– & Actors CAMERON POTTS, ANNA NICHOLSON and ANNA NEWCOME try and remember wonders of the world and dwarf names
Happy Christmas! Yes, we can still say it. Just. The 12th day is upon us.
Alright, in some parts of the world they celebrate Christmas beyond Twelfth Night (hear from James Cooper of WhyChristmas.com on this on my latest podcast, and also on my BBC Surrey & BBC Sussex show last week). But for most of us, this weekend sees the decorations come down. Trees will be dragged to join their big pile of relatives in the village hall car park.
So this seems THE time to cease this Yule blog for this year. We might pop back again in the run-up to next Christmas. Or we might consider that we’ve done enough Yule blogging (you can explore the back catalogue throughout this kneeldownstandup.wordpress.com site – anything from August 2017 – January 2018 is on the history of Christmas).
The entire blogging venture has been off the back of my new book ‘Hark! The Biography of Christmas’, which I’m delighted to say scraped the Amazon Top 100 and was a bestseller in a bunch of categories, from ‘Christianity’ to ‘Anthropology’ to ‘Crosswords’ (that last one’s not true, just checking you’re paying attention). So thanks if you bought it! If you didn’t – well there’s always next Christmas.
So as Christmas wraps up for another year, why do we have a Twelfth Night then?
Well. A few hundred years post-Nativity, Rome had started celebrating Christmas in some form. But the Empire was big – and in the East, they preferred January 6th as a celebration date – the day commemorating Jesus’ baptism, and the visit of the Magi. So Epiphany has been a day for thinking on those Three Wise Men for some time. Then there’s the Gregorian/Julian calendar split, which also helped shift the date of Christmas for many. So either way, Christmas then seems to span these twelve days. To this day, 6 January is Orthodox Christmas Eve.
In 567, France hosted the Council of Tours (the original “Tours de France”) to settle several key disputes of the day. These included the marital state of clergy (monks should live in dormitories not cells; women shouldn’t be allowed in monasteries – and you know I’m talking to you, Sister Florence…) and when exactly to celebrate Christmas. To satisfy both sides of the church, the twelve days between the Western church’s 25 December and the Eastern church’s 6 January were in their entirety deemed holy days – or “holidays”. So the origin of our twelve days of Christmas – telling us when to take down our decorations, or a ditty about five gold rings and a partridge – is built on compromise, to satisfy both sides of the church. Because what are Christmas holidays about, if not keeping both sides of the family happy?
For centuries, Twelfth Night customs made for almost a bigger Christmas party than Christmas itself. There was a Twelfth cake, with a bean or pea inside – and whoever took that slice was elected king or queen for the night – Lord of Misrule – directing the antics. It’s a tradition kept in my local pubs in Guildford to this day – and I’ll be along to see the Pilgrim Morris Men perform their Mummers play around Guildford pubs this January 6th, this very weekend.
Twelfth Night is VERY English. One of the most English things there is. It includes a spot of carolling, passing the wassail bowl around, and blessing the pub by daubing some cider. The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane still keeps the tradition of Twelfth cake too, with the customary cake and shared wassail bowl for the cast each January 6th since 1795, the lucky blighters.
Speaking of plays, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is of course then a Christmas play, though for the very end of Christmas – and it has the usual tropes of an old-fashioned Christmas, with some cross-dressing and general ribaldry. It even debuted at the end of the Christmas season, on… not Twelfth Night, but Candlemas, on February 2nd, a.k.a. Groundhog Day.
On which, maybe we should return to this Yule blog for Candlemas, the very far end of the Christmas season, wherever you are…
Then again, maybe we best leave it. Christmas has ended by February, nowadays, surely. So as we approach Twelfth Night, may I be the last to wish you a very Merry Christmas. (Bring on the next one…)
It’s Boxing Day (at time of writing), which means… the last blog for a bit. Alright we might pop back for Twelfth Night. But in terms of blogging the history of Christmas (all based on my new book Hark! The Biography of Christmas – eBook on the link, if you fancy), I think we’re about done for now. Yes, the Christmas season technically continues (for the Orthodox church, till as far as February 2nd), but Western Christmas culture, secularly at least, likes it all wrapped up by Boxing Day.
