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The Traditions of Christmas Through the Ages

Christmas is our favourite time of the year here at Museum Selection. It’s the season for giving and receiving, but more importantly, it’s a time to remember the true meaning of Christmas and for celebrating with friends and family, enjoying good food and being merry. But is this how Christmas has always been? We have looked back at this festive time of year and discovered how some of our much-loved traditions were brought to life.

Medieval Era- 5th- 15th Century

During the Medieval Era and the days of the Winter Solstice, Christmas and the festive period were celebrated as a festival of light and fire. These winter festivities incorporated the Pagan tradition of burning fires to ward off bad spirits.

When it came to decorating the home, villages would collect a selection of evergreens to decorate their family home. During this period, evergreens symbolised everlasting life and greenery commonly collected were, holly ivy, bay and rosemary for their figurative properties. Rosemary symbolised remembrance and bay for valour. Holly and ivy were presented together, with holly symbolising masculinity and ivy the femininity.

The Medieval period was the era that the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe was brought to life. Families would hang kissing boughs made from twigs and decorated with greenery (mistletoe) and seasonal winter fruits. This was the pioneer to the bunch of mistletoe, under which no lady could refuse a kiss. Mistletoe was sacred during this period and was hailed as being “All Healing” bringing people good luck, fertility and protection from witchcraft. This has been a long-running tradition that is still alive today. Many homes still hang mistletoe on their door reef or as a centrepiece in their home, requesting a kiss from women that passed under it.

The final tradition that is testament to Middle Ages, was carrying in a Yule log into the house on the eve of Christmas. The log was placed in the fireplace and decorated with ribbons and greenery as a centrepiece for the days ahead. The log was lit to bring light to the room using the saved end of the previous year’s logs and was burnt continually for the 12 days of Christmas to bring light and warmth to the family. Nowadays a Yule log is still traditionally given during the festive season, but not in the same manner of light and warmth. These days the yule log is enjoyed by many as a delicious dessert piece often made from chocolate and decorated with festive treats.

Source: bbc.co.uk

The Creation of the Nativity

Saint Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first live nativity scene in 1223, intending thereby to cultivate the worship of Christ, having been inspired by his recent visit to the Holy Land where he had been shown Jesus's traditional birthplace. The scene's popularity inspired communities throughout Catholic countries to stage similar pantomimes. The scene's popularity inspired much imitation in Catholic countries, and in the Early modern period sculpted cribs were set up in Catholic churches and homes, often exported from Italy. These elaborate scenes reached their artistic apogee in Papal state, Emilia, Kingdom of Naples, Genoa that had an important tradition, notably those of Anton Maria Maragliano. By the end of the 19th century nativity scenes became popular beyond Catholic settings, and many versions of various sizes and in various materials such as terracotta, paper, wood, wax and ivory were marketed, often with a backdrop setting in the stable.

Elizabethan Era- 1558- 1603

Historians often depict this period as the golden age in English history. As far as Christmas was concerned, Elizabethans certainly enjoyed eating, drinking and being merry. Families would create impressive Christmas feasts from sweet and colourful delicacies, as a way for the host to display their wealth and often the lady of house to show off their culinary skills in the kitchen.

During this era, sugar was very expensive and hosts would show off how wealthy they were by making sugary and sweet-meat feasts to dazzle their guests with their beauty, delicacy and wit. Often they created whimsical foods designed to deceive the eye, such as Collops of bacon, made from ground almonds and sugar.

Another popular sweet treat prepared and served in the Elizabethan period was leech or leche, a milk-based sweet made with sugar and rosewater, which was cut into cubes and served plain or gilded, to depict a chequerboard. This sweet meat was commonly served after courses.

Source: pinterest.com
One of the most popular sweet meats and centrepieces at this time was marchpane, a round piece of almond paste which was iced and elaborately decorated, sometimes with figures made of sugar, decorative fruit, gold leaf and often gingerbread. Marchpane was the Tudor and Jacobean forerunner of marzipan. Talented cooks used it to construct edible decorations such as flowers, jewellery and even model buildings to show off their skill.

Alongside all these sweet delicacies, hot drinks were served, known as lambswool. A popular choice was hot cider, sherry or ale, spiced with added apples. When heated the apples would explode to create a white 'woolly' top. Spiced wines and syllabubs were also popular in this era. Guests were flattered and impressed by such extravagant expenditure. Today, hot mulled wine is still commonly drank during Christmas time with added fruits for texture and flavour.

The Collapse of Christmas- 1644-1660

In the late 16th century, Philip Stubbes expressed the Puritan view that Christmas was a dangerous excuse for excessive drinking, eating, gambling and generally bad behaviour. In 1644 with view became law and the Parliament banned all Christmas celebrations thereafter. Viewed by the Puritans as superfluous, not to mention threatening, to the core Christian beliefs. All activities to do with Christmas, both domestic and religious, including attending church, were forbidden. This shocking collapse of Christmas was seen to be very unpopular, with many families continuing to celebrate the festivities privately, although on a much smaller scale than in the Elizabethan era.

