Delighted to welcome Mike Biles, author of A Bit About Britain’s History as a guest writer until the end of the year. And up to Christmas, 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
In Part Two of the Christmas A – Z Mike shared the traditions behind Christmas Dinner to Figgy Pudding.
The A-Z of Christmas in Britain – Part Three – Holly and Ivy to Sprouts
Holly and ivy
Here again we are reminded of the ancient rites we celebrate each Christmas. Holly was used by the Romans to decorate their homes during Saturnalia, and they would send sprigs to friends to wish them health and well-being. Ivy has been regarded as a symbol of everlasting life for centuries and was sacred to Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, and Osiris, the Egyptian judge of the dead. Some associate holly with male and ivy with female; some with Jesus and Mary. Christians have also associated holly with the crown of thorns that Christ wore on the cross, with the bright red berries representing drops of blood.
Some believe that ivy should not be used inside the house for decoration – and I have certainly never seen it, though Christmas would not be the same without some holly about the place (not before Christmas Eve, though). The carol, ‘the Holly and the Ivy’, is an old folk hymn – and I have to say that it always sounds very ancient, almost pagan, to me; something about the rising of the sun and the running of the deer…
We can say ‘Happy Christmas’ or ‘Merry Christmas’ – but we don’t say ‘Merry Birthday’, or Merry Anniversary’ (etc). Does this suggest we don’t want people to be joyous on their birthdays? I haven’t found a satisfactory explanation for this – not one that doesn’t ramble, anyway. ‘Merry’ is an older word than ‘happy’ and used to mean ‘favourable, pleasant’. ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen’ (note the comma) is an old carol and the phrase means something like, ‘stay well, chaps’. Merry Christmas was used extensively in Victorian Britain – the first Christmas card said, ‘A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.’ But by this time, the meaning of ‘merry’ had changed to ‘mirthful’ – and could also mean ‘slightly tipsy’. So the temperance brigade may have preferred to use ‘happy’. My own fudge on the subject is that it’s generally bad English to use the same adjective twice in the same sentence, so if you are wishing someone seasonal greetings for Christmas and the New Year you have to choose a different one for each; and Merry Christmas and Happy New Year sounds better than Happy Christmas and Merry New Year, even though either would be appropriate.
There’s a theory that eating a mince pie every day over the Christmas period is good for you.
Mince pies are small round pies with a sweet filling of mincemeat, not – as you may imagine – mincemeat. The mincemeat that goes into mince pies is a mixture of currants, raisins, candied peel, apple, spices, brandy, suet and sugar. The meat component was dropped a long time ago. Originally, mince pies were emblematical of the manger in which Jesus lay, and were shaped accordingly; they became round, allegedly, because the puritans disliked the symbolism.
Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on the branches of deciduous host trees, including oak, apple and birch. The European variety has pale green foliage, long, oval, leaves and clusters of milky-white berries. The Christmas tradition is to hang up a sprig or two and, should a woman stand underneath then a man may kiss her. The mistletoe must never touch the ground, for that brings bad luck. In days gone by, a berry had to be plucked for each kiss and, when no berries were left there could be no more kissing. In these less wasteful times, though, the berries are left on for as long as possible; a wonderful ice-breaker.
The Druids who practised their religion in these islands before the Romans came believed that mistletoe was sacred and had magical, healing, properties. Apparently, it really does – though, confusingly, the berries can be deadly poisonous, so do not eat them. There is, inevitably, an association with fertility; it has even been suggested that the berries were associated with semen. It’s anyone’s guess how the kissing started, though…
Legend has it that the god Balder, son of Odin and Frigg, was killed by a mistletoe arrow given to his blind brother, Hoder, by Loki, the god of mischief. Balder was restored to life but Frigg determined that mistletoe should never again be an instrument of evil, until it touched the earth.
The name mistletoe comes from the Anglo Saxon word for dung, mistel, and twig, tan, reflecting the observation that the plant is propagated by birds eating the berries and depositing their waste on the branches of trees.
A Nativity play (from the Latin nātīvitas, meaning birth) tells the story of the birth of Jesus and is a common feature of any decent primary school’s Christmas calendar. It usually features the shepherds, wise men, the fully booked innkeeper and a cast of animals ranging from the donkey to sheep and cows. In the 2003 film, ‘Love Actually’, they even remembered the Christmas lobster and octopus, which some versions of the Gospels omit to mention. It’s a wonderful opportunity for kids to perform, and all to be involved, though competition for the parts of Joseph and Mary can be fierce. I remember being intensely jealous of the toe-rag that got to hold Mary’s hand and was only slightly mollified by winning the coveted role of 2nd Centurion.
Legend has it that the first Nativity play was performed by St Francis of Assisi, in a one-man show to bring the story to life for people who could not read or write.
