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
Last week in Part One Mike shared the traditions behind the advent calendar through to Christmas Decorations……
The A-Z of Christmas in Britain Part Two – Christmas Dinner to Figgy Pudding
There’s a fallacy, maybe two, regarding the British Christmas dinner. Firstly, it is often not eaten at dinner time, but during some period in the afternoon between lunch and dinner. That said, the timing is fairly relaxed, in my experience; and quite right too; who am I to remind cook that it’s long past the Queen’s Speech when she’s overdone the port and lemon? Secondly, you will see reference in restaurants and such to ‘traditional’ Christmas dinner ‘with all the trimmings’; this usually means roast turkey with stuffing, ham, bacon-wrapped cocktail sausages (pigs in blankets), cranberry sauce, bread sauce (maybe), boiled vegetables (typically Brussels sprouts and carrots), roast potatoes and parsnips and gravy. It is usually followed by Christmas pudding, served with cream, custard, or brandy butter. I suppose it depends on when something starts becoming ‘traditional’ – and I’m probably being picky – but the popularity of turkey at Christmas is relatively recent; I mean, the creature isn’t even native to these islands. I’m ambivalent about turkey myself; and, anyway, who likes ugly birds?
And another thing; while the origins of Christmas pudding are medieval, brandy butter seems to be a 20th century creation, though rum butter, originating in Cumbria, was around in Victorian times. I suppose you could argue – with some justification – that potatoes aren’t traditional, either; like the turkey (and cranberries and tobacco), they were brought back from the New World.
It’s a personal thing, but I think the only way to eat Christmas pudding is with custard or ice cream. While I’m about it, I would not expect to see Yorkshire pudding served with turkey, as you see advertised on some menus; in my view, it should only be served with roast beef, or on its own with gravy.
Interestingly, there is no ‘traditional’ starter (aka ‘entrée) on the British Christmas menu. In fact, there is no hard and fast rule about a British Christmas meal at all, really – though you’ll often find an alcohol-laden trifle offered as an alternative to the Christmas pudding.
The point is, of course, that traditionally Christmas was simply a time of feasting for those that could afford it. And those that could, would dine on a variety of dishes; peacock, swan and boar were all widely popular with the idle rich in medieval Britain. Henry VIII is reputed to be the first monarch to gobble turkey, but up to the Victorian era, and before the turkey take-over, the roast of choice was goose.
Christmas is coming,
The goose is getting fat;
Please put a penny
In the old man’s hat.
If you haven’t got a penny,
A ha’penny will do;
If you haven’t got a ha’penny
God bless you.
Christmas Eve is big news in some countries; less so in Britain, where it is simply the day before Christmas. For the healthily disorganised, it is a time for last-minute shopping and preparation – though many shops and businesses close early.
Even if the Christmas decorations have been completed long before, it is considered unlucky to bring greenery – like holly and mistletoe – into the house before Christmas Eve. My dad used to say that was because It meant that the berries stayed on longer and if I trod one into the carpet it would be very unlucky for me indeed.
Christmas Eve might be a time for carol singing for some and many, even if they are not regular church-goers, will attend midnight mass (which rarely starts at midnight). In recent years, since the 1960s, ‘Christingle’ services for children have become popular on Christmas Eve. This is an import from the Moravian church. The children make ‘Christingles’, which are decorated oranges, representing the world. A piece of red ribbon tied around the orange symbolises the blood of Jesus, four cocktail sticks stuck into the orange represent the four seasons and sweets skewered by the sticks represent the fruits of the earth. To round it all off, a small candle inserted into the top of the orange symbolises the light of Jesus. Yes, well.
Christmas Eve is also the time to put out stockings (or maybe pillow cases) just in case Father Christmas decides to drop in. He will only visit if there are good children in the house, and then he might climb down the chimney and leave a present or two. It’s a tad awkward if you don’t have a chimney. However, It helps things along no end if you leave a mince pie and a glass of whisky out for him (Father Christmas is not subject to drink-drive legislation). If you’re feeling especially kind, a carrot and a bowl of water will be appreciated by the reindeer.
The Christmas fairy is a mysterious figure, often represented by a doll on top of the Christmas tree – though some believe it’s really an angel. Most people in Britain probably don’t think about it much, but fairies are not always benevolent creatures, and are sometimes quite frightening – though we have become used to the idea of a good fairy granting wishes and being a generally helpful kind of soul. Angels, of course, are normally male figures – and also quite frightening; the Archangel Gabriel visited Mary and told her that she would give birth to the son of God. Somewhere along the way, fairies and angels have got mixed up, so you had better check yours carefully; angels don’t carry wands.