So before we close the season, here are some bits and pieces of December 26ths in Christmas past.
Boxing Day is NOT the day after Christmas, but the next working day after Christmas. So if December 26th is a Saturday, that year’s Boxing Day is December 28th. One thing December 26th IS each year, is St Stephen’s Day.
St Stephen was the first Christian martyr, with his stoning recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. Given that Boxing Day was a Victorian invention, the far history of Christmas Day+1 is more to do with St Stephen’s Day.
So, the most famous St Steve’s Day carol? ‘Good King Wenceslas’. It’s not technically a Christmas Carol, but since St Stevie’s Day is just one day later, it’s been lumped in. The song is based on a real person – Václav the Good, aka Duke Wenceslaus I of Bohemia. Though only a duke, he was posthumously declared a king after his martyrdom in 935. In life he was a generous ruler who saw the Christmas season as an opportunity to bless widows and orphans with alms. He was a very deep man, and crisp, and even.
Over in Finland, St Stephen’s Day was a popular day for sleigh rides with horses, contrasting with the rather sombre Christmas Day rituals. Across the Western world, it’s been a day for big sporting events – and even on a domestic level, for centuries it’s been a day for getting outside. On December 25th you stay in and eat; on the 26th you go out and walk, ride or just generally work off that turkey.
Ireland especially had this day marked for a traditional hunt, until this died out in the nineteenth century. More recently on the wane has been the Irish custom of mumming and parading with old clothes, where it’s called Wren Day. It’s still a popular day for taking the family to see a local panto at the theatre.
While there had essentially been a Boxing Day for years, it rose in significance in Victorian days when Twelfth Night stopped being celebrated so much, and commercialism say the Christmas season end, culturally at least, a little earlier. We only all gained an official day off in the twentieth century.
The tradition it was named after was just dying out – the giving of a Christmas box, from bosses to certain staff members. The Romans had given boxes from master to slave; through the centuries, boxes were contributed to year-round, to make a tidy sum come Christmas.
By Victoria’s day, the English custom was particularly that visiting workers might get such a box – not permanent staff so much as postmen or other regular visiting tradesfolk. Boxing Day kept the name, just as the rise of the middle classes saw off this hierarchical custom, plus the new ways we were giving to charity at Christmas, rather than just to delivery personnel. But if you tip your regular Deliveroo biker with a box of coins this Boxing Day, you’re continuing this custom – and getting some odd looks.
The Boxing Day sales don’t mean as much as they did through the 20th century thanks to internet sales, Black Friday and the rise of the ‘Boxing Week’ sales (just a pre-cursor to the January sales, and just after Black Friday week sales… man, shops are desperate). More on how the shops have shifted the Christmas season here.
Which leads me to note that this is probably a cheaper time than usual to nab my book, on which all these posts are based. After all, if it’s not Christmas, it’s no longer topical.
Which probably means I should stop talking about it.
It’s Christmas Day! It’s lunchtime. Turkey sits heavy in our tums or on our plate. In Britain that means one thing – our monarch is about to speak to us and give an awkward smile.
While you wait, or realise you’ve missed it, here are some regal highlights of that very thing, since it started seventy years ago…
- 1932… Britain’s first royal Christmas message, by George V. He wasn’t the first monarch to broadcast one – the Dutch queen beat him by one year. But he’d been pressured by the BBC’s John Reith for a decade – and only relented after being given a tour of the BBC studios, a couple of free radios, and assurances that the new global British Broadcasting Corporation would reach parts of the British Empire that the previous, national, British Broadcasting Company couldn’t reach. In his first nervous broadcast, he sat in his favourite chair at Sandringham, and fell through the seat of it.
- 1935… George V’s fourth and final festive speech reassured a nation still suffering in the Great Depression, continuing to promote the nostalgic British Christmas.