Nine lessons and carols
The carol service we are most familiar with today, the ‘Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols’, which tells the story of the Nativity interspersed with Christmas carols, was the creation of Edward White Benson (1829-1896), in 1880 when he was the first Bishop of Truro and Truro Cathedral was little more than a wooden shed. Benson went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury. The best-known form of that service was adapted by Eric Milner-White (1884-1963) at King’s College, Cambridge, and was first held on Christmas Eve in 1918. It is now broadcast around the world every Christmas. For more about this, see Kings and Carols
Noël is simply French for Christmas, derived from the Latin natalis (dies) birth (day).
We’re not really sure where Father Christmas (aka Santa Claus etc) lives, but a 19th century American cartoonist, Thomas Nast, suggested it might be the North Pole. No one knows where Thomas got his inside information from, but he possibly reached this conclusion from the knowledge that Santa’s reindeer lived somewhere northern and very cold, coupled with the fact that the North Pole is nicely remote and receives few visitors.
Pantomime is a uniquely British – some might even say English – form of seasonal entertainment. Based on a simple plot in which the goodies always win, such as a fairy story like ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ or ‘Cinderella’, it relies on skilful ham acting, audience participation, bad – and often topical – jokes, a bit of slap-stick and some singing and dancing. There are a few other essential ingredients: firstly, a pantomime dame, always played by a man, and a principle boy, always played by a girl. Those who don’t know any better suggest this is cross-dressing; it is not; the dame is meant to be a parody of a woman and the boy normally looks exactly like a girl. There has to be an outrageous villain, who attracts boos and hisses whenever s/he enters the stage. A fairy godmother is always useful to have around and, if animals are involved (including horses and cows), they have to be played by humans. Though pantos are primarily aimed at children, good ones operate on two levels; we Brits love our double entendre.
Any town desirous of Christmas credibility will have a pantomime running over the festive period (to make up for Parliament being in recess?) and the cast often includes celebrities as well as classic actors. But you’ll come across amateur productions almost anywhere. Oh yes you will.
The history of pantomime can be traced back to a form of Roman theatre with mime, which evolved into Italian and French street theatre that involved stock characters: the heroine, Columbine, the old man, Pantalone, and the clown, Pierrot. Crossing the Channel, this became more outrageous and bawdy and then received an injection of British music hall.
The Royal Christmas broadcast is an intrinsic part of Christmas for many in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. The first Royal Christmas broadcast was in 1932, when King George V spoke on the ‘wireless’ to the Empire from a small office at Sandringham. George VI carried on the practice, delivering a Christmas message every year from 1939, through the war years, until his death in 1951. Our current queen, Elizabeth II, has broadcast every year except 1969, and the broadcast has been televised since 1957. As well as reflecting on Christmas, the Queen mentions global, national and personal events which have affected her and her audience over the year. It’s usually at 3pm on Christmas Day, by the way.
Some foreign chappie wrote that some Brits – especially older ones – stand while this is going on and even remove their hats. Well, the things you learn about yourself and your country from the Internet…but I can’t stop to natter – I feel a genuflection coming on.
Why do robins feature so much at Christmas? The short answer is we don’t know. The usual explanation is that the robin, Britain’s national bird and a bold little thing, is often seen during winter looking for food – and the red breast makes the cheeky chap stand out, particularly against the snow. Now, I’m no ornithologist, but as someone who has turned the odd spade in my time, I reckon robins are ubiquitous all year round.
Some will tell you that robins became associated with red-coated Victorian postmen (nicknamed ‘robins’), who brought the Christmas post. Robins were even depicted delivering Christmas cards. Others suggest that a robin protected the baby Jesus from the glowing fire in the stable (I didn’t know there was one, did you?) – thus gaining its red breast from the heat. Another tale is that as Christ was on the way to His crucifixion and was, mockingly, given a crown of thorns, a robin plucked one thorn that had bitten deeply into Christ’s head and, as it did so, a drop of Christ’s blood stained its breast. Or it could just be that red, along with green, is one of the colours of Christmas.
See ‘A Christmas Carol’. The name of Dickens’ main character in ‘A Christmas Carol’ is now in the dictionary, meaning someone who is tight with money, or miserly. It is thought the name may have came from an archaic verb, ‘scrouge’, meaning to squeeze or to press. But I think ‘Scrooge’ is almost onomatopoeic anyway.
The sprout – Brussels sprouts – seem to be an essential part of the British Christmas meal. They are really mini-cabbages. And, like Marmite, you either love ‘em or detest ‘em. I’m in the latter camp and can’t figure out why they are foisted upon us at what is otherwise a reasonably joyous time of year. They smell awful, taste worse and have predictably unpleasant side-effects. Unfortunately, they are very good for you; a single sprout contains more vitamin C than an orange. They originated in the Mediterranean, but are easily grown in northern Europe, became popular in the low countries (hence the name) and common in Britain in the 19th century, when people didn’t know any better. The only explanation I can find for the inclusion of this hideous vegetable in our Christmas feast (other than the plot to get me) is seasonal availability.
©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, legends 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.