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How has Christmas changed over the years?

Posted: 15th December 2017


Each Tuesday the intrepid team of TPS History detectives meet to delve into the past and research famous events to coincide with the publishing date of The Courier that week. They have only one hour to research, write and illustrate their articles. We hope you enjoy them and discover some fascinating bits of History.

Joanna Hall-Tomkin, Head of History and Pastoral Head Years 5&6 

How has Christmas changed over the years?

Christmas was originally celebrated exclusively at public gatherings, but changed in the early-19th century, when families started celebrating on their own. Christmas traditions, such as putting up a tree, gifts and giving to charity, developed during the early to mid-19th century, with each family choosing their own way to celebrate.

The feast of Brunalia of the Romans was around the 25th of December, the “birth of the unconquered son”. For all the worshippers of the Persian god of the sun, Mithras, this was similar to Christmas itself. This was perhaps the only other Pagan religion which could be called a proper adversary to the Christian religion during this phase of history. By the time the Western Church chose December 25 as Christmas day it was already A.D. 336. Other religions also hold certain festivities around this time, such as the Jewish faith, who celebrate Hanukah.

After World War II, Christmas became a more commercial holiday. A greater number of stores had Christmas decorations and music. Radio and television programmes featured Christmas-themed episodes. People sent Christmas cards to friends and family, and some went door to door carolling.

A Time Travelling Look at Christmas

A Tudor Christmas
The homes of the wealthy used to cook a wild boar on Christmas Day and its head was used as a dinner table decoration. However, cooking made the head’s fur go pale and so it was covered in soot and pig’s grease to make the cooked head looked more natural. The first record of a turkey being brought to Europe was in 1519. It was to be many years before this bird had reason to fear the Festive season. 1587 is the first recorded date we have of brussel sprouts being used in cooking. During the Twelve Days of Christmas, work for those who worked on the land would stop and spinners would also be banned from spinning. Work would not start again until Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night. The Twelve Days of Christmas were a time for communities to come together and celebrate. People would visit their neighbours and friends and enjoy the Christmas “minced pye” which would contain 13 ingredients, to symbolise Jesus and his apostles. The mince pie would be rectangular, or crib shaped, rather than our present day round ones and would be a minced meat pie rather than containing just dried fruit and suet.

The Yule Log: This tradition involved a log being brought into the home on Christmas Eve, being decorated with ribbons and then lit and kept burning through the 12 days of Christmas. It is thought that this tradition had its roots in the midwinter rituals of the early Vikings who built huge bonfires for their festival of light. People thought it was lucky to keep some charred remains of the Yule log to light the next year’s Yule log.

However, Tudor England was still many years away from Christmas cards, Christmas turkey, Christmas crackers, Father Christmas in his red costume and even the common use of Christmas trees.

A Victorian Christmas
The Victorian period is important in the history of Christmas celebrating because it’ s the time when the Christmas tree was introduced and also the Christmas cracker and Christmas cards. Many attribute the changes to Queen Victoria, and her marriage to the German-born Prince Albert as introducing some of the most prominent aspects of Christmas. In 1848 the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the royal family celebrating around a decorated Christmas tree, a tradition that was reminiscent of Prince Albert’s childhood in Germany. Soon every home in Britain had a tree bedecked with candles, sweets, fruit, homemade decorations and small gifts. Another commercial Christmas industry was began by the Victorians in the mid 1840’s when a British sweet maker, Tom Smith, introduced bonbons, sugared almonds wrapped in twists of paper which he had seen in Paris. These developed into the now famous “Christmas cracker”.

The WWI Christmas Truce
Late on Christmas Eve 1914, the British soldiers heard German troops in the trenches opposite them singing carols and patriotic songs and saw lanterns and small fir trees along their trenches. Messages began to be shouted between the trenches.

The following day, British and German soldiers met in no man’s land and exchanged gifts, took photographs and some played games of football. They also buried people and repaired trenches.

The truce was not observed everywhere along the Western Front. Elsewhere the fighting continued on Christmas Day. Some officers were unhappy about the truce and worried that it would weaken fighting spirit.

The 1914 Princess Mary Christmas Tin
The Princess Mary Gift Fund box is an embossed brass box that originally contained a variety of items such as tobacco and chocolate. It was intended as a Christmas present to those serving at Christmas in 1914 and was paid for by a public fund backed by Princess Mary, the daughter of King George V and Queen Mary.

Princess Mary’s original intention had been to pay, out of her private allowance, for a personal gift to each soldier and sailor. This was deemed impracticable and a proposal was made that she lend her name to a public fund, which would raise the necessary monies to provide the gift. From the outset the young Princess took a deep personal interest in the work of the Fund and in a letter release by Buckingham Palace, signed by the Princess, she explained the purpose of the Fund. The charm and sincerity of her appeal were irresistible:

“I want you now to help me to send a Christmas present from the whole of the nation to every sailor afloat and every soldier at the front. I am sure that we should all be happier to feel that we had helped to send our little token of love and sympathy on Christmas morning, something that would be useful and of permanent value, and the making of which may be the means of providing employment in trades adversely affected by the war. Could there be anything more likely to hearten them in their struggle than a present received straight from home on Christmas Day?
Please will you help me?”

The gifts were devised in October 1914 and intended for distribution to all who were serving overseas or at sea, in time for Christmas 1914; afterwards, with the fund in surplus and many feeling they had been ‘left out’, distribution was extended more widely – to all who were serving, whether at home or abroad, and to prisoners of war and the next of kin of 1914 casualties. This widened eligibility to an estimated figure of 2,620,019.

The TPS History Detectives

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