The Origins Of UK Christmas Traditions
Have you ever stopped to think about where tinsel originated when putting it up on your Christmas tree? Or even why you are putting up a Christmas tree in the first place! Wonder no more as we delve into UK Christmas traditions and where they are thought to have originated from.
Christmas Trees (Real)
Many people believe that Queen Victoria & Prince Albert introduced the first Christmas tree to Britain, however 40 years earlier the first known Christmas tree was erected in December 1800, when George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte gave a children’s party.
As a result Christmas trees become hugely fashionable in high society but not with the rest of British society. It took another 40 years (with a helping hand from the popular press at the time and Prince Albert who was importing Christmas trees, and also put one up in Windsor Castle in 1841) for them to become a mainstay for Christmas across the country.
Christmas Trees (Artificial)
After the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, the large Christmas trees seemed inappropriate to many families and alternatives were sought, with the first artificial Christmas trees arriving from Germany.
These were originally made from goose feathers, that were dyed green to give them a “tree” colour, and became a popular way to preserve Germany’s fir tree population.
Artificial Christmas trees however still didn’t hit mass production levels until the 1930s when the inventor of the toothbrush, William Addis, using the same machinery to make bristles on toilet brushes, began making bristly branches for artificial Christmas trees via his company, Addis Brush Company.
In a study in 2009, it was reported that an artificial tree would need to be re-used for more than 20 years to have a lower environmental impact than a real Christmas tree.
The word itself comes from an old French word “étinceler” which means “sparkle”
Used to decorate Christmas trees, walls, ceilings, picture frames and practically anything else you can wrap it around, Tinsel began life (like many Christmas traditions) in Germany as far back as 1610.
Originally made from shredded silver to help reflect the flickering of Christmas candles, this was soon replaced when the candles caused the tinsel to turn black on one side, making it very unattractive.
In 1846, Queen Victoria & Prince Albert were illustrated in the ILN (Illustrated London News) standing with their children around a Christmas tree decorated with tinsel, candles and small bead ornaments, influencing British high society to look for similar Christmas tree decorations – however this would be beyond the means of a standard class of British society due to the cost.
Makers then began to experiment with different metals such as tin, copper and lead(!), hoping the shininess would be preserved – however this led to the tinsel being too heavy, easily breakable or poisonous!
Eventually tinsel was made using artificial methods such as man made plastics and became the hugely popular Christmas decoration we have today.
Popularised by Sir Henry Cole and artist John Horsley who created the first official Christmas card in 1843 in order to encourage the use of the recently created post office.
In Victorian times there were some questionable Christmas card designs including murderous frogs or mice riding on lobsters!
One popular design that still appears across all forms of Christmas decorations is the Red Robin.
Their link began when postmen in Victorian times wore red tunics, which was likened to the distinctive red breast of the Robin, meaning the postie was nicknamed “robins”. This saw the robin introduced to Christmas cards as a representation of the postie making their seasonal deliveries.
Fun Fact: The breast of a Robin is actually Orange but the bird was named before Orange existed as a word in the English language, only appearing after the 16th century when the fruit and word was introduced to the country.
Invented by Tom Smith, a London sweet maker in the late 1840’s, they were inspired by traditional, paper-wrapped French bonbons. Once he discovered a way to make them “crack”, sales took off and his sons improved on their Fathers’ design by adding paper crowns and novelty gifts to the Christmas crackers.
Wreaths are connected to the pagan holiday of Yule, which marks the winter solstice, which begins on the 22nd December and runs through until the 2nd January.
The wreaths used during Yule were meant to symbolise nature and the promise of the return of spring (and more importantly the sun which had descended to the lowest point in the sky).
They were made from evergreen plants such as Ivy & Holly and red berries and gave “colour” to a season devoid of colour after most leaves had fallen off the trees in Autumn.
Christianity used the symbol of wreaths to represent eternal life and the unending love of God. Dating back to around the 16th Century, wreaths being used during Yule were adopted by Christians and become a tradition known as Advent Wreaths.
Traditionally they were made from evergreens such as holly oak, ivy and red berries, with the prickly holly and the red berries representing the crown of thorns wore by Jesus (and the blood of Christ caused by the thorns).
Advent wreaths hold four candles (don’t go there!) the hope candle (purple), the Bethlehem candle representing love (purple again), the Shepherds candle (pink) representing joy and the angel candle (purple) which represents peace. These are lit one at a time from the first Sunday of advent to the last Sunday in advent.
