This festive fan/Xmas Xpert/Santologist couldn’t POSSIBLY let Christmas go unpodcasted (just invented that word – I apologise).
So in this guestless episode, Paul runs down the Top 5 Christmas carols AND the Top 5 festive pop songs.
He’s amalgamated several polls, surveys and charts (inc. Songs of Praise Favourite Carol, Classical Magazine’s poll of experts, Classic FM’s carol survey, global charts etc), weighted them accordingly, and presto! Some Christmas podding for you.
From The Pogues to Postman Pat, Mendelssohn to Michael Buerk, Bing Crosby to two versions of In the Bleak Midwinter, we’ll unpick the back-story of our best-loved Christmas crooners, carols and chart-toppers. All in under ten minutes.
It’s all based on Paul’s festive history book: Hark! The Biography of Christmas, available now in paperback, ebook and audiobook (get it free on an Audible free trial, then instantly cancel!).
And please do subscribe, rate, review, share – it all helps others find this.
If you’d like to send us a tip, ko-fi.com/paulkerensa chips in the price of a cuppa coffee, or patreon.com/paulkerensa has extra audio, video & writings, in exchange for your monthly support. Thanks if you do so! It REALLY helps keep the wheels turning and the pods casting.
The podcast returns in 2022 with more guests and who knows what else…
Ah, my Yule blog. I’ve not posted here in a while. (For more of it, search ‘Christmas’ in the search box of this blog) I’ve not needed to. Christmas has been absent. Even last Christmas, in 2020, it was quite absent, seemingly.
Of course Christmas is Christmas is Christmas, whatever do to celebrate. But it’s always been – literally – a movable feast.
I explored in my book Hark! The Biography of Christmas how Christmas through the ages has moved around a little. December 25th, yes (in the West), but then there’s Orthodox Christmas, which happens to be about – oh look – 12 days later. The Twelve Days of Christmas arguably comes from appeasing both sides of the family, East and West Churches. But the Christmas season moves a lot more still.
With the rise of the commercial Christmas (thank you Macy’s for kicking that off), a whole industry blew up around preparing for Christmas. For centuries we’d done that, certainly, from King John’s miles of table linen to customs for Martinmas or Stir-Up Sunday. We’d prepared, but we’d not had the chance to buy quite so much.
Macy’s wanted our money. So did the other big department stores. In the late nineteenth century, Harrod’s and Selfridge’s both put up Christmas window displays, so year after year they each put theirs up a little earlier, to try and get the jump on their rival.
…Christmas creep was born!
That starting-pistol being fired earlier and earlier means the Christmas season seems to creep back earlier each year, so you end up with Christmas displays in shops in autumn. Sainsbury’s stocked mince pies this August! (Well, they could be out of stock by Christmas.)
But till now, the Christmas ads – headlined by the John Lewis ad in recent years – have all hovered around the same date, in late November.
Not this year. For the first time, the John Lewis ad has debuted BEFORE BONFIRE NIGHT. (That’s November 5th, non-UK residents). Halloween out the way, the shops are ready for the next thing.
Here’s the 2021 ad, launched today, as I write this, Nov 4th 2021:
John Lewis say the reason they’ve gone early is because we’re planning earlier this year – perhaps due to supply issues, perhaps due to uncertainty over Covid ruining another Christmas for us. People are freezing their turkeys, they say, and buying pressies sooner than usual. Already we’re hearing that many toys or electrical items may not be available at all this year. I reckons some Christmas presents are still stuck on that cargo ship in the Suez Canal (is that still there?)
So there you have it. Christmas creep – still a thing, now applied to online Youtube ads for your department store of choice. Inevitably it won’t shift back – so next year expect the John Lewis ad by November 4th 2022, if not sooner.
Whatever you buy, or buy into, this Christmas – make it a good one, all of you. Traditions may change again, but we shift slowly with our customs. So 2020’s Christmas was a bit of a shocker, and a shock. We’ll try this year to gather a bit more than last year, but expect us to move online more than 2019’s Christmas certainly.
That includes shopping online – John Lewis is counting on it.
And hey, I suppose I can too then. If you’d like to read a book on the history of Christmas, why we do what we do each festive season, my book Hark! The Biography of Christmas is a fun festive sleigh-ride through thousands of years of Christmas customs. I enjoyed writing it. I hope you enjoy reading it.