- 1936… was speechless, because Edward VIII abdicated just before Christmas.
- 1937… Edward’s brother George VI had a legendary stammer, famously depicted by Colin Firth in The King’s Speech. Completing his first Christmas message only increased the warmth of the public towards him. In it, he claimed to be unable to match his father’s broadcasting skill, but his message of hope against the “shadows of enmity and of fear” was well-received in a fragile world.
- 1939… After no speech in 1938 came a vital wartime broadcast. Princess Elizabeth suggested that her father quote from the poem “God Knows” by Minnie Louise Haskins:
“And I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year,
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’
And he replied,
‘Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.’”
1952… Princess became Queen, and Elizabeth II became the third British monarch on the festive airwaves, broadcasting from the same chair and desk as her father and grandfather before her.
- 1957… saw the first televised message: “It’s inevitable that I should seem a rather remote figure to many of you… but now at least for a few minutes, I welcome you to the peace of my own home.” Like the first radio broadcast, Elizabeth assured her audience that timeless values mattered more than new technology. There was an amusing crossed signal too; over the Queen’s words, an American police officer was heard to mutter, “Joe, I’m gonna grab a quick coffee.”
- 1959… had the first pre-recorded message, to be shipped abroad in advance. Wherever you were in the world, you could now hear the message at an appropriate time on Christmas Day.
- 1969… had no speech due to fears of oversaturation, a er a year of royal documentaries and ceremonies. It was reinstated in 1970; the public loved the royal broadcaster, as did the technicians, who nicknamed Her Majesty “One- Take Windsor”.
- 1992… The sixtieth anniversary of the royal message was Elizabeth’s self-professed “annus horribilis”: two of her sons’ marriages ended, Windsor Castle suffered a fire, and tabloid interest in the royal family reached new highs (or lows). As if to prove the point, The Sun newspaper published a leaked version of the speech two days early. For the previous five years, naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough had produced the speech; maybe he should have stayed on.
- 1997… was the first speech broadcast online.
- 2006… was the first royal Christmas podcast.
- 2012… was shot in 3D – without the customary reassurance that timeless values matter more than new technology. A version in Smell-O-Vision has yet to appear.
Amazon bestseller Hark! The Biography of Christmas is available now.
Today’s the day. So we won’t go on here. You’ve got things to do.
But in case you’re wondering how we got here, to this Christmas, now, here are the last 2000 Christmases in the briefest of nutshells…
1. Christ is born! Fulfilment of OT prophecy, Mary possibly might have been expecting to be expecting… or not expecting, but wondering whether it would be someone in her generation who would carry the Messiah. It was foretold that it’d be her extended family, so it’s a possible thought… Jesus is born, in a miraculous virgin birth, in a barn, in Bethlehem. Angels rejoice, send shepherds to do likewise. Herod not so happy – he thought HE was King of the Jews.
2. A hundred years later, Jesus had been and gone and been back again and been gone again. The twelve disciples became several hundred, then they died. Then the early church, meeting in homes, slowly formed the church. At first, Christianity was a secret sect, or when public, was persecuted. So any celebration of the birth of Christ was carefully managed.
3. Two hundred years later, December 25th was picked as a day of celebration for Christmas. Some say it was because you could calculate Jesus’ death date or conception date or maybe then birthdate from the gospels… Possibly… More likely, there were other Roman festivals around that time of year, and even on that day there was a pagan festival: The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. Either way, Christmas became official. December 25th.
About the same time, a bloke called St Nicholas did some nice things… but at this point, had nothing to do with Christmas.
4. A thousand years later, St Francis of Assisi helped give Christmas back to the people again, with local language carols and a live Nativity scene.
5. Four hundred years later, Cromwell and his Puritans banned Christmas in England. When the Pilgrim Fathers left for America, they took their Bah Humbug ways too – so Christmas didn’t land in America for some time.
6. Two hundred years later, though Christmas was legal again, it wasn’t as much fun. No spark. It took a few creative writers to give it its zing again: people like Charles Dickens, Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore. Christmas gained charity, family and legends of St Nicholas.
