Miscellany and detritus, from the writer of Is This Mutton?com

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Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas Traditions: Part One

Since I started this blog in 2006, I've written quite a few posts about Christmas. There was the one about my own family's traditions, the First World War Christmas Day football match, quite a few about Christmas TV and politicians' messages, but nothing, I noted, about the origins of Christmas. Why do we have Boxing Day? Why do we set fire to a Christmas pudding? Without further ado, here is the first in a two-part posting, the Curious round-up of why we do some of the things we do.

Setting fire to the Christmas pudding
Before Christianity and when we were all pagans, there were winter festivals around this time and the Festival of Fire was common. Our tradition of igniting the Christmas pudding hark back to those times.

Christmas stockings
According to legend, a kindly nobleman grew despondent over the death of his beloved wife and foolishly squandered his fortune. This left his three young daughters without dowries and thus facing a life of spinsterhood.

The generous St. Nicholas, hearing of the girls' plight, set forth to help. Wishing to remain anonymous, he rode his white horse by the nobleman's house and threw three small pouches of gold coins down the chimney where they were fortuitously captured by the stockings the young women had hung by the fireplace to dry. 
St Nicholas in the 4th century was the original "Santa Claus". Our image of the jovial white bearded gentleman in red is courtesy of Coca Cola and their ads in the 1930s. But the origin of Santa Claus began with Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, an area in present day Turkey. By all accounts St. Nicholas was a generous man, particularly devoted to children. When I was in Poland recently, staff were being given gifts on December 6. In many European countries this is the day when St Nicholas delivers sweets and toys.

Christmas Cards
Sir Henry Cole is credited with creating the first real Christmas card. The first director of London's Victoria and Albert Museum, Sir Henry found himself too busy in the Christmas season of 1843 to compose individual Christmas greetings for his friends.

He commissioned artist John Calcott Horsley for the illustration. The card featured three panels, with the centre panel depicting a family enjoying Christmas festivities and the card was inscribed with the message "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You."

Christmas Tree
The idea of a decorated tree in the home was started by the Romans many centuries ago for the festival of Saturnalia. Sometimes they put 12 candles on the tree, one for each month. Gradually the practise of decorating a tree with ornaments and lighted candles spread across Northern Europe and into Scandinavia. Austria is said to have had its first tree in 1816 when Princess Henrietta set one up in Vienna. In 1840 Princess Helena of Meckleburg brought the idea to Paris. In England it has always been a custom to decorate an evergreen garland called a ‘kissing bush’, but in 1841 Prince Albert, Consort to Queen Victoria, introduced a tree decorated with candles, tinsel, and ornaments as part of the Christmas celebrations at Windsor Castle. After that, the Christmas tree soon became an English tradition.

Boxing Day
This is a uniquely British one and we get a 2nd day off! Boxing Day takes its name from the ancient practice of opening boxes that contained money given to those who had given their service during the year. It was also the day when alms boxes, placed in churches on Christmas Day, were opened. The money was then given to the priest or used to help the poor and needy. Another name for Boxing Day used to be Offering Day.

The Queen's Message
The first Christmas Broadcast was delivered by George V in 1932 and since then has evolved into an important part of the Christmas Day celebrations for many in Britain and around the world.

Tomorrow: Learn about how our neighbours in Europe spend Christmas


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