Delighted to welcome Mike Biles, author of A Bit About Britain’s History as a guest writer until the end of the year. And for the next four weeks, Mike will be sharing the background some of the Christmas traditions we enjoy in Britain in his A – Z.
BTW: I can recommend the book as a great gift to any history buffs in the family both in the UK and abroad…and you here is my Review
The A-Z of Christmas in Britain Part One
Of course, Christmas is Christmas and the basics are ubiquitous in any country with a Christian tradition. That said, everybody celebrates it, if they celebrate it at all, in their own way. Each family seems to have its own traditions, which change over time and as people come and go. Each country has its own unique foibles as well; and, like it or not, Christmas is an ever-changing feast (it always has been). Anyway, this brief guide will help you understand the basics of Christmas in Britain – if you’re visiting or if, like me, you’ve lived here all your life and are still confused.
If you do not like Christmas, do not waste your time reading any further…
A Christmas Carol
‘A Christmas Carol’ is a short tale, a novella, written by Charles Dickens (1812-70). It was first published in December 1843 and only took the author about six weeks to produce. The story introduces us to the character of Ebenezer Scrooge, a bitter, anti-Christmas, miser, who one Christmas Eve is visited by the ghost of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley. Marley’s Ghost tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three spirits. Much to Scrooge’s dismay, the spirits – in turn, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to come – do pay a visit. As a result, Scrooge is transformed into a kind benefactor. It is a wonderfully uplifting tale that, personally, I never tire of hearing. There have been numerous film and TV versions, many of them excruciatingly awful; but the very best of all has to be the 1951 film starring Alastair Sim.
Advent is the period before Christmas in the Christian calendar, commencing on the 4th Sunday before Christmas. An advent calendar simply counts down 24 days to Christmas, often in the form of a festive scene printed on cardboard, and with a little numbered door to be opened each day to reveal a chocolate and appropriate illustration beneath. Advent candles are fairly common too, with rings numbered 1 to 24. Advent calendars are not unique to Britain and originated in Germany, where Protestants counted down the days to Weihnachten by leaving chalk marks on walls, burning candles or, later, by hanging up little symbols or images each day. The first-known advent calendars as we would recognise them were carved of wood in the 19th century; by the 20th century they were printed on card; the doors arrived in the 1920s and chocolates in the 1950s. When I was growing up, hundreds of years ago, we had a beautiful advent calendar made of cardboard that would be unpacked and re-used every year; every day, a door would be opened to reveal a little biblical scene beneath.
This, normally ironic, expression of disgust comes to us courtesy of Ebenezer Scrooge who trots it out when his nephew wishes him “Merry Christmas”. ‘Bah!’, an expression of contempt, is thought to be French in origin. I once experienced a French mechanic who did a magnificent ‘Pah!’ of disgust at the intricacies of my old Saab. The origin of ‘Humbug’, a noun meaning fraud, sham, deception or imposter, is unknown, but dates from the 18th century. One theory is that it derives from the Italian uomo bugiardo, a lying man. See ‘A Christmas Carol’
Boxing Day is the day after Christmas Day and a public holiday. In days long gone, boxes were placed in churches to collect money for the poor and needy. Heads of houses would give small sums to their underlings to put in the box. The boxes were opened by priests on Christmas Day and the contents distributed next day. It was called the ‘dole of the Christmas box’, or the ‘box money’. Later, apprentices would carry a box round to their masters’ customers to gather gratuities and it became a tradition to give ‘a Christmas box’ – what would now be simply called ‘a tip’ – to those who provided a regular service over the year, such as postmen, dustmen, milkmen, newspaper boys, corrupt politicians and so on. Some people referred to Christmas presents as ‘the Christmas box’ well into the late 20th century.
Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without the festive fragrance of paraffin, mingled with cheap, sweet, chemicals, in a scented candle. Lanterns or candles were used in ancient winter solstice celebrations as a reminder of light in the darkness and the coming spring, as well as by Christians. Romans gave gifts of white candles as part of their celebration of Saturnalia. Jesus described himself as ‘the Light of the World’ (for example, John 8:12 “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”). He is also quoted using the expression elsewhere.
Candles of course were a main source of light in pre-electric homes and small candles were used to decorate Christmas trees, despite the risk of fire.
We often speak of a ‘Dickensian’, or ‘Victorian’, Christmas. Much of our Christmas iconography – cute, snow-covered streets with comfortable looking bow windows, a group of Victorian-clad carol-singers, whiskered gents in top hats, ice-skaters – belongs to this period. We owe some of this to Charles John Huffam Dickens, not just through ‘A Christmas Carol’, but his other writings too. The Victorians helped revive a flagging Christmas, at a time when few were in a position to have a particularly happy one. Dickens was born on 7 February 1812 at Landport, Portsmouth, Hampshire and died on 9 June 1870 at his home, Gad’s Hill Place, in Higham, Kent. Places associated with him, like the Dickens Museum in London, and Portsmouth, often stage Dickens themed festive events.