I’ve recorded some special videos/prepared some special notes with my good friends at The Big Church Read – 5 short videos, so if you’re in a book group, a church group, or just fancy following it yourself, you can watch the videos, read the notes, but above all, read the book, available on that link too.
Merry reading, if you do – and merry shopping, which I know you’ll do. Whether that’ll be at John Lewis with its sweet alien and spaceship, that remains to be seen.
Do browse the rest of my Yule blog, by searching for ‘Christmas’ in the search box of this blog.
There has been a lot of talk of 2020’s Christmas being cancelled. How Christmas must be saved.
Of course Christmas will always go ahead as sure as Monday will be followed by Tuesday, or next Spring will appear again (not soon enough). Although with limited pantos, carol services or office parties, Christmas 2020 certainly looks unusual.
But nearly four centuries ago, Christmas was indeed cancelled. It stayed illegal for a decade and a half. As now, drastic new laws banned certain gatherings. Back then though, this came from very different motives.
The Puritans were in power, and they took against a few particular aspects of the church. They shunned Catholicism, including its Mass, so a festival named after ‘Christ’s Mass’ was bound to be in the firing line. They took against the adoration of Mary, so the Nativity story was downplayed. They detested saints, including St Nicholas, who wasn’t quite associated with Christmas yet, but delivered the odd present in early December. Humbug indeed.
Christmas had become a rather drunken affair anyway. It wasn’t the homely cosy season it would become. Besides, why commemorate the birth of Christ at all? The only birthdays in the Bible were those of Pharaoh and Herod, who both celebrated with executions. Not a ringing endorsement for a birthday do.
Scotland outlawed Christmas in 1640, and it wasn’t officially reintroduced there till 1958. They didn’t miss Christmas; they had Hogmanay. Similarly Thanksgiving snuck in in America, when Christmas failed to land there. The Pilgrim Fathers forgot to pack it onboard.
In 1643, the English Puritan government needed Scottish military aid, so in return they promised to reform the Church of England a little more.
So that Christmas, word spread that good Puritan shopkeepers should open as usual on December 25th, and that Puritan churches should remain closed. Everyday folk had to pick a side: to celebrate Christmas or not? Satirist John Taylor mourned its loss: “Thus are the merry lords of misrule suppressed by the mad lords of bad rule at Westminster.” The Lord of Misrule had been a festive favourite – a mock king of the season bringing the party atmosphere… till now.
A year later, Christmas Day 1644 fell on a Wednesday, a traditional fasting day. So that meant a different test: feast or fast? Eating a Christmas dinner oddly became a political protest. Non-conformist minister Hezekiah Woodward labelled Christmas Day: “The old Heathens’ Feasting Day… the Profane Man’s Ranting Day… the Superstitious Man’s Idol Day… the True Christian Man’s Fasting Day…” (None of these new names caught on.)
Christmas 1645 went one step further: it simply didn’t exist. Some celebrated, but it was no longer an official celebration. Parliament sat, though some MPs were seen yawning, kept up all night by rebellious carol-singers outside their windows.
1646 saw Christmas riots, on both sides. Pro-Christmas protestors confronted shopkeepers who dared open their shops on December 25th. The poor especially missed their festival, enjoying an annual break from the norm. Christmas also symbolised the noble ideals Cromwell and his cronies were trying to quash.
In 1647, a law was passed banning anything to do with Christmas. It was no longer enough to ignore it; it would no longer be tolerated. Daring defenders of the festive season covertly decorated public places, draping evergreens under the cover of darkness. The Lord Mayor of London rode around the city the next day, setting fire to any decorations he saw.
Attending church became risky business. Armed guards confronted those taking Christmas communion, aiming muskets at those taking the bread and wine, before arresting them.
For years after, riots broke out this time of year, especially in the east of England. In Ipswich, one protester known only as ‘Christmas’ was killed by a soldier. In Canterbury, Christmas supporters seized control of the city for weeks, in a last stand to protect the festival.
Old Father Christmas himself became the face of political propaganda: a symbol of nostalgic old England in this time of Christmaslessness. Pamphlets illustrated this bearded winter guest as happy, if not yet jolly (wait a couple of centuries for that), contrasted with miserable Puritans.
A much-loved dish was banned too: the Christmas pie. It was huge and crib-shaped (or coffin-shaped, representing two sides of Jesus’ life), so therefore idolatrous, especially when decorated with a pastry model of the infant Jesus. England’s food fans were an enterprising bunch though. They changed the pie’s shape and shrank it to something more bite-sized, more easily hidden in case caught out (stuff into mouth; mumble, “Who me?” while spraying crumbs at the officer in question). The name had to change too, so the new improved smaller pies were named after the mincemeat that was sometimes inside. The mince pie was born.
