The History of Christmas

With Charles Wilson-Watkins


Christmas as we know it today, doesn’t have such a long history – most traditions are only about 180 years old. I’m going to use a few characters from Charles Dickens’ novel of 1843 A Christmas Carol to help to illustrate this article.

The Ghost of Christmas Past will take us to the origins of Christmas. For the first three centuries of Christianity’s existence, Jesus’ birth wasn’t celebrated, with Epiphany on 6th January being a significant holiday commemorating the arrival of the Magi and Easter which celebrated his resurrection. The first official mention of 25th December marking Jesus’ birthday was in an early Roman calendar of 336 AD.

In fact Jesus was probably not even born in December – the arrival of the shepherds and their sheep suggests that it was a spring birth. Pope

Julius I in the 4th century probably settled on 25th December as it coincided with existing pagan festivals honouring Saturn and Mithra. That way it would be easier to convince Rome’s pagan subjects to accept Christianity as the empire’s official religion.

Alfred the Great, shared the importance of Christmas as a festival, and it was under his law that holi-days were taken. Christmas is an Anglo-Saxon word Cristesmæsse which was first recorded in 1038. During the middle Ages, Christmas wasn’t as popular as Epiphany, on 6th January, and for a period the Catholic Church temporarily banned Christmas due to its pagan origins.

It was during the Tudor period, in 1521 that the first collection of carols was published. The word Carol comes from the Latin word caraula, which were songs conveying the nativity story.

Holidays during this period were well received as a welcome break for workers of the land, concluding on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night.

The Christmas Hamper by Robert Braithwaite-Martineau

It is popularly thought that turkeys were introduced to Britain by William Strickland in 1526. Strickland traded with the native American Indians and brought six turkeys to Bristol where he sold them for tuppence each.

Henry VIII was king at this time, so I wonder, did he feast on turkey? He would certainly have eaten mince pies, but they wouldn’t have been the fruity ones that we have today. Back in Tudor times they would have been made with minced meat mixed with fruit and spices like cinnamon and nutmeg which not only made the meat go a bit further but also meant that if the meat wasn’t as fresh as it could be, it tasted better. By Victorian times they were more or less as we know them today – Mrs Beeton’s book of Household Management has a number of recipes and only one of them includes meat. I wonder how many Henry VIII could eat in one sitting?

Sadly after the Civil War, Christmas was banned in 1647. The ban was lifted after the Restoration of the Monarchy and Charles II, in 1660.

Before the Ghost of Christmas Past takes us to the Victorian Era, he has one more stop during the Georgian period. It was very much all about parties, balls and family get-togethers, the season lasting for a month from 6th December, St. Nicholas Day to 6th January, 12th Night, and it was on the 6th December that presents were to be exchanged.

On Christmas day, after attending a church service, people would return home to eat a Christmas dinner of turkey, goose or venison for the gentry, followed by plum pudding. Homes were decorated with holly and evergreens, though this was not done until Christmas Eve, as it was thought unlucky before then. This wasn’t restricted to the rich. Even the poorest families would bring in the foliage. Decorations were taken down after Twelfth Night and the greenery was burnt.

We have to thank the Victorians for the modern day version of Christmas as they were influential in the way in which we celebrate it today. Before the crowning of Queen Victoria in 1837, no one had heard of Father Christmas, Christmas cards or Christmas crackers. During this time, the Christmas holiday was generally two days, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Boxing Day, got its name from the boxes that contained gifts of money that were given to the servants and working people by their employers on this day.

The Ghost of Christmas Past wants to introduce us to Father Christmas. The story is that he hails from an old English midwinter festival, and was normally dressed in green, the sign of the returning spring. It is during the 1870s that the Dutch Sinter Klaas changed his named to Santa Claus, and along with him came his sleigh and reindeer to deliver his presents.

Toys tended to be only available to the rich, as they were handmade and expensive. With the introduction of factories and mass production, toys became more affordable, and available to the middle classes. Sadly, poorer children would be lucky to receive an apple, orange or a few nuts, when hanging their stockings up in the 1870s.

The Ghost of Christmas Past, has handed me a Christmas card. We have to thank British Civil Servant Henry Cole, inventor who is credited with the concept of sending greeting cards during the Christmas period in 1843. The popularity of sending cards increased the halfpenny postage rate and the use of trains by the 1870s.

Prince Albert is credited with introducing the Christmas tree into homes in Britain in the 1840s. They were already popular in his native Germany.

A Victorian Christmas dinner varied on geographical location; in the north roast beef was traditional whereas in the south goose was the favourite. By the end of the century turkey was increasing in popularity. Now we might find crackers on the table; invented by Tom Smith in 1847 when he took a small cardboard tube, covered it in brightly coloured paper and added a ‘snap’. Ghost of Christmas Past has disappeared and Ghost of Christmas Present is going to show us how Christmas is celebrated in Wales at this time.

The Mari Lwyd from Llangynwyd, Glamorgan 1904-10

Christmas or Y Nadolig usually starts with an early church service, known as “plygain” between 3 am and 6 am, a service for men to sing carols. After the service the day is spent feasting and drinking. During Boxing Day, Gwyl San Steffan, the custom was of “holly-beating” or “holming”. Young men and boys would beat the unprotected arms of young females with holly branches. Thankfully this traditional custom has died away.

To celebrate the end of the Christmas Season, we find a Mari Lwyd Grey Mare, which is a horse skull, with false ears and eyes, along with reins and bells carried around on a pole, covered with a white sheet and decorated with colourful ribbons. The Mari Lwyd is carried from door to door, accompanied by a party of people. At each door Welsh poems are recited. In return the homeowner recites a verse in Welsh, refusing to let the Mari Lwyd into the house. This exchange continues until the homeowner relents and lets the party in to enjoy food and drink. This is where we leave the Ghost of Christmas Present enjoying the insults………and the Christmas Carols.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, has appeared and he would like to wish all the readers of Bay Magazine a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

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