7. A hundred years later, Christmas pop culture rose, largely to cheer us up during the wars. That meant the revival of the carol in the Nine Lessons & Carols service, Bing Crosby crooning away, and jolly films and TV shows.
But in amongst all this, Christians never stopped celebrating the birth of Christ. Whatever your Christmas looks like today, whether it’s Bing Crosby, St Nick or whoever else, wishing you a blessed and merry one!
‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the past, we’ve been busy doing all sorts of key, important, vital, ridiculous, epoch-changing things on this day.
The below dates are partly harvested from my book Hark! The Biography of Christmas but also from my time-frittering website The Movie Timeline. (Oh and Wikipedia and Google and things, but we never need acknowledge them, right?) In reverse chronlogical order, here’s what happened – in reality and in movie-land – on December 24th…
1941 – Churchill and Roosevelt light the White House Christmas tree for last time for 3 years, due to wartime energy restrictions.
1818 – Another classic Christmas Eve moment: when church mice (apparently) ate through the church organ of an Austrian village church, causing the priest and the organist to write a new song against the clock, to debut at Midnight Mass that night. The man who came to fix the organ then saw the song written down, and took it with him around other churches as he travelled. Your organ breaks? You get it fixed, you learn Silent Night, that’s the deal. More on it and other carol origins here.
Our Yule blog is nearly finished! Well I’m not blogging about Christmas beyond January. That would be weird. (Although I did start this in August, so…)
As you tuck in to your Christmas dinner, waiting for the Queen’s Speech, you might ponder how the royals are eating. So here’s a taste of that, from Christmas past to present day.
So let’s start with who I was always told was England’s first king, even though he patently wasn’t (but my Kings & Queens pencil case had to start somewhere)…
Willy the Conqueror was one of several monarchs who opted for Christmas Day as their coronation day – a double celebration. Unfortunately it caused so much raucous cheering that guards outside Westminster Abbey thought the king was being attacked. they rushed to break up the rabble, killing many in the crowd and setting a few houses on fire.
His subsequent Christmases were formal, relatively calm occasions, with elaborate tableware and endless courses. Lower-ranking guests ate boiled meat on a plate made of stale bread. Having a plate you could eat certainly saved on washing up.
BALDWIN OF BOULOGNE:
The only non-UK one we’ll mention, in 1100 Baldwin was crowned as first king of Jerusalem. The coronation took place on Christmas Day in Bethlehem, at the Church of the Nativity, winning the prize for the Christmassiest coronation ever.
In 1125, William’s son Henry I had a special Christmas gift for some traitors who had debased his currency: vengeance. All the country’s mint-men were invited to Winchester; by Twelfth Night, all had been deprived of their right hands and their, er… – well, they may have literally made money, but they le with no family jewels.
1171: The grandest feast of Henry’s reign. In Dublin, Henry shocked his hosts with the sheer size and scale consumed by his travelling court. Birds served included swan, peacock, and most controversially crane. The Irish noblemen refused to eat it; Henry insisted. After-dinner entertainment featured dwarf-tossing and Henry’s legendary jester Roland le Pettour (Roland “the Farter”), lured out of retirement for his famous “leap, whistle, and fart” routine.
John’s 1213 banquet upped the game, by serving everything from peacock to, well, game. His order included:
24 hogsheads of ordinary wine (each hogshead holds between sixty and ninety gallons. They aren’t actual hogs’ heads…)
420 pigs’ heads (oh, these are actual hogs’ heads…) 16,000 hens
Partridges and pheasants – as many as can be found
10,000 salted eels
500lb of wax for candles
Plus cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger spices, fresh from the Crusades
…which were starting to appear in newly-spiced mince pies. Yum.
In 1236, the king of France gave King Henry a live elephant. 1251’s feast was Henry III’s biggest: this Christmas coincided with his daughter’s wedding, at the age of eleven. Her husband, the king of Scotland, had just turned ten – clearly he was drawn to the older lady (it’s encouraging to hear that they waited to consummate the marriage, although only till they were both fourteen).