Christmas pie consumption on December 25th is still officially illegal in England. The government hasn’t bothered overturning it, because no one’s really eating Christmas pies any more. Plus they’ve got other brand new Christmas laws to uphold, from three households-a-meeting to the Rule of Six geese-a-laying to five gold tiers (Scotland only, and yes they’ve finally reinstated Christmas).
Oh, Christmas did return by the way, when the monarchy came back in 1660. All these unusual periods come to an end.
Christmas may have changed over the years, but unexpected events can provoke change and innovation – whether thanks to Puritans or pandemic. Without the 1640s’ ban on Christmas, we wouldn’t have mince pies to guzzle. Arguably too they helped shift Christmas away from being a drunken street party, instead ushering the festivity into the home, to become something more domesticated and family-based.
Whatever you’re doing this Christmas (or allowed to do), learn from our 17th-century ancestors…
Don’t have a riot.
Have a mince pie.
Adapted by Paul Kerensa from his book ‘Hark! The Biography of Christmas’ (£7.99), available in all open bookshops or from Paul direct on email@example.com
If you haven’t been paying attention… I love Christmas. Although weirdly, I’ve only just realised that this year. Ask me last year, and I’d’ve said, TBH, I’m more just interested in it… but this year, I’ve spilled over into fully loving the weird festivity.
The book Hark! The Biography of Christmas came out in 2017. New for 2019 is the Audible podcast, Christmas: What The Fa-La-La-La-La. If you’re with Audible already, click that link and have a listen! If you’re not with Audible, there’s a free trial here, and as soon as you’re in, you get access to all their podcasts, from me, Stephen Fry, Dermot O’Leary, everyone. You can cancel immediately if you like, though make sure you grab a free audiobook first. In a week or two’s time, you might even find the audiobook of Hark! The Biography of Christmas – it should be there shortly.
As for the podcast, here’s what led to it…
I do the Pause For Thought slot on Radio 2 Breakfast Show via a company called TBI Media. They’re fab. They sought ideas for entertaining documentary shows to pitch to Audible, who were looking for non-fiction podcasts. We pitched. They liked it. We did it.
It was a mighty quick turnaround. Kudos to producer Geoff Jein and big boss man Dave Young and bigger boss man Phil Critchlow, and Geoff’s Christmas elf Ollie Seymour, for pulling it all together (like a cracker).
What format then? I was keen on mixing entertaining light chat (that’s Christmassy) with deeper historical sections (that’s also Christmassy), so we settled on the final product – something that got the balance right between fluffy and info-dump. We didn’t want a show that was just two people talking. We wanted guests. We also wanted a bit of depth, so we needed…
Six Christmas themes, one each episode.
For host, we lucked out and got Grace Dent. A brilliant journalist and broadcaster but above all FUN! She’d introduce, I’d be co-host and we’d waffle away about Christmas present (you should have heard the first recording – our opening 2mins became 30mins very quickly), what we do, why we do it, etc.
For the themes, we wanted to build up to Christmas. So Episode 1 features the earliest Christmassy moments – the shops selling Christmas cards, preparations that are out and about, not in the home yet. It gave us a chance to mull on Christmas’ back-story – Yule, Roman Saturnalia, etc, as well as look at the big story of Christmas past.
Episode 2 would then dive into the Nativity, but also other Christmassy stage things – panto, carols and Christmas pop songs. In Episode 3, we’re starting our Christmas shopping and pondering Santa, Father Christmas and St Nick. In Episode 4, it’s time to put the tree up, and bring Christmas into the home – plus a chance to get Dickensian. Episode 5 is all about the food – perfect listening for the week before Christmas, when you’re basting your turkey and eating too many mince pies. Episode 6 then is Christmas Day itself – so that’s Christmas telly, games, the Queen’s Speech… and a bit on Boxing Day and the Twelve Days into New Year.
Sounding a bit info-heavy? Right then. Guests! The finest comedians: Milton Jones, Lucy Porter, Andy Zaltzman on the lapsed Jewish/cricketing Christmas, Aatif Nawaz on his Muslim Christmas (of basically, working, and never putting a tree up). A food expert on the food ep: The One Show’s Angelica Bell, who also won Celebrity Masterchef (judged by our host, Grace Dent). And BBC 6 Music’s Shaun Keaveny brought festive fun to episode 1.
