The Christmas of our ancestors

With Christmas just around the corner I have been wondering and reading about the Christmases of the past which my ancestors would have experienced. Did they really celebrate Christmas like we do today? With the commercialism of Christmas today, I doubt it very much. In fact what I have discovered is that our ‘modern’ Christmas is in fact only around 170 years old! The Victorian Christmas is often talked about and celebrated at various events, this is because it was in fact Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who essentially began the ‘trend’ of celebrating Christmas as we do today!

So was Christmas celebrated pre-Victorian Britain? And if so how?

The winter solstice is of course on the 21st December each year and is thought to have been celebrated even in the Neolithic and Bronze Age considering the layout of archaeological sites such as Stonehenge (primary axis points to the winter solstice sunset) and Newgrange (in Ireland where the primary axis points to the winter solstice sunrise).

The winter solstice was celebrated in a pagan festival celebrating fire, light and jollity, marking the end of winter and the dawning of spring when they celebrated ‘Yule’, a 12 day festival of the winter solstice, originating in or about the 4th Century. The festival incorporated many of the traditions of todays Christmas – decorating with greenery including boughs, evergreen herbs and trees and placing a yule log on the fire to burn for 12 days and nights. 

But Christmas is the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus not the winter solstice so how are they linked?

The Roman Empire were also well known for their festival ‘Saturnalia’ celebrating Saturn, the Roman God of agriculture and plenty which took place between the 17th and 23rd December with the Roman Emperor Aurelian consecrating the temple of Sol Invictus in 274 AD creating ‘Die Natalis Solis Invicti’ (the birthday of the unconquered sun) which was celebrated on the 25th December, the Roman winter solstice festival.

Perhaps this is why Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the 25th December a few years after 336 AD when the first Roman Christian Emporer Constantine appears to have made the first reference to the 25th December being the birthday of Jesus. There is much debate and theses surrounding the timing of the birth of Jesus and of course there are many who would deny his very existence.

Interestingly Jesus was in fact a Jew and the Jewish festival of lights, known as Hanukkah, starts on the 25th of Kislev (in the Jewish calendar this is the months which occurs at about the same time as December) and celebrates when Jews were once again able to practice their religion after many years of it not being allowed.

Whatever your beliefs, from my reading I am of the view Christmas as a festival, began as a celebration of the winter solstice and was ‘adopted’ by Christianity as the date to celebrate the birth of Jesus and the introduction of Christmas (a shortened version of Christ’s Mass).  

Whilst the early Roman celebrations saw the wealthy eating and drinking lavishly and engaging in games such as: throwing a dice to decide who should play the role of the Saturnalia monarch and masters and slaves swapping clothes; and the wealthy were also known to give gifts to the poor to help them through the hardship of the winter season, Christmas was not a holiday as today, it was purely a religious day and not celebrated as it is today. Singing and Carols have therefore always been associated with Christmas.

Mince pies were introduced in Tudor times and the plum porridge was a medieval creation adapted by the Victorians to what we know today as Christmas pudding. Through the centuries, the practice of giving presents began to develop but traditionally took place on new years day gradually moving to the 25th December with Father Christmas first appearing in England in the early 17th century, although initially he was associated with joviality and drunkenness, it was not until the Victorians re-invented him that he became synonymous with gift giving as was the traditional Saint Nicholas from which he originated, who was known for the care of children, generosity, and the giving of gifts.

The union of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert saw the introduction of the ‘modern’ Christmas. Prince Albert was German and brought with him many of the traditional German traditions of pagan decent. Ultimately it was a photograph in the Illustrated London News in 1848 of the royals stood in front of a decorated tree which began the new trend of decorating trees at Christmas, hence the birth of the Christmas tree in the history of the English Christmas. 

In 1979 at the Scottish Record Office the first known Christmas card to have been sent was found. It had been sent by Michael Maier to James I of England and his son Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales in 1611. However Christmas cards were first designed for commercial use in 1843, commissioned by Sir Henry Cole (who had three years earlier introduced the penny post) and illustrated by John Callcott Horsley. 

Christmas crackers were, it is said, invented by Tom Smith, a confectioner of London, in 1847 when he was ‘re-inventing his ‘bon-bon’ sweets. The sweets were replaced by a trinket: fans, jewellery and other substantial items and later, his son, Walter Smith, introduced the paper hat, gift and varied designs to distinguish their brand from other rival brands which had sprung up. 

Eating turkey as Christmas was also introduced by the Victorians. Although they were expensive compared to the more usual bird of choice, goose, the Turkey was larger and able to feed more mouths so became increasingly popular for large entertaining such as Christmas family gatherings. Families would have needed to save up to buy the Christmas Turkey, even in the 1930’s the cost of a Turkey would have been the average persons weekly wage!

Today our beloved Turkey is much more affordable, becoming more widely available and affordable in the 1950’s. Although I know many people today have goose, duck, five bird roast and other alternatives (including meat free!) so maybe with the popularisation of turkey being available all year round, this is one tradition which may fall by the way side.

Can you imagine a year without Christmas? Well, during the civil war and commonwealth years (1640 to 1660) Christmas was banned by Oliver Cromwell (Lord Protector of the Republic of England) who, along with his Puritan colleagues, saw such festivities as ‘wasteful’. I am sure it did continue to be celebrated in private though by none Puritans. 

Christmas must have been a difficult period in the first and second world wars both for those on the battlefields and their loved ones at home. Of course I’m sure we’ve all heard about the Christmas Truce on 25th December 1914 during World War 1 and the infamous football match on the front line!

This is a Christmas card sent by my Nanna to my Grandad during the Second World War, I am not sure which year but he was called up for service on 16th July 1942. They had only been married 5 years and had a 5 year old daughter. At least he was not on the frontline due to health issues.

This Christmas, as I open my presents, eat my turkey, pull my cracker, eat my Christmas pudding, my thoughts are with those less fortunate then myself and my family and with all those loved ones who cannot be together at Christmas and all those much harsher Christmases my ancestors will have endured.

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