The Christmas/wedding banquet included 70 pigs, 1,000 cod, 500 conga eels, 10,000 haddock, 1,992 hens (how specific), 1,600 partridges, 120 peacocks, 290 pheasants, 300 rabbits, 125 swans… and that was just for starters. Well it may not have been just for starters, but there was plenty more ordered too.
One guest, Benedictine monk Matthew of Paris, noted at the time: “The worldly and wanton vanity of the scene, if it were to be described in full, would produce wonder and weariness in those who heard it.”
He encouraged dressing up at Christmas, requesting that his lords and ladies wear fancy silk finery for an Arthurian-themed dinner at a specially constructed round table.
Sixty years later, Edward III was so taken with King Arthur’s legend that he created a brand new chivalrous order at Christmas – “the Order of the Garter”. His love of entertainment gave us one of our most persistent Christmas entertainments, still celebrated in some British pubs today: the mummers’ play.
Henry’s Christmases were typically grand with great pageantry. In his early reign, one Christmas dinner featured “an abundance of viands as hath beene few times seene”, including venison, peacock, swan, porpoise, seagull, and heron – the more exotic the better! It’s alleged that the Duke of Northumberland ate five swans that Christmas.
She added the goose to the Christmas dinner table. It was previously a Michaelmas dish, but when news of the Armada defeat reached her on Michaelmas Day while she was tucking into her goose, to celebrate she declared goose a celebration bird for all occasions – including Christmas. Not a great celebration for the goose, of course.
Insisted on a play for Christmas. Bad news for the actors who thought they had the day off.
Brought back Christmas, after Cromwell’s ban. Thanks Charley! He was also the first Briton to taste a pineapple, and the first to put ice cream on a ceremonial menu. He was served on bended knee, with a servant whose only job was to dab Charles’ mouth between forkfuls.
Table décor was sparse, but the food displays made up for it, from a two-foot high castle-shaped salt cellar to wine- owing fountains. 1671’s dinner boasted 145 dishes in the first course alone.
George I was German, and so enjoyed the plum pudding at his first English Christmas in 1714, that his new nation nicknamed him “The Plum Pudding King”. The dish was very popular; that year saw one of its first appearances, in Mary Kettilby’s recipe book A Collection of above Three Hundred Receipts in Cookery, Physick and Surgery, where it sat alongside the first recipe for orange marmalade.
I won’t go on about her. I have enough elsewhere, like here or here. Suffice to say she could eat a seven-course dinner in half an hour, and when she finished her food, all plates were cleared away – even of those who hadn’t been served yet.
GEORGE at V:
Had a very nervous Christmas dinner in 1932, and didn’t eat a thing – he was about to give the first royal Christmas message.
To the present day… At a typical British royal Christmas, the extended family gather at Sandringham House, arriving in order of inferiority: junior royals first on 23 December, the heir to the throne joining later the next day. e youngest royals decorate the tree under supervision from the monarch, followed by German-style Christmas Eve present-opening and a formal supper.
Christmas morning sees the customary royal walk to church, possibly harking back to the Holy Days and Fasting Days Act of 1551, which states that every citizen must attend church on Christmas Day, without using any kind of vehicle. The Act was repealed in 1969, though perhaps no one ever told the Queen.
One of her favourite platters is a whole Stilton cheese, pitchforked on top with port poured on to seep through. They say it’s rather nice on a cracker, though surely you’ll dampen the bang and get a soggy crown. Then again, they’ve got enough crowns lying around.
All this is from the Amazon bestseller, Hark! The Biography of Christmas.
At the time of writing, it’s 3 days till Christmas. So baste the turkey warm the plates, stir the pud, bury the coin in mincemeat then cover it in brandy. Let’s check history’s oven and see how our Christmas dinner table got so crowded.
ROOT VEG ‘N’ SPROUTS:
By Tudor times, root vegetables were eaten nearly as much as meat and newcomers like sprouts were joining the plate. These perennial “favourites” (personally I still have to gulp my one-sprout-a-year down with a glass of red) offered highly nutritious vitamins through the season, unusually growing in even the roughest of winters.