Another tradition originating in Germany, German protestants began marking the days of advent in the early nineteenth century either by marking walls or doors with a piece of chalk, or by burning one candle for each day.
This evolved into hanging a devotional image each day which led to the creation of the first handmade wooden advent calendar.
In the early 20th Century the first printed calendars began to appear, and by the 1920’s Gerhard Lang had developed a new innovation – the addition of small doors to these calendars.
Traditional pictures appeared behind these doors, and in some cases short bible verses were added behind the doors.
It wasn’t until the late 1950s that chocolates were introduced to advent calendars and at the same time they began to spread around the globe.
According to the legend of St Nicholas, he sent gold down the chimney of a poor man who needed money for dowry (an amount of property or money brought by a bride to her husband on their marriage) for his unmarried daughters, the gold then landed in stockings hung by the man on his fireplace to dry.
The Christmas turkey is thought to have made its first appearance in the 16th Century with Henry VIII being the first English monarch to eat a turkey for Christmas.
Popularity grew amongst those that could afford Turkey throughout the 17th Century, however Goose was also served and this became more popular until the Victorian era.
In fact “Goose Clubs” were set up to allow those on lower incomes to save up all year towards a goose for Christmas.
Edward VII made it popular for the middle classes to have turkey at Christmas time, however it still remained a luxury for many people, and it wasn’t until the 1950s that they become more affordable to the average household.
In more recent times any roast meat can be found across UK Christmas tables including turkey, goose, duck, gammon, beef or pork.
Christmas pudding was thought to have originated in the Middle Ages as a wheat-based thick soup (or porridge) called frumenty which was made up from beef, mutton, raisins, currants, prunes, wines & spices.
Evolving over time, eggs were added to thicken the mixture, dried fruit and breadcrumbs were also added, as were beer and spirits to give the pudding more flavour.
In was popularised as a traditional Christmas pudding in the Victorian era, often being eaten a week before advent.
Some religious traditions still people add a total of 13 ingredients to represent Jesus & the 12 disciples, whilst others will also get each member of the family to stir the mixture before making from East to West to represent the three wise men.
Another UK tradition is for a silver “sixpence” to be added to the mixture, which is then said to bring good luck to the person who finds it in their served portion.
These were originally filled with meat such as lamb, and were oval shaped to represent the manger baby Jesus slept in. The tops represented the swaddling cloth around him.
They were often seen as a status symbol at Christmas in Stuart & Georgian times, with the very rich showing off pies that were star shaped, crescent shaped, heart shaped or flower shaped)
Other Christmas Traditions
This was traditionally a day which saw house servants given the day off.
They would be given a “Christmas Box” by their employer, and they’d return to their families to exchange small gifts with them.
However Boxing Day doesn’t always fall on the 26th December since it is defined as the first working day after Christmas – therefore if Christmas day falls on a Friday, Boxing Day would be the Monday 28th December (since that would be the first official working day after Christmas)
The 26th December is actually the feast of St Stephen.
In Scotland Boxing Day was known as “Sweetie Scone Day”, whilst in Ireland it is sometimes referred to as “Wren Day” (bit of a grisly tradition that we won’t go into here!).
Taking Decorations Down By Twelfth Night
Many people look to take their decorations down by the twelfth night (usually the 5th or 6th January) as they believe it will bring bad luck to leave them up.
Before the traditional decorations we are familiar with now, many people used greenery to make their houses look cheerful and a pre-Christian belief was that this greenery contained woodland spirits.
If you left those decorations up you ran the risk that these spirits would cause mischief in your house.
However this is a modern superstition as for centuries people left them up until Candlemas eve (1st February)
This was greatly revered by the Druids as a healer and protector – it was carefully cut to ensure it never touched the ground.
It is also seen as a symbol of love and friendship in Norse mythology where the practice of kissing under the mistletoe could originate from.
During medieval times, people believed that mistletoe possessed mystical powers which would bring luck to families during December and ward off evil spirits.
Christmas Fun Fact
Christmas was actually banned from the mid 1640s through to 1660.
Thought to be supported by Oliver Cromwell, the puritan church believed only Sundays were to be Holy days, and people were too wasteful at Christmas.
Thankfully Charles II once restored to the throne in 1660, made any laws made between 1642-1660 null and void, and Christmas once again was allowed to be celebrated.