Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Adrian, one of our top History tutors, gives a whistle-stop tour of Xmas's fascinating history!
The Queen’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle (The Illustrated London News, 1848)
Christmas in the UK has a fascinating history! Here are some fun facts that you may not be aware of:
• In the past roast goose or a boar’s head was eaten at Christmas dinner. Then in 1526 a trader named William Strickland sold six American turkeys in Bristol. The birds became popular among British people because they were practical and tasty. In the 19th century aristocratic families began to consume turkey at Christmas dinners, but by the start of the 20th century it turned into the dominant meal since its size suited middle class families as well.
• Christmas cards were pioneered by Sir Henry Cole in 1843, who thought that printing seasonal greeting cards would be easier than handwriting several letters and asked his artist friend John Horsley to produce around 1000 hand-coloured lithographs. The standardisation and lowering of postage stamp rates not only made letters cheaper and easier to send, but guaranteed that the new custom of Christmas cards would spread far and wide.
• Christmas trees were first introduced in Britain by Queen Charlotte, the German wife of George III in 1800. They were soon adopted by the upper classes for their celebrations. However, between 1845 and the late 1850s periodicals like The Illustrated London News published pictures (see photo above) of the trees imported by Prince Albert, the German husband of Queen Victoria, which inspired the British masses to copy this tradition previously reserved for the royal family and the aristocracy. By 1860 the majority of well-to-do British households had a Christmas tree in their halls or parlours.
• The mince pies we know and love are an offshoot of the Christmas Pye which was a dish filled with mutton, shredded pigeon, hare, pheasant, rabbit, ox or lamb that was mixed with sugar and fruits. It was oblong shaped as it was supposed to look like the cradle of baby Jesus. After 1660 they started to resemble the ones we have nowadays.
• The Christmas cracker was invented by the British confectioner Tom Smith in 1848. He was inspired during a trip to Paris by the French method of wrapping bonbons in paper twists. So he invented the cracker, a sweet-filled container that snapped when it was pulled apart by two pairs of hands. In the late Victorian era the sweets were substituted by paper hats and little gifts.
• By the 1820s there was a feeling that the importance of Christmas was diminishing. However the publication of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol ensured that the traditions were more popular than ever before.
• In the 16th and 17th centuries Christmas was regarded as an excuse for sinful behaviour (including drinking and gambling) by the Christian sect known as the Puritans. There is a myth that the most famous Puritan, Oliver Cromwell, banned Christmas when he was ruling Britain. In reality there is no evidence that he played a role in introducing this law, even though it is quite likely he would have supported it. The ban was enforced in 1644, five years before Cromwell took power.
• The annual Christmas broadcast by a British monarch has been a tradition since 1932 when George V gave a speech drafted by Rudyard Kipling, the author of The Jungle Book. It was a radio programme until 1957 when Elizabeth II agreed to it being televised live. However, due to adverse weather conditions, US Police radio transmissions interfered with the speech and some viewers claimed to have heard an officer saying: “Joe, I'm gonna grab a quick coffee”. From 1959 onwards the broadcasts have been pre-recorded and shown at 3pm on Christmas Day. The only exception was in 1969 because the Queen thought that her subjects had had enough of her after a documentary on the royal family had been aired earlier that year.
• Carols were songs and dances of praise and joy that started in pagan times. This practice continued well into the Christian era. In medieval England minstrels travelled from castle to castle to sing carols, but the most familiar ones date back to Victorian times. Today carollers usually collect money for charity. In Wales, each village has several choirs which rehearse in advance of the holidays.
• Hanging a mistletoe in the home is also a pagan custom that was later adopted by early Christians. During the 18th century the tradition of kissing underneath the plant was also invented. This was, according to one account, inspired by Norse mythology. Frigg, one of the pagan gods, gave her son Baldr a charm of mistletoe to protect him from the elements (air, water, earth and fire). He was eventually struck down by a mistletoe arrow and his mother cried tears of white berries. After bringing her son back to life she vowed to kiss anyone who stood beneath the plant.
• Boxing Day has been a national holiday in England, Wales, Canada and Ireland (where it is known as St Stephen's Day) since 1871. Historians have different views regarding the origins of this holiday. Some say that it began during the Middle Ages when parishioners collected money for the poor in alms boxes which were opened after Christmas in order to commemorate the first Christian martyr, St Stephen. Others insist that the tradition dates back to the Christianised late Roman empire when similar collections were made for the poor in honour of the first saint. What is certain, though, is that this custom was not widely celebrated until the Victorian era, during which some employers would give Christmas boxes to their staff. Simultaneously, noble households would give their servants time off after Christmas so that they could visit their families. They also provided them with boxes full of leftovers from the previous day.
• The tradition of leaving stockings out on Christmas Eve derived from the legend of St Nicholas (i.e. Santa Claus), the patron saint of children, who allegedly sent bags of gold down the chimney at the home of a man who could not pay the dowry for his daughters. The gold ended up in stockings that were left out to dry.
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Blog Post Crafted by Adrian