The Southern Mexican turkey was a domesticated bird, making it very easy to transport, so by 1525 these birds started appearing in European ports. Originally it was confused with the African guinea fowl, arriving via the Ottoman empire, land of the Turks. So the turkey suered a case of mistaken identity; though it had never even been to Turkey, the name “turkey” stuck.
The whole naming of this bird is one giant fiasco, to be honest. The country it was thought to be from wasn’t even called Turkey until after World War I, so the bird was (wrongly) named first. Then there’s the fact that the bird they thought it was wasn’t even from Turkey (which wasn’t called Turkey) but East Africa – the birds just changed hands a few times between Turks en route. Finally, the world over, they all seem to call it different names based on other places that it’s not even from. The Turks themselves called it “an Indian bird”, as did the French who call it an “Indian rooster” (a “coq d’Inde”, now abridged to “dinde”). In Malaysia it’s a “Dutch chicken”, while the Portuguese call it a “Peru bird”. The humble turkey should really be called “Mexican guinea fowl lookalike”.
Michaelmas, on 29 September, was the day that each goose should look over its shoulders. They’d been popular with the Celts in their Samhain festival and also in our very old friend Yule.
Long before the Dutch/American/Mexican/Peruvian/Indian turkey could get its claws onto our Christmas menu, the goose beat it to it. This was all thanks to another sea explorer, not bringing anything back from the New World but defending the Old World. Sir Francis Drake and Lord Charles Howard led the defence against the Spanish Armada, and on 29 September 1588 word reached Queen Elizabeth of their success. She was tucking into her traditional Michaelmas goose at the time, and was so overjoyed at the victory that she decreed that goose become celebration food from then on. That Christmas, roasted goose was the bird of choice – so when Michaelmas later declined, the goose clung to Christmas instead.
JOINT OF HAM:
It’s all that’s left of one of Britain’s oldest continuing Christmas customs: the Boar’s Head. There’s even a carol or two to go with it, and the tradition is alive and well at certain posh colleges – notably Oxford claims an origin story, of a student meeting a wild boar on the way to Midnight Mass, so shoved a philosophy book down its throat to save from a mauling. It was served at royal feasts with a lemon or apple in its mouth and garnished with rosemary and bay leaves.
The Christmas pudding owes a lot to sea imports of the Crusades. Spices arrived and joined wheat, almonds, eggs, even fish and meat, to make a classic English porridge called ‘frumenty’, stirred by the whole family for special occasions. It became the popular plum porridge, then eighteenth century plum pudding – which debuted in a cookbook alongside the first recipe for orange marmalade. George I loved it so much, they called him ‘The Plum Pudding King’.
It was made by wrapping the mixture in a cloth and swinging it around, forming a ball. Remove the cloth, halve the ball, lose the fish and meat (I would) and you have Christmas pudding. Light it on fire to remind us of Yule. Count the ingredients and stir up as a family on Stir-Up Sunday, to remind us of the Christian Christmas. The Christmas pudding is a bit of everything: just like Christmas.
Mince pies originally contained real mince, while its shape was possibly the most Christian thing about Christmas food: it resembled a crib, or perhaps a coffin. The theologically-minded saw both, but Cromwell’s Puritan parliament saw potential idol-worship. So when Christmas was banned, so was this pastry crib. But change the shape, flout the law. The round, minceless mince pie is all we have.
No room for this? It’s all that’s left of the popular ‘Twelfth Cake’ that closed the season on January 6th. A coin would be hidden inside to pick the fool-in-charge for the night (or a wedding ring, to pick a bride) – and with no more Twelfth Cake, this custom has remained popular in many a Christmas pud.
Hark! The Biography of Christmas (published by Lion Hudson) is out now priced £7.99, to be found in all good bookshops, on all good websites, and in all good Christmas stockings.