At one time, people used to put a figure representing baby Jesus on top of their tree. Maybe it’s better to put a star there, representing the light that guided the wise men.
To be fair, Britain has often flirted with dodgy pullovers. Think of those naff little short-sleeve things you see in photographs of the 40s and 50s, the dreadful ‘tank-tops’ of the 70s and the infiltration of Fair Isle in the 80s. A Bit About Britain is not the kind of place to come for a fashion consultation, but even we know it wouldn’t be fair to entirely blame fireside crooners, skiers and golfers for every piece of hideous knitwear you’ve ever seen.
Which brings us to the Christmas jumper. Always a favourite unwanted gift, the 21st century Christmas jumper is in a class of its own. Indeed, this woolly wonder has gone beyond discomforting geometric patterns and embraced kitsch to an extreme that only those who think it’s tasteful to festoon their houses with illuminated inflatable nativity scenes can aspire to. The difference, of course, is that the Christmas jumper is meant to be ironic. What some experts believe began in 2001 in the UK, when Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) met Bridget Jones (Renee Zellweger) sporting a large reindeer head on his roll-neck, has evolved to a really ridiculous degree in which garish vulgarity is the new cool at Yule. Attach a few bells and lights, and it is possible to compete with your friends for wearing the most over the top jumper at the Christmas party. With the addition of a compact power supply and a mobile application, who knows where it will end?
There have been Christmas movies ever since there has been a movie industry. But, notwithstanding a few classics, it probably took the explosion of video and DVD to bring the genre into everybody’s home. Most Christmas movies are American (I was practically weaned on Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’), a reflection of Hollywood’s worldwide dominance; but we Brits have produced a few corkers – such as, ‘Scrooge’, ‘the Snowman’ and ‘Love Actually’. Personally, I’m a sucker for a good Christmas movie and I’d far rather watch a timeless classic than some of the rubbish that’s dished up on TV over the festering season. It just hasn’t been the same since they stopped doing the ‘Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show’. Anyway, for what it’s worth, here is A Bit About Britain’s top ten favourite
- It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
- Scrooge (1951)
- Love Actually (2003)
- White Christmas (1954)
- The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
- The Snowman (1982)
- Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001)
- The Holiday (2006)
- Home Alone (1990)
- Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
Music is huge part of Christmas – not just carols, but popular, festive, numbers too. These seem to drift, uninvited and unwelcome, into my consciousness sometime in October; personally, I think it should be illegal to play Christmas music before December. At one time, every major star, including Paul McCartney and Elton John, were scattering bells through their festive offerings and, even in this digital download age, there’s still tremendous competition for the Christmas No 1. Britain’s best-selling Christmas No 1 of all time (so far) is Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ (1984). A Bit about Britain dusts off its collection about a fortnight before the Big Day and the top ten is:
- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Judy Garland (1944)
- Fairytale of New York – the Pogues with Kirsty MacColl (1988)
- Happy Xmas (War is Over) – John & Yoko (1971)
- Merry Christmas Everybody – Slade (1973)
- The Christmas Song – Nat King Cole (1961)
- Christmas Wrapping – the Waitresses (1981)
- Santa Baby – Eartha Kit (1953)
- I Believe in Father Christmas – Greg Lake (1975)
- White Christmas – Bing Crosby (1942)
- Run Rudolph Run – Chuck Berry (1958)
Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye courtesy of andrew67ist
Received wisdom is that giving and receiving presents at Christmas reminds us of the presents given to Jesus by the wise men. Working in the UAE one year, I was tickled to bring back some frankincense and myrrh from the spice souk, which I boxed up, wrapped in gold paper and gave to the memsahib. In fact, the business of exchanging gifts on Christmas Day is a relatively recent phenomenon; traditionally, gifts of produce were given at New Year – and the Christmas Box (see Boxing Day) was distributed the day after Christmas. However, the practice of buying and exchanging Christmas presents really took off in industrial and Victorian Britain, particularly in the latter part of the 19th century with the development of department stores.
Despite what you may read, there is no established custom and practice in Britain regarding when Christmas gifts should be exchanged. Certainly, younger children are generally allowed to see if Father Christmas has visited as early as mum and dad will allow; but, beyond that, it really is a matter of family tradition and personal choice.