Sally here: Portsmouth is my home town and the Historic Dockyard is fantastic all year round, but especially during their Victorian Christmas Festival.. and here is a short video featuring Scrooge…courtesy of PortsHistDockyard
It’s impossible to avoid bells at Christmas – and who wants to, anyway? Church bells ring out, hand-bells are rung by choirs or in market-places – and, of course, sleigh bells jingle enticingly, but elusively, in the night sky. The song, Jingle-Bells, was written by American James Lord Pierpont and originally published in 1857 as a song for Thanksgiving entitled ‘One Horse Open Sleigh’.
A British Christmas cake is normally a fairly heavy, moist, spiced fruit cake, covered in marzipan, then iced and decorated. It should be made about six weeks in advance and regularly ‘fed’ with a spirit – usually brandy – to add flavour and keep it moist. The marzipan coating comes later and, in my experience, it’s often not iced and decorated until Christmas Eve. The decorations often include little model figures – Father Christmas, a robin, snowman, Christmas tree; maybe even a penguin. What?! – you’ve never heard of the Christmas penguin??
There are regional variations – Welsh, Scottish and English Christmas cakes are all slightly different. In Yorkshire, and to some extent Lancashire, it’s considered quite normal to eat Christmas cake with cheese.
Christmas cake and Christmas pudding share a common origin, a kind of fruity porridge called frumenty, eaten on Christmas Eves long ago. By the 16th century, it became popular to take out the oatmeal, add flour and eggs, and boil the mixture for a cake to be eaten at Easter. The story goes that dried fruit and spices from the east were added to make a special cake to be eaten on Twelfth Night, a traditional time of feasting. Only larger house with ovens baked cakes, though; elsewhere, they would be boiled. Twelfth Night Cake became Christmas Cake as the traditions changed. In some great houses, it was common to bake a dried pea or bean into the cake and whoever got it became King of the Revels.
Even in these digital days, we spend millions of pounds every year on Christmas cards. The first commercial Christmas card is credited to Sir Henry Cole in 1843. Cole (1808-82) was a bit of a Victorian superstar, who helped organise the Public Record Office, assisted Rowland Hill in introducing the penny post in 1840, went on to manage the Great Exhibition of 1851, and was instrumental in the profits from this being used for, among other things, founding the Victoria and Albert Museum, the V&A. Cole thought that sending a generic, printed, Christmas greeting to his many friends would be a lot less laborious than writing individual letters, so he asked a chum, John Callcott Horsley to design one for him. About 1,000 sold for a shilling each (5p now) and the rest, as they say, is history.
Read a bit more about Christmas cards.
According to the Oxford dictionary, a carol is simply a joyous song. However, it was originally an improvised ring dance, to which the dancers added singing, with roots in medieval France, or perhaps ancient times. The tradition of singing at festivals is surely as old as Man – and certainly not unique to Christianity. Carols could be performed at any time of year – at Easter, perhaps, or harvest-time; so remember, a carol isn’t just for Christmas. Equally, hymns are sung all year round; a Christmas carol could be described as a Christmas hymn.
In medieval Europe, hymns were mostly in Latin and it is St Francis of Assisi who is usually credited as developing Nativity hymns written and sung in the vernacular, in the 13th century. However, it seems that many carols were not particularly religious and were actually folk songs, sometimes bawdy, associated with wassailing (see ‘wassailing’!) and with words that were adapted to suit circumstances.
Christmas Carols as we know them became popular in the 19th century, partly through the efforts of Davies Gilbert (1767-1839) who published ‘A Collection of Ancient Christmas Carols, with the tunes to which they were formerly sung in the West of England’ in 1822 and William Sandys (1792-1874) with his ‘Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern’ of 1833 – which between them contain many of today’s favourites. Many carols have intriguing origins.
See more at Kings College and Carols
Here is In The Bleak Midwinter from Kings College courtesy of drwestbury
Christmas crackers are short tubes of cardboard covered with coloured paper, twisted at both ends, which typically contain some sort of novelty, a joke or wise saying and a paper hat. Two people hold the cracker at each end and pull it apart. A ‘snap’ runs through the cracker so that a small ‘crack’ is heard when this happens. The contents then fall out and are kept by one of the pullers. Crackers are normally found decorating dining tables and are pulled before or after the meal; etiquette – including who gets to keep the goodies – vary; though everyone should wear a hat.
It is generally accepted that crackers were the creation of a London confectioner, Tom Smith, in 1846. Smith was inspired by seeing bonbons (sweets) wrapped in tissue in Paris. He took the idea to England, later adding little mottos, novelties, more extravagant packaging, and the ‘snap’.
For a bit more, see The custom and history of Christmas Crackers.
