Christmas – that magical time of year when friends and family come together to celebrate and share love and festivities. We all have those little things we do that really make it feel like Christmas – perhaps it’s putting up the tree, tasting your first mince pie of the year or pulling a Christmas cracker. But where do all these little Christmas traditions that we hold so dear actually come from?
Our little team of volunteer elves have been doing some research to find out!
Some of our Christmas traditions originate from 16th century Germany when people decorated evergreen trees with apples and other fruits and nuts. These were called ‘paradise trees’ and represented the tree of forbidden fruit in the Bible.
Glass baubles were also first invented in Germany, in a little town called Lauscha, known for its glass-blowing workshop which started in 1597. A poor Lauscha glassblower could not afford to decorate his tree with fruits and nuts, so he blew simple glass ornaments instead. This practice continued and by 1847 they were using moulds to make more detailed shapes. This was the moment of birth of glass Christmas tree ornaments that spread from this little village all over the world.
It is also thought that German religious reformer Martin Luther was the first person to put candles on Christmas trees in the 16th century – he was inspired by seeing stars twinkling through the branches of evergreen trees.
The object is a tin in the shape of a Christmas tree that originally contained shortbread biscuits.
A set of 4 wooden decorations designed to be hung on a Christmas tree.
Many of the German Christmas traditions we have now in the UK were popularised when Prince Albert introduced them to the Royal household and they were adopted by Queen Victoria.
An illustration of Queen Victoria celebrating with her family around a Christmas tree was published in the Illustrated London News in 1848. Prince Albert had brought one over especially to remind him of his own childhood Christmases. After this, everyone wanted one to keep up with the popular fashion of the time, and the Christmas tree was embedded in our Christmas culture.
Lots of traditional Christmas baubles and decorations still used today also reflect what Victorian children would have wished for at Christmas, such as toy soldiers, rocking horses, drums and train sets.
The first Christmas cards were sent in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole, boss of the Victoria and Albert Museum. He was far too busy to write letters so had an artist design 1,000 cards, illustrated with a festive family scene on the front and printed with the greeting, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You”.
Horrified at being caught out, all his friends sent him one back the next year.
In 1880 cards had become so popular that the public were warned for the first time to post early for Christmas.
Decorating your home is a big part of Christmas – from the Christmas tree to twinkling fairy lights. This is definitely my favourite part of preparing for Christmas!
Did you know that tinsel was originally made of real silver?! It was hammered very thin and cut up into strips to add a bit of sparkle to the Christmas decorations. Over time, however, the candles that were also used for decorations turned the silver black. A number of other materials were used over the years before the production of the plastic tinsel we know today.
The Christmas cracker was invented in 1847 by sweet-maker Tom Smith. Looking to improve on his ‘bon-bon’ sweets for Christmas which were wrapped up with a twist, he got inspiration for the addition of the exciting bang when he heard the crackle of a log he had just put on the fire. Later the sweets were replaced with trinkets, jokes and paper crowns.
Board games are also traditionally played at Christmas, with families gathering to enjoy quality time together.
What do you get if you cross Father Christmas with a duck?
– a Christmas Quacker!
Three individual Poinsettia Christmas decorations to brighten up the home at Christmas time.
Glass milkbottle with printed message about supporting your local milk delivery over Christmas.
As well as the obvious Christmas tree, there are lots of other plants which represent and have meaning for the festive season.
They have to be plants which are available in the middle of winter, so evergreen plants such as holly, ivy and mistletoe are much-loved Christmas favourites used to decorate homes throughout December.
Holly appears in traditional Christmas songs and carols such as, ‘Deck the halls’ and ‘The Holly and the Ivy’.
Another traditional Christmas plant is the poinsettia. In the 1800’s the Poinsettia or Christmas Flower was introduced from Mexico to the USA by Joel Roberts Poinsett. It was a century later that they became a traditional Christmas decoration. It is believed that the flower and leaves represent the Star of Bethlehem, the red colour as the blood of Christ.
Mistletoe is often hung up in homes at Christmas – here in the UK we have the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe. The original custom was that a berry was picked from the sprig of Mistletoe before the person could be kissed and when all the berries had gone, there could be no more kissing!
Another popular form of Christmas decoration dating back to Georgian times was the Kissing Bough or Bunch. These were made of five wooden hoops that made the shape of a ball. The hoops were covered with Holly, Ivy, Rosemary, Bay, Fir or other evergreen plants. Inside the hoops were hung red apples and a candle was either put inside the ball at the bottom or round the horizontal hoop. The bough was finished by hanging a large bunch of mistletoe from the bottom of the ball.
Mince pies were originally made with meat, usually mutton, and only became sweet much later, when sugar was imported from the West Indies. For good luck, British tradition recommends that everyone should eat a mince pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas. Tradition states that anyone who refuses one of their twelve pies will suffer a year of misfortune.
On Christmas Eve, many families leave mince pies and milk or sherry out for Father Christmas when he comes to deliver presents, and a carrot for Rudolph!
A turkey for Christmas dinner.
Turkeys became ‘fashionable’ to eat for Christmas in the UK in the 1840s and 1850s. In ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens, which was published in 1843, the Cratchit family first had a goose, but at the end of the book Ebenezer Scrooge gives them a turkey, because it was bigger. And in 1851 Queen Victoria first had a Turkey at Christmas (along with the more traditional Goose and Beef). In the 1861 book “Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management”, turkey was praised the as the Christmas meal for the growing ‘middle classes’ and the book even included instructions on how to carve them ‘correctly’!
Traditional accompaniments to Christmas dinner include pigs in blankets, stuffing and (love them or hate them!) brussels sprouts!
The Christmas pudding we know today started off very differently. It originated as a 14th century porridge called ‘frumenty’ that was made of beef and mutton with raisins, currants, prunes, wines and spices. It gradually developed into a plum pudding with eggs, breadcrumbs and dried fruit added to the mix. By Victorian times, the Christmas pudding was similar to the one we have today.
A silver sixpence was traditionally baked into the pudding and whoever found it in their piece would have good luck!
The tradition of hanging a Christmas stocking started with the story of Saint Nicholas.
Wanting to help a family with 3 daughters who needed wedding dowries, Nicholas threw 3 bags of gold through their window at night, one of which landed in a stocking one of the daughters had hung at the end of her bed to dry. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas.
Now, the stocking has become a well-loved Christmas tradition, with children all over the country hanging purpose-made stockings on fireplaces or at the end of beds on Christmas Eve, hoping they are on Santa’s ‘nice list’ and will wake up on Christmas morning to see it full of trinkets, presents, and maybe an orange!