An English Christmas

WHAT MAKES AN ENGLISH CHRISTMAS?

It appears that each person questioned thus will answer differently in fact. For me, it was the late night shopping and the electric atmosphere. I remembered the animated windows of my youth, Fairy Tales brought to life in each one. Delving back into childhood, it was the smells of minced pies, boiling puddings and the Meat cooking late on Christmas Eve.

This short survey has brought together all the elements of what the English public consider is an English Christmas, and here are a few short pieces about each, starting with a list of essential elements of Christmas gathered from a poll over over two thousand.

  • Food & Drink
  • Parties
  • Television and the Queens Speech
  • A Walk after Dinner
  • Midnight Mass & Carol Services
  • Children’s activities (Pantomime & Santa)
  • Shopping in the dark, fairylit streets
  • Sending out cards
  • Ghost Stories and Murder parties
  • Getting in touch with old acquaintances and visiting people
  • Playing Games
  • Carol-singing, ‘Sally’ Army & Hot Chestnuts Man
  • Decorating
  • Getting the special double edition Radio Times and planning the seasonal viewing & recording!

But  was it always like this? With  the upcoming festive period looming we will be looking at  Christmas of Old and how it was celebrated in the past.


FATHER CHRISTMAS

English Father Christmas became part of the greater European Santa Claus in the 1950’s. But until then he was quite a different character. His origins were steeped in the Viking lore, brought by these people when they conquered Britain in the 8th – 9th centuries.

To understand his origins, it is necessary to learn a little about the state of the country at that time..

Britain was a largely Saxon stronghold. Christianity came from two sides basically, the Celtic Church and the Roman Church. Although the Celtic Christians were brought in line with Roman practice from a decree at the Synod of Whitby in the 7th century, Christianity was still somewhat isolated from mainstream Europe. Many of the images in the Saxon churches were Byzantine in style not Roman. The Byzantine Church had already begun to split from the Church in Rome, creating Eastern and Western Christians. Roman iconography was quite different to that of the Eastern Church, and Celtic imagery was harking back to what the early Church considered ‘pagan’ imagery.

Even after the Norman invasion in 1066, when the Normans effectively wiped out all the early imagery and replaced it with Roman style, still oaths were commonly sworn “By God and by Odin”. Things changed only slowly.

While St Nicholas was enjoying cult status throughout Europe, with customs developing from as early as the 9th century, he did not arrive in Britain until much later.

The Saxons welcomed King Frost, or Father Time, or King Winter. He would be represented by someone, given a fine hat or crown to wear,, and brought to their firesides. They believed that by welcoming the Winter as a personage, or elemental deity, that element would be less harsh to them, not QUITE so cold, not QUITE so wet – just enough to feed the earth!

The Vikings brought their god Odin. Odin was the father of the gods, and he had twelve characters. The character for December was sometimes known as Yalka or Jul and his month was known as Jultid. From this, we get Yuletide. During December the Vikings believed that Odin would come to earth on his eight legged horse, Sleipnir. He was disguised in a long blue hooded cloak, and he carried a satchel of bread and a staff. His companion was often a Raven or a Crow. (This description was also given for St Benedict, the founder of the great Benedictine Order of monks and nuns! It is likely that Benedicts description was at some early time, overlaid onto the image of Odin.)

Odin was supposed to join groups around their fire, sitting in the background and listening in to hear if they were content or not. He would occasionally leave a gift of bread at a poor homestead.

Here you can see already customs we associate with Father Christmas. The hooded figure, the secret visits, the leaving of a gift.

With the Normans came St. Nicholas. Viking and Saxon deities mingled with a Christian element to create a saintly Parish Visitor – a sort of medieval social worker!

In England in the Middle Ages, a parish would hire an actor, or often a cleric from another parish, to dress in disguise, and visit homes to see how people were doing. Maybe someones children were sickly because they had no food, or a widow was not managing now her husband had died – He would report back to the Parish priest, who would keep an eye on the situation.