Thankfully, a more openly festive, and slightly subdued, spirit returned following the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. Old customs were revived, and Christmas as a religious and social festival was celebrated throughout society.

Georgian and Regency Times- 1714-1837

Georgian and Regency Christmas’s remained much the same as in the Elizabethan times, but with much more emphasis on the 12 days of Christmas and in particular the Twelfth Night. The twelfth night falls on the 5th January and marks the end of the festive season. As mentioned above this celebration was popular from the Middle Ages and highlighted the end of the Yule log burning.

The twelfth night of Christmas has been one of the most important days in the Christian calendar and is celebrated with a feast called “The Feast of the Epiphany”, when the three wise men travelled to Bethlehem and behold Christ with gifts. As we all know the gist they gave were frankincense, gold and myrrh, frankincense for divinity, gold for kingship and myrrh for humanity.

In the Georgian and Regency Era, it became custom to offer these gifts on the twelfth night. During this period and beyond it became popular to hold Twelfth Night parties, which involved playing games and indulging in great feasts. This is where the customary Christmas cake was born. Traditionally a twelfth night celebratory cake was baked and a slice given to all members of the household, including the servants.

The original twelfth night cake contained a dried bean and a dried pea. The man whose slice contained the bean was elected King for the night, and the women whose slice contained the pea, became the Queen, for the rest of the evening, both ruled supreme. Even if they were normally servants, their temporarily exalted position was recognised by all, including their masters.

By the early 19th century, the cake itself had become more and more extravagant, with sugar frosting and gilded paper trimmings, often decorated with sugar paste figures, similar to that found on a Tudor Marchpane. Throughout this century the twelfth night cake remained the centrepiece of the party, although without the traditional pea and bean and throughout the 19th century the 12th night of Christmas was beloved as the most popular celebration of the festive period. Nowadays we traditional feast upon our Christmas cake on Christmas day itself.

The Making of the Christmas Pudding

It is believed that Christmas pudding began in the 14th century as a porridge called ‘frumenty’, made with beef or mutton as well as dried fruit, this then evolved into a sweet pudding during the 14th century. As trading routes opened and people gained access to citrus fruits and exotic spices from abroad, these were added to the mix and the meat was also sweetened using sugar, apples, raisins, prunes and wine. By 1595, eggs were added to the pudding, along with dried fruit, breadcrumbs and flavoursome spirits, therefore thickening and flavouring the mixture. The pudding was eaten at various times of the year especially at a Harvest Festival.

There is a popular myth that in 1714, King George I (sometimes known as the Pudding King) requested that plum pudding be served as part of his royal feast at his first Christmas in England. As techniques for meat preservation improved in the 18th century, the savoury element of both the mince pie and the plum pudding diminished as the sweet content increased. The mince pie kept its name, though the pottage was increasingly referred to as ‘plum pudding’.

It was not until the 1830s that the cannonball of flour, fruits, suet, sugar and spices, all topped with holly, made a definite appearance, becoming more and more associated with Christmas. The East Sussex cook Eliza Acton was the first to refer to it as "Christmas Pudding" in her bestselling 1845 book ‘Modern Cookery for Private Families’.

Stir-up-Sunday, the last Sunday before the period of Advent, is the traditional day to make the Christmas pudding. Traditionally, a silver sixpence was stirred in to the mix, to bring the finder wealth and good luck in the year to come. In the past it was usual for every member of the household to give the pudding a stir and make a wish. Some families have used the same Christmas sixpence for as long as they can remember!

The Victorian Era- 1837-1901

The beginning of the Christmas tree

The Christmas tree is one of the most recognisable and treasured motifs associated with the festive season today. Whether it’s real or artificial, this act of decorating the tree with lights is thanks to Queen Victoria in the Victorian era.

Many people often credit Prince Albert for the introduction of the Christmas tree from Germany to England, when he and Queen Victoria were pictured decorating their tree with their children in 1848. But in actual fact the Christmas tree had been around since the Georgian period, when George III’s German wife Queen Charlotte was known to have had a decorated tree for her family as early as the 1790s. After Queen Victoria’s and Prince Albert’s acts in 1848, the popularity of the tree spread beyond the royal circles and became popular throughout society.

Typically the festive tree was displayed on tables in pots, with gifts placed unwrapped underneath. The tree was decorated with wax candles, baskets of sweets, flags and little ornaments and gifts. It wasn’t until the 1880’s when the Christmas tree as we know it became bigger once the home-grown Norway Spruce tree became available and people started placing their trees on the floor. At Museum Selection we have been inspired by this smaller Victorian Christmas tree, so we have added a similar tree to our Christmas collection. View our pre-lit artificial topiary tree here.

The story of the Christmas Cracker

The story of the traditional Christmas cracker began with Tom Smith, a confectioner's apprentice in London in the early 19th century. On a trip to Paris in 1840, Tom admired the French sugared almond bon-bons, wrapped in coloured tissue paper and decided to introduce them to London. For seven years Tom worked to develop the bon-bons into something more exciting. He made a coloured paper wrapper and put in it another strip of paper impregnated with chemicals which, when rubbed, created enough friction to produce a noise, creating the Christmas cracker we know and love today. Tom knew that the bang would excite children (and were said to frighten evil spirits), and the jokes and poems within the crackers amused adults.