It’s like Noel’s House Party meets BBC4. And look, for a brief moment today, it was beating Gladwell and Mitchell to top Audible’s charts…
To get it, in brief – and, to be honest, gain me a few quid referral fee even if you cancel and never pay anything:
1. Click the link. Arrive at Amazon’s Audible page.
2. Sign up to Audible’s free tiral. Yes, card details needed, but you can unsubscribe after your free trial easily enough, and keep your audiobooks/podcasts. It would auto-renew at £7.99/mth (for that you get a credit for any audiobook – even the epic ones), but you can cancel before that happens and spend ZILCH pounds if preferred.
Ah, it’s nearly Christmas. Ish. Well it’s not but the ads are out. So here’s a one-off return of the ‘Yule blog’…
Of all the starting-pistols of Christmas (Buble on in-store playlists, mince pies on shelves), the arrival of the John Lewis ad is probably the most recent. I mean, all of these are shop-based. Ever since Selfridge’s and Harrod’s raced each other to put the Christmas window displays up first, Christmas creep has been fully down to the department stores. We looked at the history behind some of this on this other previous Yule blog.
This year’s John Lewis ad once again has a delightful fictitious character in a snowy scene (despite the fact that it never snows at Christmas – you’re nearly more likely to get a White Easter). This time they’ve gone historical. It’s sweet, and it’s here…
As a self-professed historian of Christmas, a Santalogist, an Xmas Xpert, and a lover of traditions, this ad warms a few cockles. Firstly, the flames. Fire’s been part of winter festivals since long before Jesus – light of the world, heralded by a star amid darkness. Back in days of Norse Yule, wheels of fire would be rolled into the sea to show defiance of the sun’s apparent vanishing act. The Yule log would be burned (not eaten – it wasn’t a cake, thank you French people) and generally fire was blimin’ everywhere. So that flaming Christmas pudding? All down to that. And the very idea of fire amid frost, that this ad’s based on, goes right back to then.
The olde-wolde Dickensian(?) scene ticks another Christmas box (don’t get me started on Christmas boxes). Poverty and the noble celebration – that was what Christmas looked like through medieval days. The family part of it was more a Dickensian trope, and the gift-giving part – so crucial for a department store ad – has origins in St Nicholas, in nuns putting oranges in orphans’ socks, in the Magi bringing gifts, and in Roman New Year celebrations when gifts would be given up and down the social order (ie. for bosses, not for family). Christmas became a time for giving after the revival of St Nick/Sinterklaas/Santa in the early 19thcentury, thanks to American Santa savers like Washington Irving (who also gave us Gotham City and the word ‘knickers’).
The ice-skating part we can in part thank Prince Albert for – he helped popularise it by being so darn good at it. Snowmen of course back aeons, but the whole idea of the snowy Christmas is a bit Dickensian too – Charles Dickens’ first eight Christmases were white ones, so he wrote that into A Christmas Carol, despite releasing the book in one of the mildest Decembers on record. When his readers read of old snowy Christmases, it helped freeze this idea that an nostalgic Christmas is a white Christmas for all eternity. Like the ones we used to know…
But like Messrs Selfridge and Harrod, other shops have put their commercials out in the week before John Lewis. As soon as Halloween’s out of the way, it’s open season.
The Sainsbury’s ad has also gone Dickensian, and while it’s again nicely done, it slightly rankles with me as it tries to reinvent tradition. See it here…
Giving St Nick a new origin story? I can’t say I approve. I’d much rather a video that highlights the real St Nick, or at least his possibly-real legends. There’s so much to choose from! This guy lobbed pressies through an open window into fireside stockings, to help a widower and his three daughters! He restored cut-up children who’d been jarred and pickled by an evil innkeeper! St Nick as a baby even fasted from the boob two days a week, like a good priest-baby, and only took milk from the right breast, because he was so linked with God’s right hand. Slightly more believably, he punched a heretic at the Council of Nicaea, where they picked the date for Easter (that worked out well – when is it exactly?).
Lastly, seen the Robert Dyas ad? It’s bonkers. But funny. I think. Is it?
Either way I love how it just lets John Lewis and Sainsbury and M&S and Harrod’s do all the fancy-pants adverts with a budget and a snowy set, and instead just gets some store employees to badly deliver a right-on message. Because nothing says 2019 Christmas like trying to be politically correct. So I’d like to wish a very Happy Non-Sectarian Festive Ad Watch to all my readers, regardless of race, gender, sexuality and whatever shop you shop in.