We have no records in Britain to tell us whether he, as St Nicholas, was named as the gift giver for children. Nor do we know whether religious establishments gave gifts to children in his name on the Feast day of St Nicholas, as was the practice in places such as Germany and Belgium etc.. Many of these records would have been lost during the Reformation in the 16th-17th centuries. He was never given the task of filling stockings or suchlike, and he eventually degenerated into a sort of Master of Ceremonies for Christmas parties at the big houses.

The Vindication of Christmas

Father Christmas was banned by the Puritans under Cromwell in the mid-17th century. He went ‘underground’ along with Minced Pies, Christmas games and the like. Occasionally secret publishers would print Broadsheets (a sort of newspaper) with a verse about ‘Old Christmas’. He became the personification of everything the British people held dear about Christmas.

In the 18th century, he began to appear in the Christmas plays of itinerant players. In the middle of the play, he would appear, heavily disguised, shouting his challenge,

“In comes I, Old Father Christmas. Be I welcome or be I not – I hope that old Christmas will never be forgot!”

As with many customs associated with British Christmas, the tradition of Father Christmas remained, when the saintly or religious elements were lost. He became a benevolent, jovial character, synonymous with the Goodwill of Christmas, but his saintly attributes were gone. He was the modernised version of the Saxon and Viking deities, he controlled the winter elements, and he kept people happy at a dismal time of year.

Victorian illustrators showed him as either a pagan figure with icicles or ivy around his head; or, with the influence of the new religious movement, as a stern and forbidding saint, as likely to punish as to reward children.

As more influence came to Britain from America, he was presented as a fat and jolly character, who filled stockings, and occasionally gave guest appearances at civic and public places. By the 20th century, he was a common figure in most Department Stores the length and breadth of the British Isles. He was often austere looking still, and he would ask children questions about their prayers, their reading, writing and arithmetic. If they had been naughty, he would tell them they must improve or he would not visit them at Christmas. But most people over the age of 50 will still refer to him as ‘Father Christmas’.

After WWII, there was a great deal of American influence, and that, together with increasing advertisements by the Coca-Cola Company in the British press, changed the image of Father Christmas permanently. Now, he is always fat, always jolly, never admonishes children about whether they are good to their parents, or questions them on their catechisms and schoolwork. He is just a ‘Jolly Elf’, who goes by the name of Santa Claus, which as everybody knows, is the popular nickname of Saint Nicholas – Santa – Saint; Claus – diminutive for Nicholas.


 

KISSING BOUGH

One of the most enduring customs in England, which has been adapted and evolved over hundreds of years is the KISSING BOUGH.

In the early middle ages, it was customary in Europe to hang up a small treetop, upside down as a symbol of the Holy Trinity. This was not only used at Christmas, but was used as a christian symbol of blessing upon the household.

In Europe, this evolved into the Christmas Tree as we know it today . In Britain however, which did not have the custom of cutting tops of fir trees to hang up, there the custom began in the 15th century to create a hoop, or sphere woven from ash, willow or hazel, (bendy woods). In the middle was placed a small effigy of the Christchild or the Holy Family, and the whole hung up inside the threshold of the house. Such items were called ‘Sacramentals’ and were blessed by the local priest. Anyone who called at the house during the Christmas Season showed that they brought only Goodwill with them, by a symbolic embrace under this Holy Bough.

Over the decades this Bough became important also as a status symbol, as families would vie with each other to dress their Bough more finely. Ribbons, gilded nuts and small apples were typical.

After the Reformation, the Holy figures were removed for fear of breaking the strict Puritanical rules, and facing fines or worse. A bunch of evergreens were hung up in memory of the old Holy Bough, and the memory of an embrace of Peace lingered. But two or three generations down the line, such memories became hazy. By the time the Victorians took joy in acknowledging all the old customs again, the custom of the Holy Bough had degenerated into a Kiss under the Mistletoe (which, being evergreen, was always used in the making of the Holy Bough). The Bough became known as first the Holly Bough, which was a logical move – Holy -Holly especially as the bough also had Holly in it. Then it became a Kissing Bough or Bunch.