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“He’s making a list, and checking it twice. He knows whether you’ve been naughty or nice.” These are the ever present words, sung by children all around the world as Christmas approaches. This time of year, is a time of family, friends, and for anyone in the northern hemisphere cosying up beside the warm glow of a fireplace. Every family has their own traditions and their own way of celebrating this special day, but there are those traditions that make it into every household at this time of year, that transcend culture, British or otherwise, and that make this time of year extra festive, and it’s not only the story of reindeers, elves and men that slide down chimneys.
Before the caroling and trees, at the very heart of Christmas is a simple story. But as time has passed the day has gained popularity all around the world, even among those that aren’t Christian. And what is now seen as commonplace festivities may not have such Christian origins. Let’s dive into the history of these Christmas Traditions.
The origins of Father Christmas (also known as Santa Claus or Saint Nick) date back to the third century, around 280 AD when the Bishop of Myra, which would be Turkey today, was first caught in the act of secret gift giving. This Bishop was Saint Nicholas, which would later become Santa Claus. The story of how he became the man behind Santa Claus is simple. Some time in the 3rd century, he was discovered by an indebted father after he had given his daughters dowry so that they might be able to marry. St. Nicholas gave the gifts in secret, as this was in his character. Each night (not at Christmastime though) he would drop a bag of gold down the chimney of the girls home. On the third occasion, the father of the girls was determined to catch St. Nicholas and waited for the mysterious person to drop the gold down the chimney. When he discovered it was Nicholas the Bishop of Myra word soon spread and anyone who had received mysterious gifts would assume they came from Nicholas.
The origin of the Christmas tree is slightly unknown, many say its roots stem from paganism as people would hang branches from the evergreen fir tree in their homes on the Winter solstice. However, the most common story, and especially those believed by Christians comes from the year 722 when another saint, this time Saint Boniface was on a mission to convert pagan tribes in Germany. While in Germany he noticed a tribe about to sacrifice a boy under an oak tree. Outraged, St. Boniface cut down the oak tree and in its place a beautiful fir grew. This he told the villagers was a sign, and soon they would decorate the tree with candles so St Boniface would be able to preach to them at night. But the Christmas tree only gained notoriety in Great Britain in the 1840’s when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert decorated a tree at that time of year resulting in many British families following in their footsteps.
Caroling doesn’t have its origins in the Christian faith and were first sung during the Winter Solstice when pagans would dance in circles and sing. The word Carol or Carole is actually a medieval French term meaning to dance in a circle and to accompany it with singing. Christmas carols originate because the early church wanted to transform pagan associated themes and holidays into Christian ones. The original tunes sounded nothing like they do today and most Carols that were invented during that time were written and sung in Latin, so they weren’t at all popular. But in the 13th century, in order to make them popular amongst listeners, Francis of Assisi would put on nativity plays and performers would sing the songs in the language of the people. It was then known as waisailling, but in the 17th century when Britain broke away from the Catholic church, waisailling (which was frowned upon due to its pagan origins), was all but abolished. It would only later resurface as caroling in 1840 under the rule of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. Prince Albert brought many German traditions into England and Caroling was one of them.
Becoming a part of the days celebrations what is now termed the Queen’s Speech was first given by King George V in 1932. In the speech the queen details what this time of year means to her and also shares her take on the years events. In the very first broadcast, done over the radio on Christmas day King George made remarks about the impact of technology and how it had the capability to reach people far and wide. It’s now an annual event, that’s pre-recorded and televised.
Dinner time in Britain, on one of the most celebrated holidays in the country, is unlike dinner time at any other time of year. Bring out the Christmas crackers, English party hats, and feast on a British Christmas menu, this meal is one that makes that time of year extra special in most homes across Britain.
The menu at Christmastime is extravagant and tasty. A typical British Christmas dinner would include Turkey, stuffing and Cranberry sauce as well as brussels sprouts and pigs in blankets (not actual pigs- but sausages wrapped in bacon). These items also feature on a traditional British Christmas dinner. Other items on the list of classic Christmas British food includes mince pies (which aren’t made of mince but dried fruit) and yorkshire pudding, as well as fruit cake.
The British love pudding. And what better pudding to complete the experience of Christmas day than to end of with a seriously Christmas dessert… Christmas pudding. Christmas pudding or plum pudding is made with a variety of dried fruit which includes raisins and sultanas. These are combined with rum, shredded suet and black treacle. The ingredients are then placed in a pudding bowl and boiled, until “cooked”. Traditionally the pudding is served with warm custard. Yum.
Since the rules that govern ordinary dinners don’t apply on Christmas day, Christmas dinner crackers have become commonplace on tables around England. When families prepare for the day and set the table, any British family will tell you the decor is not complete without a Christmas cracker. Inside these crackers there are usually sweets and other small gifts. This dates back to the 19th century when an English sweet maker came up with the idea to boost the sale of his sweets. It certainly did the trick, and today you’ll hear the crackling sounds of crackers at every dinner table in the country.
If you’re struggling with what to wear on Christmas day, you’re not alone. Whether you’re from Britain or not, struggling to find the perfect Christmas outfit is something everyone struggles with. Most of us want something that’s appealing but also allows us to eat significant amounts of turkey, ham or Christmas pudding. Whatever we wear, we’re all really looking forward to the dinner.
If you’re attending a dinner amongst expats or in the run up to the actual day, you may consider wearing smarter attire. Wear neutral tones and accessorise in the seasons colours. Perhaps a scarf or wrap in red and dress for a female, and slacks, jacket and red jumper for males. It still looks formal enough to show you’ve put in enough effort, but red brings out the fun side to your outfit and says you’re in a jolly mood. Since red is also a common colour in Christmas-themed decor you may want to diversify and use cream instead.
Dining with your loved ones over the holiday and the dress code can be more casual. A jumper, good slacks and shoes should do. Keep the attire festive by wearing it in the seasons colours of green and red. Perhaps a red jumper or red accessories. Some families may even have traditions like wearing Christmas-themed clothing with prints or images of Santa Claus, the reindeer or elves. And if you’re the designated Father Christmas this year don’t forget to bring your suit, and belly of course!
Christmas is one of the last celebrated days of the calendar (besides Boxing Day). It’s a way for families to gather and go over what they’ve enjoyed most about the preceding year, it’s a time to give gifts and receive them as well! But most importantly it’s a time to spread love and happiness even if it includes decorating the tree in a way you wouldn’t like to or including an unconventional meal in your dinner plans. Christmas is about love more than anything else.
Merry Christmas from all of us! We look forward to hosting you in the New Year!