Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – Guest Writer Mike Biles – A Bit About Britain – The A-Z of Christmas in Britain – The Finale –


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 first Christmas card, devised by Sir Henry Cole, drawn by John Horsley

The A-Z of Christmas in Britain – Part Four – St. Boniface to ZZZZZ

St Boniface

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.

Holly and the Ivy, Christmas, Britain

St Nicholas

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

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.”

Turkey

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.

Wassailing

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.

Wenceslas

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.

Dreaming of a White Christmas

White Christmas

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

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’.

Chi Rho symbol

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.

Zzzz

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

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 pagehttp://bitaboutbritain.com/
Blog pagehttp://bitaboutbritain.com/blog-2/
Facebook pagehttps://www.facebook.com/bitaboutbritain/
Twitterhttps://twitter.com/bitaboutbritain
Pinteresthttps://www.pinterest.co.uk/bit1032/

Thank you for dropping in today and I know Mike would love your feedback – thanks Sally.

 

Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – Guest Writer Mike Biles – A Bit About Britain – The A-Z of Christmas in Britain Part Two – Christmas Dinner to Figgy Pudding


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……

Christmas, Britain

The A-Z of Christmas in Britain Part Two – Christmas Dinner to Figgy Pudding

Christmas, Britain, Christmas dinner

Christmas dinner

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

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.

Christmas fairy

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.

Christmas jumpers, Christmas, BritainChristmas jumpers

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?

Christmas movies

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

Christmas movies:

  1. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
  2. Scrooge (1951)
  3. Love Actually (2003)
  4. White Christmas (1954)
  5. The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
  6. The Snowman (1982)
  7. Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001)
  8. The Holiday (2006)
  9. Home Alone (1990)
  10. Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

Christmas music

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:

  1. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Judy Garland (1944)
  2. Fairytale of New York – the Pogues with Kirsty MacColl (1988)
  3. Happy Xmas (War is Over) – John & Yoko (1971)
  4. Merry Christmas Everybody – Slade (1973)
  5. The Christmas Song – Nat King Cole (1961)
  6. Christmas Wrapping – the Waitresses (1981)
  7. Santa Baby – Eartha Kit (1953)
  8. I Believe in Father Christmas – Greg Lake (1975)
  9. White Christmas – Bing Crosby (1942)
  10. Run Rudolph Run – Chuck Berry (1958)

Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye courtesy of andrew67ist

Christmas presents

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, Britain

Christmas pudding

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.

Christmas tree

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.

Christmas in Britain

Father Christmas

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

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 pagehttp://bitaboutbritain.com/
Blog pagehttp://bitaboutbritain.com/blog-2/
Facebook pagehttps://www.facebook.com/bitaboutbritain/
Twitterhttps://twitter.com/bitaboutbritain
Pinteresthttps://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.

 

Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – Guest Writer Mike Biles – A Bit About Britain – The A-Z of Christmas in Britain Part One


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

Christmas, Britain

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 calendar

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.

Bah! Humbug!

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

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.

Candles

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.

Charles Dickens

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

Christmas bells

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’.

Christmas, Britain, Christmas cake

Christmas Cake

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.

The first Christmas card, devised by Sir Henry Cole, drawn by John Horsley

Christmas cards

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.

Christmas carols

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

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.

Christmas Day

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.
Christmas magic and sparkle

Christmas decorations

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

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Thank you for dropping in today and I know Mike would love your feedback thanks Sally.