View our range of traditionally decorated Christmas crackers, and bring the Christmas spirit of the past alive this festive season.

The Story Behind the Christmas Card

Sir Henry Cole, burdened by the amount of seasonal correspondence he felt obliged to write over the festive period, first came up with the idea for a dedicated Christmas card in 1843. His idea was to print a seasonal greeting card, which would save hours of handwriting, and with the help of his friend, artist John Horsley, together they designed nearly 1000 hand-coloured lithographs.

Along with the standardisation and lowering of postage rates in 1840, this made letters easier and cheaper to send, contributed to the rapid spread Christmas card giving. Designs featured Christmas scenes, including Father Christmas, robins, evergreens and snow scenes but also a range of non-Christmas designs, much like Valentine or greetings cards.

We have carried on this tradition of card giving and have a collection of Christmas cards inspired by the designs of the past. View the range here.

The Birth of Saint Nick, Father Christmas

Throughout the centuries there were many variations of old jolly St. Nick, with the earliest dating back to before the 4th century. The Norse God Odin was the forerunner who rode through the winter world, bringing either gifts or punishments, as appropriate. Odin wore a blue-hooded cloak, and had a long white beard. He was able to read hidden thoughts and watch the behaviour of those he visited from afar. Due to this power, he was beloved and feared by many.

A later figure of Father Christmas was coined in the 4th-century, the Bishop of Myra, also known as Saint Nicholas. Myra was famous for his kindness to children and generosity to the poor. After the Bishop died, the legend of Saint Nicholas grew and he is still remembered in some countries on the 6 December.

In Medieval England and for centuries afterwards, the figure of Father Christmas represented the spirit of kindness and good cheer. In the 19th century, the jolly elf’s role changed to something more like that of the European Saint Nicholas. At this time, Dutch emigrants took the story of a legendary gift-bringer called 'Sinterklaas' to America, where he eventually became known to Americans as Santa Claus.

The names may be different, but there were enough similarities between all these symbolic characters to classify them all the same. By the early 20th century, Father Christmas, Santa Claus, St Nick and others to merge, all were known as the 'right jolly old elf’ that is now the universally recognised symbol of Christmas and beloved by all across the world.

The Early 20th Century

By the early 20th century, the act of gift-giving and shopping started to become more commercialised with a greater availability of gifts for both children and adults. The streets of London were packed with shoppers in the days up to Christmas, and the shops were open and ablaze with a riot of light and colour even on Christmas Eve, with manufacturers and shopkeepers both large and small keen to capitalise on the commercial potential of Christmas.

Children's gifts proved the most popular, due to the sheer variety of games, toys and other gifts, leaving shoppers spoilt for choice. Some gifts were considered suitable for both boys and girls, including rocking horses, wooden farmyard animals, board games, picture and adventure books, magic tricks, Noah's Arks and mechanical or stuffed animals. Other toys and games were also available that targeted specifically boys or girls. For girls, skipping ropes and, of course, dolls were available in a huge variety. Boys could expect toy soldiers and train sets.

Some of these gifts were left under the Christmas tree to be opened on Christmas day, but also small treats would be left in a stocking to be filled by Father Christmas. This custom of stocking fillers was derived from a Dutch tradition, whereby children would fill their shoes with straw as a gift for Saint Nicholas's horse, in the hope that sweets will be left as a reward for their thoughtfulness in their stockings. If they were deemed to have been naughty, they received nothing. Now today, this tradition lives on, by leaving stockings full of gifts for children from Santa Claus, and children leaving biscuits and carrots for Father Christmas and his reindeers.

Source: tr.anawalls.com
This tradition of extravagant gift-giving was soon to end once World War two hit. People were encouraged to spend any available money, on National Savings Certificates and War Bonds to support the war effort, or on everyday goods to support commercial traders. Although Christmas during the war was greatly reduced, the spirit of the season remained strong. Children began to write to Father Christmas, and some families extended hospitality to those less fortunate than themselves.

Although spirits were high, the Blitz did disrupt the Christmas celebrations and seasonal travel. Trips to visit family or even shopping for gifts became difficult. Due to the rationing and the lack of high quality foods, meant that preparation for the Christmas feast required a lot of imagination. Sugar, butter, and eggs could only be brought in small quantities, so alternatives, such as grated carrots instead of sugar to sweeten cakes, were made.

As luxury decorations were hard to come by, families began to decorate their homes using paper chains and any other artificial decorations they could find to bring the spirit of the season to their homes. This is still a popular way of decorating homes today, with adults and children cutting intrinsic shapes out of paper to create beautiful snowflake chains and other designs.

We hope this timeline into the past has left you enlightened by the traditions of Christmas’s gone by and has left you inspired for Christmas this year.
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