Today is December 21st, the shortest day, the winter solstice. Solstice means simply ‘sun stands still’… and it was this apparent pause in the sun’s movements that added fire to our ancestors’ midwinter celebrations. So we’ll stand still too and while we wait for the longer days (tomorrow! Summer starts tomorrow! Almost…), we’ll do what they told Donald Trump not to do during the eclipse, and look at the sun.
Pretty much the oldest midwinter festival we know of is the Norse Yule. In snowy northern Europe, food-sharing at this time of year was a matter of survival – the rise of agriculture meant we could farm a surplus, so the smart thing to do was to use that to get through the winter and share the crops. Winter’s halfway point was the perfect time to pop a cork and celebrate that the days were about to get longer again.
But the festival also had a religious element too – it wasn’t a given that the sun would come back, so to lure it onward, wheels of fire were recreated here on Earth. By celebrating on the shortest day, the leaders were confident that the days should lengthen from there, so any worship would be mystically rewarded with more daylight before long. Some fires – like the Yule log – were burned constantly through the season, to show our defiance of the frosty weather.
Yule’s chilled-out southern European cousin was Saturnalia, for the god Saturn. Ciao! Saturn was said to have ruled over a golden era of peace, when bumper crops meant no need to farm, or even for laws to govern people, since everything was in such abundance. Christmas through the ages has always harked back to supposedly greater times, and ancient Rome was no exception. The festivities were an attempt to recreate Saturn’s glory days, all part of the Roman love of nostalgia. They were conservative people with a notion of mos maiorum – the passed-down “way of the elders”. Werther’s Originals for us, Saturnalia for them.
Though the climate was kinder than oop north, the Romans still had harvests, so there was still a festival. The English would later think of a crazy title for such an occasion: “Harvest Festival”.
Saturnalia started with a bit of temple time then a big ol’ feast and games – so not that dissimilar from a Christmas of church then turkey dinner and charades. There were evergreen decorations too – ancestors of our Christmas trees and mistletoe. Perhaps the biggest thing we’ve lost was the topsy-turvy nature of the partying – masters serving slaves, the lowest becoming the highest, that sort of thing. It all made it very popular with all classes, and kept the Roman machine ticking along – keep the slaves happy, keep the world turning.
By the time Christmas came to England in the 600s, another cousin of Yule had already set in. St Bede reported in around 700 that “the Angli began the year on 25 December when we celebrate the birth of the Lord; and that very night which we hold so sacred, they called in their tongue ‘Modranecht’. at is, ‘mother’s night’.” This mother was not Mary, but linked to earlier pagan worship, a maternal festival.
When Augustine brought Christianity to bits of Britain around the turn of the 7th century, Pope Gregory the Great wrote to him advising not to replace pagan custom, but absorb it. So rather than sacrifice animals to old gods, or sometimes even the devil, the locals were encouraged to perform the same actions for the Christian God.
Old England was in love with its trees (anyone who’s been to a National Trust property can testify we still are). Just like the Norse and the Romans, English farmers hoped for the swift return of the nice weather for their crops. So in the west of England on “Old Twelvy Night”, farmers would celebrate with a “wes hal” – Old English for “good health”.
At the turn of the first millennium, “Wassail!” was the equivalent utterance to “Cheers!”, to be responded to with a hearty “Drinkhail!” The wassailing tradition was a crucial part of the farming calendar, and not just because drink and song maketh a mighty fine party. It was more about hopes for harvest and harking back to nature worship. Much of the cider wouldn’t be consumed (although much would), instead being daubed on the oldest apple tree in the orchard, with cries of “Awake from your sleep, tree!”
As Christianity became THE Roman religion (thanks, Emperor Constantine – he saw the sign of Christ in the heavens before battle, believed, won, and converted the whole empire), Christmas rose and Saturnalia and the other pagan Roman religions went the way of the dodo (which was still very much alive at the time. Probably…). By the fourth century, Christmas had its date of December 25th papally confirmed. As it grew and spread through the centuries like a growing, spreading thing, it gained bits and pieces of Yule, Saturnalia and Merrie Old English wassailing.