Although Christmas Day celebrates the birth of Christ, we don’t actually know when Christ was born. There are many theories why 25 December was chosen to mark the event, possibly by the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine, sometime in the 4th century AD.
Among other things, 25 December was dies natalis solis invicti, to the Romans, ‘the birthday of the unconquered sun’ – part of the feast of Saturnalia. In Britain, 6 January is sometimes referred to as ‘Old Christmas Day’. The calendar changed in Britain in 1752, from the Julian calendar to the more accurate Gregorian. This required a shift of 11 days; so 6 January would have been 25 December in the old calendar.
Until fairly recently, Christmas decorations were relatively modest, with coloured paper garlands and chains hanging from ceilings and homemade tree ornaments. It was unashamedly tacky. Nowadays, increased wealth has allowed tastelessness to flourish beyond imagination, in an apparent desire to light up entire neighbourhoods and outshine everyone else. That said, festive bling can be beautiful and elegant as well.
The practice of festive decoration goes back to at least the great Roman feast of Saturnalia, when temples would be decorated with greenery and little ornaments would sometimes be hung amongst it. The use of branches of evergreen trees reminding our ancestors of everlasting life in the depth of winter, and warding off evil spirits, probably dates back even farther. In Isaiah 60:13, which possibly dates from the 8th century BC, it says: “The glory of Lebanon shall come unto thee, the fir tree, the pine tree, and the box together, to beautify the place of my sanctuary.”
The evolution of Christmas decoration is uncertain ground and much of what is written refers to the Christmas tree – a subject in its own right (see ‘Christmas tree’). Most sources suggest that trees were decorated with apples in 16th century Germany and that wafers and pastries were then added, with glass baubles and beads first being produced in the Thuringian town of Lauscha in the 1590s. The Germans invented tinsel (lametta), too – originally made of real silver.
My thanks to Mike for sharing his A-Z of Christmas and next week we will continue the series with Christmas Dinner…
©Mike Biles Images.2019
A Bit about Britain’s History: From a long time ago to quite recently.
About the book
Could this short, elegant, volume be the only book on British history you’ll ever need?
A Bit About Britain’s History is for anyone who wants a serious, yet light, introduction to Britain’s amazing story. If you don’t know the basics, or would like a reminder, this book is for you. It is also perfect for those that didn’t enjoy history at school, but who have suddenly realised they’d like to understand it a bit better now.
What did the Romans achieve? How did Christianity arrive? Who are the English and why did they fight the French so often? What is Henry VIII’s greatest legacy? When did democracy start and people get the vote? Why on earth did Britain get involved in WW1?
Organised clearly and chronologically, A Bit About Britain’s History covers every period from a long time ago until quite recently. It begins by briefly mentioning that the place was once inhabited by extremely large lizards, and ends up with a post-war 20th century consumer society. Brief articles explain the essential aspects of Britain’s past, including how the ancestors of its current inhabitants arrived, how they fought each other, formed nations, fell out over religion, acquired a large empire, became gradually more democratic, helped win a couple of world wars and were left wondering what to do next. At the end of the book are detailed timelines for each period, which provide useful reference and make fascinating reading in their own right.
A Bit About Britain’s History might be the only book on British history you’ll ever need; or it might be your stepping stone to more in-depth academic reading
One of the recent reviews for the book
I took my time reading this one because I loved the way the author wove the facts into a highly enjoyable narrative. What amazed me was how the author could start at pre-historic times and carry the reader forward to present day in such a brief book, yet cover the essentials and connect the complicated factors behind so much of that history.
The touches of a Bill Bryson wit was just enough to amuse me while I pondered the reality of “One Damned War After Another” It was a book I looked forward to returning to each night.
I’m keeping this one on my kindle so I can refer to the amazing Timeline included at the end of the book.
Read the reviews and buy the book in print and kindle: Amazon UK
And on Amazon US: Amazon US
Follow Mike on : Goodreads
About Mike Biles
Mike has lived in Britain all his life and generally loves the place, warts and all. He first learned history on his dad’s knee and went on to study medieval and modern British and European history at university. He was planning on teaching it, but then drifted into a career running his own business. Despite having worked with some of the UK’s most prestigious firms, he is often at his happiest with his nose in a history book, or exploring a historic site where the past is close. Several years ago, Mike began a blog – now an increasingly authoritative website – ‘A Bit About Britain’. He had to write a bit about Britain’s history for the website, and it seemed only sensible to put the material into his first book, ‘A Bit About Britain’s History’.
Connect to Mike Biles and explore his wonderful archives
Website home page – http://bitaboutbritain.com/
Blog page – http://bitaboutbritain.com/blog-2/
Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/bitaboutbritain/
Twitter – https://twitter.com/bitaboutbritain
Pinterest – https://www.pinterest.co.uk/bit1032/
Thank you for dropping in today and I know Mike would love your feedback thanks Sally.