So this is Christmas

Were has the year gone? Time really does seem to be flying now – although I think it probably is an age thing as my kids dont seem to agree!

I wonder if it was the same for our ancestors? I certainly remember and hear my own words echoing from my grandparents saying how the year seemed to have gone quick but as I child I no doubt said exactly the same as my children – some things just don’t change!

And what about how our ancestors celebrated christmas? Our christmas traditions of today – the christmas tree, decorations, present giving etc – stem largely from the Victorians it although according to Britanicca ( “fir trees decorated with apples were first known in Strasbourg in 1605” whilst the “first use of candles on such trees is recorded by a Silesian duchess in 1611”. The custom of the Advent wreath of four candles began in the 19th century but has roots in the 16th century when thetradition of fir wreaths with 24 candles (representing the 24 days before Christmas) was reduced the number to four originally involved a fir wreath with 24 candles (the 24 days before Christmas, starting December 1), but the awkwardness of having so many candles on the wreath reduced the number to four for easiness.

I thought I would investigate more about the origins of christmas and how our ancestors may have or indeed have not celebrated it, and found a great website

Christians generally think of the origin of christmas as being the birth of Jesus but the 21st of December, being the winter soltice, had been celebrated long before this much had the summer solstice. The winter solstice celebrated the start of the end of the darknes of winter and the start of the light returning (i.e. send of the short days adn the start of longer ones).

In fact until the 4th century when “church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday”, Easter had been the main christian holiday. It was Pope Julius I who chose December 25, that date commonly believed to ahve been chosen to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. It was first called “the Feast of the Nativity” which spread to England by the end of the sixth century. Once December 25 became widely accepted as the date of birth of Jesus, a connection was often made the between the rebirth of the sun and the birth of the Son by Christian writers.

The website describes how by the middle ages, christians would attend church and then celebrated “raucously in a drunken, carnival-like atmosphere similar to today’s Mardi Gras” and how “the poor would go to the houses of the rich and demand their best food and drink. If owners failed to comply, their visitors would most likely terrorize them with mischief. Christmas became the time of year when the upper classes could repay their real or imagined “debt” to society by entertaining less fortunate citizens”.

In the 17th century civil war year, Oliver Cromwell cancelled Christmas! But it was duly restored by Charles II after which Christmas in the 18th century appears to have been a similar occasion, revolving round food and drink, playing games, singing and entertainment. On a recent visit to the National Archives, I found two small books about Christmas past which I of course just had to get. They were first published in 1740 and 1820 respectively:

“Christmas Enterainments” starts in Chapter 1 by stating

“You must understand, good people, that the manner of celebrating this great Court of Holydays is vastly different now to what it was in former days: There was once upon a time Hospitality in the Land; an English Gentleman at the opening of the great day, had all his Tenants and Neigbours enter’d his Hall by Day-break, the Strong-Beer was broach’d, and the Black-Jacks went plentifully about with Toast, Sugar, Nutmeg, and good Cheshire Cheese; the Rooms were embower’d with Holly, Ivy, Cypree, Bays, Laurel, and Missleto, and a boucing Christmas Log in the Chimney …. the Tables were all spread from the first to the last, the Sire-Lyons of Beef, the Minc’d-Pies, the Plumb-Porridge, the Capon, Turkeys, Geese, and Plumb-Puddings….”.

Times had changed, the power of the Manors and their Lords had long dwindled along with it their christmas hospitality, perhpas because many Lords no longer lived on their manors but in the larger cities and towns which had emerged. However chapter 1goes on to tell us, according to the newspapers of the day “that several of the Gentry are gone down to their respective Seats in the Country, in order to keep their Christmas in the Old Way, adn entertain their Tenants and Trades-Folks as their Ancestors use to do…..I must also take notice to the stingy Tribe, that if they don’t at least make their Tenants or Tradesmen drink when they come to see them in the Christmas Holydays, they have Liberty of retaliating, which ia a Law of very ancient Date”.