So yes, Merry Christmas, and God bless us everyone, but also Wassail, Io Saturnalia, and Yuley McYuleface.
This is mostly adapted from Amazon bestseller Hark! The Biography of Christmas, apart from Yuley McYuleface. That was to see if you’re paying attention.
Today, December 20th, the last postal date before Christmas, 2nd class at least, according to Royal Mail. (It’s tomorrow for 1st class, and as for Amazon Prime – well I think they’ll turn up on Christmas Day if you want.) It means that TODAY is crunch time for ordering my Christmas book in time for December 25th, whether as a pressie for someone, or dinner table trivia.
But more importantly for this blog, it gives us a chance to dwell on all things postal in the history of Christmas. So that means cards, greetings and – hey – Merry Christmas everybody…
THE CHRISTMAS CARD!
Sir Henry Cole was a classic Victorian innovator and a very busy businessman. He wrote books on art, edited and published children’s books, as well as having jurisdiction over the Great Exhibition, the London Museum, and various public properties that would become the Royal Albert Hall, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Royal College of Music. Oh, and public toilets. So frantic was he, that Prince Albert once punned, “When you want steam, you must get Cole!”
Sir Henry was instrumental in introducing the Penny Post, possibly even designing the world’s first stamp, the Penny Black. For the first time there was a new possibility for communication: the affordable mass mail-out. Industrialization had encouraged families to live further apart. Trains had made it possible to deliver such letters all the speedier. Yet in a fast-moving world, one of those fast-movers found no time to write these greetings. Sir Henry’s overflowing postbox was a daily reminder of how bad he was at replying to his many friends and colleagues, who had used the postal service that he’d co-invented to wish him well at Christmas.
As a patron of the arts, Sir Henry asked a favourite member of the Royal Academy, John Calcott Horsley, to design a Christmas card for him, just for personal use. It would bear the greeting “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You”, with a main picture of a family getting very merry on red wine. They raise a toast to the person viewing the card, and even the young children are having a good swig of the wine. That’s right – the world’s rst Christmas card promoted underage drinking.
Sir Henry was so impressed by the product that he had 1,000 printed – and he didn’t have 1,000 friends. So he took his share then sold the rest alongside illustrated children’s books in the Old Bond Street shop – the very same week that Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, written just a few streets away from Cole’s shop.
THE FIRST PERSONALISED CHRISTMAS CARD:
…was sent by Annie Oakley. Yes, of Annie Get Your Gun fame. In Scotland in 1891 for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West tour, she was the world’s most famous female sharpshooter at the height of her fame, with deep pockets but unable to buy an airfare home (due to the lack of planes). There’s no business like showbusiness – and that meant spending Christmas in Glasgow, sending selfies back home. After all, anything Henry Cole’s Christmas cards could do, she could do better.
Possibly the earliest recorded use of the greeting was in 1565 as “Mery Christmas”, though the more satisfying fuller phrase, “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year”, first appears in a 1699 letter written by an English admiral. Another early use of it was in the song “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, sung door-to-door in the mummers’ tradition of performing for money (or figgy pudding). No one quite knows when that song came about, but it certainly helped add the Merry to Christmas.
‘Merrie Old England’ was certainly a well-known Christmas concept too – mostly merry thanks to the drinking.
Dickens popularised its usage in A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge eloquently takes against his nephew’s greeting of “Merry Christmas!”:
“What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”
“Come, then,” returned the nephew gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”
“If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “Every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”
With Henry Cole’s first Christmas card featuring the same greeting the same week, the Merriness of Christmas was secured. You might even have seen Clement Clarke Moore’s A Visit from St Nicholas conclude with St Nick wishing us: “A Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!” – but that’s a later version then, altered after Dickens and co pinned the phrase to our hearts with that stake of holly. Dr Moore’s original poem – written twenty years before A Christmas Carol – ended with “A Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!”
Whether you’re happy, merry or otherwise, get those Christmas cards in the post today then folks…
(…and while you’re at it, you know what to order)