslas tells of one action of kindness to the poor on Boxing Day. Although there was a King Wenceslas, or a least a Prince of Bohemia of that name, the story is totally fictional, made up by the Victorian priest John Mason Neale to promote charitable action.

The end the twelve days is Twelfth Night, a night for a final party and the traditional time to take down the decorations and get back to the real world.

Midwinter Festivals

Part of a series on the traditions of Christmas

So why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25th, if it isn’t the actual birthday of Jesus? The answer is that the celebration goes back much further than that.

Midwinter has always been a time to hold rituals. When it’s dark and cold and you haven’t got electric lights or central heating you need something to keep you going.

In the book “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe” C S Lewis takes us to Narnia, a mythical land that is gripped by evil. In Narnia it is always winter and never Christmas and the children who explore this dark world can’t think of anything worse. Winter needs Christmas, and mid-winter festivals were around a long time before Christmas.

The Romans had a mid-winter festival called Saturnalia, and a lot of what Saturnalia was about we would recognise today. It was the time of the year for being merry and exchanging gifts. It was a time to over-eat and get drunk. Another mid-winter festival around at the time of the first Christians was called the Feast of the Unconquered Sun. This was the main festival of a rival religion to Christianity and it drew many revellers.

Early Christians didn’t celebrate the birth of Jesus. Birthdays themselves were considered pagan. But by about 350 AD there was pressure to name a feast day to Jesus: a mass of Christ, and it was a classic case of if you can’t beat then join them and the date of December 25th was chosen. It was a day people were already partying so the Church decided to give them something to party about. So Christ’s mass or Christmas was born.

The Wise Men

Part of a series on the traditions of Christmas

The carol We Three Kings gets it badly wrong. The Bible doesn’t say they were Kings at all. It calls them magi, people who made their living from forecasting the future based on the positions of the stars. We would call them astrologers, but they were also the leading scientists of their day. They had seen a star that meant to them that a king had been born in Israel. The Bible doesn’t say that the star was anything special to look at, not brighter than any other star, but for this group of people it has special meaning.

We don’t know there were three of them – it’s more likely it was a little band of men and women who traveled as emissaries to Jerusalem to congratulate King Herod on the new prince. Herod was in the habit of killing his sons, realized that these boffins must have detected the signs of the birth of the Messiah and sent them off to Bethlehem where the prophets said Messiah would be born.

The astronomers didn’t meet he shepherds. By the time they’d got to Bethlehem the baby was a toddler and living in house. Joseph had probably found work in the town and the family has settled down until their little boy was old enough to cope with the journey home.

The visitors had brought three gifts: gold, which is what you gave a king, incense, which is what you offered to a god, and myrrh, a spice which was used to stop dead bodies rotting. Christians have always seen these gifts as having a special significance, pointing to Jesus as a king, as God and as one born to die.

So we’ve come long way from the cosy stable with the ox and the ass, the shepherds and the three kings. That picture – the Christmas crib, was first used by St Francis of Assisi in the year 1223 as a visual aid to tell the Christmas story to the local people. St Francis constructed a life-size stable scene with real animals and people dressed in Middle Eastern costumes. In creating the scene Francis also created a picture that has remained the strongest image of the birth of Jesus, a picture that doesn’t depict the way it actually happened, but communicates the nativity more clearly than any words.

The birth of Jesus

Part of a series on the traditions of Christmas

Christmas Day shouldn’t really be on Christmas day at all. Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, but Jesus wasn’t born in December. The Christian Church has never claimed that he was but chose the 25th as a convenient date to celebrate his birth.

Jesus was most probably born in the spring. The clue in the Bible’s account of his birth is that the shepherds were on the hills above Bethlehem looking after their sheep through the night. Sheep wouldn’t have been out in the fields in the winter ands it’s most likely that sheep given such attention had been specially chosen to be sacrificed at the Jewish Passover festival, which is in the Springtime.

So if Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th, what do we know about his birth? Well it wasn’t in the year 0 either. Although our calendar is based on BC and AD, dating the year from the birth of Jesus, the 6th century Abbot who worked our when Jesus was born got it wrong. It’s most likely that the actual date was 7 BC in the time of the Emperor Augustus and the reign of King Herod.

We know Jesus’s mother was an unmarried teenager called Mary who was engaged to marry Joseph the local builder, and the both lived in the town of Nazareth, which was in the region of Galilee, up north, well away from important cities like Jerusalem and Caesarea.

We know they went to Bethlehem, King David’s town, because Augustus wanted to find out who he had in his Empire and ordered everyone back to their ancestral home town. Bethlehem was a small town but because it was where David’s descendants called home it was busy for the census. There were no guest houses free so Mary and Joseph either stayed with family or in a makeshift shelter. While they were there the baby was born, and they had to use a manger, an animal’s feeding trough for a bed for their new-born son.

A group of people out watching their sheep were told by an angel to look for a baby down in the town who had been put in a manger and that this baby was special – the Messiah the Jews had been waiting for.

The Christmas Tree

Part of a series on the traditions of Christmas

One decoration that deserves its own history is the Christmas tree. Whoever thought that chopping down a tree, bringing it indoors and covering it with lights would be a good way of celebrating Christmas?

The story goes back many thousands of years, to ancient druids and Celts who worshipped trees, especially evergreens. The first we know of Christmas trees, however is in Germany in the sixteenth century. By 1600 trees were being decorated for Christmas in Strasbourg. Over the next 200 years the custom of decorating trees spread through the German speaking world, but were hardly ever heard of in Britain.

After Queen Victoria married the German Prince Albert, Britain discovered the Christmas tree. One picture has influenced the way British homes appear at Christmas more than any other, and that is an illustration of how Queen Victoria and Prince Albert  were celebrating Christmas with their children in Windsor Castle. The picture appeared in the London Illustrated News in 1848. This was the style magazine of its day, and when it showed the British public the decorated Christmas tree which Albert had ordered from his native Germany then every aspiring middle class home had to get one immediately. But 1860 the decorated Christmas tree was an essential part of the British Christmas.

Something a little surprising about that famous picture is that the royal Christmas tree is quite small, really just the top of a tree standing on a table, and for a long time British Christmas trees have been small table top affairs, whether real or artificial. The idea of having a full size tree, reaching from the floor to the ceiling of your house has come from America, where they have always had bigger trees.

One of the most important debates of Christmas is what to put on top of your tree. Some people have suggested that the fairy on the tree is a relic of the tree’s pagan origins, but it’s more likely that it started out as an angel. Both and angel and a star appeared in the skies at Christmas – the angel as a messenger to the shepherds and the star to the wise men. How we started putting them on top of our trees, though is a bit of a mystery.