Christmas pudding is served on Christmas Day. Its ingredients vary slightly from recipe to recipe, but generally include suet, flour, breadcrumbs, brown sugar, eggs, dried and fresh fruit, ginger, spices, treacle and brandy. It is boiled and keeps for months and months…
Once upon a time, people used to eat a kind of porridge, or pottage, (a sort of soup or stew simmered for a long time) on Christmas Eve. It was eaten to line the stomach after fasting for the day, which was customary on Christmas Eve – ‘the Vigil’ as it was once known. This pottage was called ‘frumenty’ and was made of beef and mutton with raisins, currants, plums (prunes), wines and spices. Over time, more ingredients were added – eggs and breadcrumbs, which made it more pudding-like – and ale, spirits and more dried fruit was put in to increase the flavour. By the late 16th – mid-17th century, it was a boiled Christmas dessert known as plum pudding – though the republican government of Oliver Cromwell decided it was not fit for God-fearing folk and it took George I to rediscover it. Somewhere along the way, the meat was dropped.
The first reference to Christmas pudding comes in the 1840s (Dickens mentions it in ‘Christmas Carol’). By this time, it was usual to roll all the ingredients into a large ball and wrap it in a hessian cloth to keep everything together while it was boiled. Hence, many early pictures of Christmas pudding show it as a round ball. Some Victorians, though, made their Christmas puddings in elaborate moulds. These days, most of them are pudding-basin shape.”
It is customary to put a sprig of holly on top of the Christmas pudding before serving, then drizzle some brandy over the top, light it, and carry the flaming pudding into the room. Another tradition is to place silver coins in the pudding mix (wrapped in greaseproof paper), which are considered lucky and kept by whoever receives them in their serving. In pre-decimal times, silver threepenny pieces were used, then sixpences; these days, the closest equivalent is a 5p piece.
The Christmas tree is descended from the Scandinavian “Yggdrasil, the Tree of Time, whose roots penetrate to heaven, Niffheim and Ginnungagap (the gap of gaps). In Ginnungagap the frost giants dwell, in Niffheim is the great serpent Nidhögg; and under this root is Helheim, the home of the dead”. [Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable].
According to some, the use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolise eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Some trees were sacred to pre-Christian European peoples and survived the arrival of Christianity in the Germanic-Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens to scare away the Devil. It also reminded them of spring.
The modern Christmas tree is generally thought to have originated in western Germany – though, allegedly, the first documented Christmas tree was in 1440, in Tallinn, Estonia. Back to medieval Germany, where a popular play around Christmas was about Adam and Eve (Christmas Eve is regarded by some as Adam and Eve Day). A central prop to the performance was a fir tree hung with apples representing the Garden of Eden, and known as a ‘paradise tree’. This began appearing in people’s homes, where it would be decorated.
Most people think that the idea of the Christmas tree was brought to Britain by Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert (of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha). He certainly helped to popularise it, but the first tree in Britain was ordered by George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte (of Mecklenburg-Strelitz) in the 1790s.
Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus, Sinterklaas, Kris Kringle, or whatever you want to call him, is the personification of Christmas for many people. He is an intriguing figure and a fusion of fact and faction.
St Nicholas, who became ‘Santa Claus’, was a real person. He was a 4th century bishop of Myra in the Byzantine Empire (now in modern Turkey), is reputed to have worn red robes and renowned for his anonymous generosity. One story has him dropping coins down chimneys, where they popped into stockings drying by the fire. In pagan times, a ‘King Winter’ figure would have had a central role in festivities; and then there was the Norman red-robed ‘Lord of Misrule’, whose job was to ensure the Christmas party went with a swing. In Reformation Britain, saints were not universally popular and the less Catholic figure of Father Christmas evolved. He, in turn, was deemed too ‘Popish’ during the years of the Republic Commonwealth (1649-1660) – though joy made a come-back after the restoration of the monarchy. Father Christmas has had a variety of robes too – sometimes green, sometimes tan. However, many believe that our 21st century perception of Santa Claus, complete with reindeer and an arrival on Christmas Eve, derives from the poem ‘A Visit From St Nicholas’ (‘T’was the night before Christmas’) published as recently as 1823 and generally attributed to the American Clement Clarke Moore.
The Yule Swain is a kind of Santa Claus in Lapland. He rides a goat, is eleven feet high, appears on St Thomas’s Day (the Winter Solstice) and disappears on Christmas Eve. No one knows where he comes from, or where he goes.
Feast of Stephen
St Stephen was the first Christian martyr. He was stoned to death in around 34 AD and his feast day is 26 December.
Figgy pudding is a Christmas pudding made with figs. Surprise, surpise. It is a discrete recipe, though, which any householder will find in Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, first published in 1861.
©Mike Biles 2019
My thanks to Mike for sharing his A-Z of Christmas and next week we will continue the series with more traditions, trivia and food.
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 – More Christmas A-Z next Saturday – thanks Sally.