Judging from the comments you have enjoyed the A – Z of Christmas series from Mike Biles, author of A Bit About Britain’s History as much as I have. 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
In Part Three Mike shared the background to Christmas traditions from Holly and Ivy to Sprouts and this week is the grand finale..
The A-Z of Christmas in Britain – Part Four – St. Boniface to ZZZZZ
St Boniface was born Wynfrid, in Devon, sometime in the late 7th century. By the early 8th century, he was working in Germany, converting the heathen volk to Christianity. The story goes that he came across a group of pagans who were just about to cheerfully celebrate the winter solstice by sacrificing a young man under Odin’s sacred oak. Furious, Boniface picked up an axe and cut down the mighty tree – which was instantly recognised as a divine act demonstrating the power of Boniface’s God over the other ones. The astonished pagans understandably wanted to know what they would do for solstice without their tree. Some say that a fir tree instantly grew where the oak had been, and Boniface urged all to take home one of those; other versions of the story say that a tiny fir tree was already there, a symbol of life growing in the roots of the oak. Thus, it is claimed that Boniface invented the Christmas tree.
St Nicholas (who morphed into Santa Claus) is the patron saint of children (as well as of sailors and pawnbrokers). He was a 4th century bishop of Myra in the Byzantine Empire, now in modern Turkey. He is reputed to have worn red robes and to have been renowned for his anonymous generosity. One story is that he had a habit of dropping gold down chimneys; naturally, the gold fell into stockings drying conveniently by the fire. St Nicholas’s feast day is 6 December. According to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, it became the custom, on 5 December, for someone “to assume the costume of a bishop and distribute small gifts to good children.”
Stir-up Sunday is the Sunday before Advent. People who are more concerned with puddings than their souls believe this is when Christmas puddings and mince meat should be made – and everyone in the family should have a go at stirring in the ingredients. That might make good sense, but it actually comes from the service for the day in the Book of Common Prayer, which says, “Stir-up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Turkeys – the birds – are native to North America and Mexico. It is said they became popular at Christmas because they provided plenty of lean meat – and for Thanksgiving in the US because they were in plentiful supply. They got their name – allegedly – because we Brits confused them with guinea-fowl, which were imported through Turkey. It could have been worse; we could have called them after Galloping Bottom in Somerset. See Christmas dinner.
Twelfth night, Twelve Days of Christmas
There’s a bit of confusion about this. If Christmas Day is the first day of Christmas (which makes sense), then twelfth night is 5 January. But some maintain that the twelve days of Christmas begin on Boxing Day and end on 6 January, which is twelfth night. 6 January is the Christian festival of Epiphany, traditionally marking the arrival of the magi, or three kings, at Bethlehem. The Epiphany meant that the person of Christ was revealed, or manifested, to the magi; today, we use the word in the sense of meaning a great revelation.
Twelfth night used to mark the end of winter and be a time of very great celebration and feasting. It still is in some countries, but it has largely fallen into disuse in Britain and many of its traditions – like Christmas cake – have transferred to Christmas Day. A Twelfth Cake was eaten at a Twelfth night party and was originally an iced and decorated heavy fruit dough.
A variety of explanations are given for the origins of the song, ‘The Twelve days of Christmas’. It dates from at least the 18th century, it’s probable that some meaning was attached to each of the gifts – and there are different versions of these. Twelfth Night used to be a time for exchanging presents, so perhaps the song is a folk memory of this practice.
Perhaps most people remember twelfth night as the day when the decorations are meant to come down.
Wassail was (and still could be) a mulled ale made with a variety of ingredients, including curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and honey. The word comes from the Anglo-Saxon wes hael, meaning ‘be in good health’ and the practice of drinking wassail from a special cup or bowl to mark the New Year is said to have begun in those pre-Conquest times. Over the centuries, it evolved into a tradition to go ‘wassailing’ – essentially, it seems, going from house to house, singing, and getting more and more drunk as the night wore on. Ridiculous. At some point It became a tradition particularly associated with Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night. These days, it’s called carol-singing.
Who was Good King Wenceslas? Wenceslas was a 10th century Duke of Bohemia known as Vaclav the Good, who was martyred after being assassinated by his nasty pagan brother, Boleslaw the Bad. Wenceslas’s remains are interred in St Vitus’s cathedral in Prague and he is patron saint of the Czech Republic.
The carol ‘Good King Wenceslas’ was written in Sackville College, East Grinstead, by its warden John Mason Neale (1818 – 1866) and first published in 1853. The tune is actually a spring hymn, Tempus Adest Floridum (it is time for flowering) published in Finland (at that time part of Sweden) in 1582.
It’s all very well old Bing warbling on, as he does every year, about dreaming of a white Christmas; the chances of snow at Christmas in Britain are fairly remote. And that’s even allowing for the Met Office’s extremely broad definition “for one snowflake to be observed falling in the 24 hours of 25 December somewhere in the UK.” In Britain, snow is more likely in January or February. So what’s with all the business of snow, sleighs and all the other arctic paraphernalia? Well, it’s because two things came together. Firstly, from the mid 16th to the late 19th century, the whole world was colder than it is now; it was a period known as ‘the little Ice Age’. Secondly, this coincided with a revival of the Christmas feast – some might say even the creation of much of the Christmas we know – in the Victorian age. So writers like Dickens, and illustrators, would have been quite used to experiencing snow over Christmas – and therefore that was the way it was portrayed.
Will it be a white Christmas? – The UK Met Office
Xmas is simply an abbreviation for Christmas using the Greek letter chi (pronounced ‘kye’), which looks like an Χ and is the first letter of the Greek word for Christ, Khristos. The early church used the first two letters of Khristos in the Greek alphabet ‘chi‘ and ‘rho‘ to create a symbol representing the name of Christ, or Jesus.
It is not correct to say ‘Ex-mas’ – you should say ‘Christmas’.
Yule and the Yule log
Yule is an ancient celebration of the winter solstice, from late December to the New Year, and is one of the oldest winter celebrations in the world. The word is older than Christianity; it comes to us from the Anglo-Saxon géol and the Old Norse jól, but its ultimate origin is unknown. In modern Britain, Yule, or Yuletide, is still used as a term to describe the festive season.
The Yule log was a carefully selected log, or tree trunk, that was lit from the burnt stump of the previous year’s log – which had been carefully stored. So there was continuity from one year to the next. It was important to keep the Yule log burning for 12 days (the twelve days of Christmas?) through the shortest, dark, nights of winter. The custom is common, with variations and using different woods, throughout northern Europe.
However, today’s Yule log, more often than not, is a chocolate-covered sponge cake.
I can’t think of a particularly festive Z, but Zzzz is similar to the noise I often make while snoozing after Christmas dinner. Merry Christmas!
My thanks to Mike for sharing his A-Z of Christmas and you can find all these posts together on one page on his blog as a handy reference and to share: Bit about Britain – Christmas A – Z
About A Bit about Britain’s History: From a long time ago to quite recently.
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
Brilliant comprehensive coverage of Britain’s past. Everything you learned at school and forgot and much more in a very readable entertaining form. Recommended for anyone interested in Britain’s fascinating history.
Read the reviews and buy the book in print and kindle: Amazon UK
And on Amazon US: Amazon US
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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/
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Thank you for dropping in today and I know Mike would love your feedback – thanks Sally.