The book describes how games such as “Blind Man’s Buff”, “Puss in the Corner”, “Questions and Commands” and “Hoop and Hide” are played whilst storytelling included stories of “Hobgoblins, Witches, Conjurers Ghosts, Fairies and such like common Disturbers” including one called “the Story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean” being a bit a of darker version than the Jack and the Beanstalk childrens fairy tale of today including the infamous lines

I smell the Blood of an English Man;
Whether he be alive or dead,
I’ll grind his Bones to make by Bread”

“The Christmas Dinner” is the tale of a christmas dinner spent by the writer, Washington Irvine (American writer of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle”, at Bracebridge Hall, a countryside Manor and describes how the event echoes christmasses of the past. He describes the jolity of the meal which included “a pie, magnificently decorated wth peacocks’ feathers” which was in fact a pheasant pie.

But these are of coures the christmasses of the wealthier society. The ‘ordinary’ or poorer members of society hardly celebrated Christmas until the Victorian perion, whilst they would attend church mnny businesses didn’t consider it to be a holiday. New Year had traditionally been the time to give gifts, but this changed as Christmas became more important to the Victorians.

The industrial revolution with its advancements in technology, industry and infrastructure, not only had an impact on society as a whole, it made Christmas an occasion that many more British people could enjoy.

The Victorian era saw the ‘invention’ of the Christmas card, the Christmas cracker, travel and the introduction of the railways making travel easier and more importance being placed on the family.

The idea of an indoor Christmas tree originated in Germany, where Prince Albert was born. In 1848 a drawing of the royal family celebrating around a tree decked with ornaments was published in the Illustrated London News which quickly led to the popularity of the decorated tree at christmas.

What about Santa? Did our ancestors believe?

Today we usually refer to the popular rotund, white bearded, red coated figure as Santa but he is sometimes also referred to as St Nicholas, a monk born in Turkey around 280 A.D. to whom Santa’s origins are said to trace from.

St. Nicholas gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick. He became known as the protector of children and sailors. He first became popular in New York in the late 18th century when Dutch families gathered to honor the anniversary of the death of “Sint Nikolaas” (Dutch for Saint Nicholas), or “Sinter Klaas” for short (from which “Santa Claus” comes).

Father Christmas (aka Santa) had been an allegorical figure: a symbol of the Christmas season, rather than a mythical person. He had frequently been depicted as a merry old man presiding over festive parties, rather tahn a “gentle giver of gifts” (

‘Merry Christmas’, Kenny Meadows, Illustrated London News, 25 December 1847

The earliest evidence of Christmas personified can be found in the 15th-century carol, ‘Sir Christëmas’ of which the opening lyrics (as attributed to Richard Smart, Rector of Plymtree, Devon between 1435 and 1477) are:

Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell,
’Who is there that singeth so?’
’I am here, Sir Christëmas.’
’Welcome, my lord Christëmas,
Welcome to us all, both more and less
Come near, Nowell!’

The carol shares the news of Christ’s birth and ‘Make good cheer and be right merry.’

In 1822, a Christmas poem called “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” known today as “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas.” was written by the Episcopal minister Clement Clarke Moore. The poem depicted Santa Claus as a jolly man who flies from home to home on a sled driven by reindeer to deliver toys. This image of Santa was immortalized in 1881 by political cartoonist Thomas Nast who drew on Moore’s poem to create the image we know today.

Have we lost sight of the traditional christmas our ancestor would have known? In some ways yes, but in other ways no. Whilst Christmas today seems to grow more commercial each year, save for the presents isn’t christmas still all about celebrating with family and friends with copious amounts of food and drink, singing songs, playing games and being merry? Some people still have to work of course – NHS, emergency services, hospitality for example.

Whatever you are doing this Christmas, I hope you have a good one.

Merry Christmas
a Happy New Year

My blogs will return at the start of 2023 Last blog of this year with an ABC of Genealogy, Family History and House History

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