Ho ho whoa! 9 guests?! In a tribute to the 9 Lessons & Carols, Paul our Host of Christmas Past flies his sleigh back through festive history. There are no live guests a-guesting – instead for our penultimate show, we drop in on influential Christmassy words from:
– Astronaut TOM STAFFORD on pranking NASA
– Private HENRY WILLIAMSON on sharing tobacco
– Writer CHARLES DICKENS on humbuggery
– Writer WASHINGTON IRVING on Christmas the English way
– Devonian clergyman RICHARD SMART on Christmas the man
– Puritan minister HEZEKIAH WOODWARD on Christmas the heresy
– King HENRY III on Christmas the dinner
– Saint HILARY of POITIERS on the first carol
– Charles M Schulz creation LINUS on the true meaning of Christmas
Phew! One more episode to go, for now. Join us in January. Merry Christmas!
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 – it’s Orthodox Christmas Eve today in fact, so it’s Russian Christmas any mo. 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 is the annual time to say goodbye to 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.
Went pretty well. Thanks!
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.
A Twelfth Cake. Some would have the Three Wise Men on top. This one favours the King and Queen, of Misrule, to be picked by pea-based lot.
The hardy Christmas enthusiast keeps celebrating till Candlemas, but February 2nd seems a bit far for most people. So assuming your tree’s now down or a-falling, may I be the last to wish you a very Merry Christmas. Till 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.
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 Christmasbut 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…
1995 – In the film Toy Story, on Christmas Eve ’95, Andy receives a puppy named Buster. His baby sister Molly receives a Mrs Potato Head.
1990 – John McLane foils a terrorist attack at Dulles International Airport, Washington DC… THE VERY SAME DAY that in Chicago, young Kevin McAllister stops two burglers from robbing his house via bunch of ingenuity and no care for the welfare of others (according to Die Hard 2 and Home Alone)
1988 – John McClane battles international terrorist Hans Gruber in the Nakatomi Tower. The same day that TV boss Frank Cross is visited by the Ghosts of Christmas. AND the same day that Evelyn Salt’s parents are killed in a car accident. (You may not have seen Salt. But hopefully you’ve seen Scrooged and Die Hard…)
1968 – Back in reality, the crew of the Apollo 8 become the first see the dark side of the moon (not the Pink Floyd album) – here’s the message they transmitted, which included readings from Genesis (not the band).
1945 – George Bailey of Bedford Falls decides that yes, life is worth living, because it’s a wonderful life.
1944 – The first US performance of The Nutcracker by the San Francisco Ballet, who’ve performed it every Christmas Eve since. Most ballet ticket sales each year are for The Nutcracker.
1941 – Churchill and Roosevelt light the White House Christmas tree for last time for 3 years, due to wartime energy restrictions.
1922 – In the BBC’s first year of transmission, the first original radio drama is broadcast on Christmas Eve: ‘The Truth About Father Christmas’, starring ‘Uncle’ Arthur Burrows.
1918 – King’s College Cambridge relaunch the Nine Lessons and Carols after the Great War. Ever since, they’ve ‘owned’ it, broadcasting it when technology allowed – even without the stained glass during the Second World War, and without the name ‘King’s’ attached so that the enemy couldn’t quite place where it was coming from.
1914 – One of the most famous Christmas Eve events, the Christmas Truce of the Great War sees French, English and German troops unite in No Man’s Land – largely thanks to the widespread recognition of Silent Night/Stille Nacht. Without the English troops recognising the Germans singing it, there might not have been that moment of peace, handshakes, tobacco trading… and football the next day. I’ve got plenty more on this event in my book, or on this post.
1906 – A great unsung hero of broadcasting, Reginald Fessenden gives the first transmission of any radio entertainment programme on Christmas Eve 1906. It’s a one-man impromptu carol service courtesy of this Canadian inventor and amateur violinist. He transmits a demonstration to ships’ radio operators (“sparks”) from Brank Rock, Massachusetts. Instead of the usual Morse code weather updates and time signals, receivers hear a brief burst of Fessenden reading Luke’s Nativity account, performing “O Holy Night” on violin, singing “Adore and Be Still”, and playing Handel’s Largo on vinyl. He signs off wishing his audience (not knowing if he had one) a Merry Christmas and asked that if anyone has heard him, to get in touch about the quality of broadcast. Sparks on ships from hundreds of miles away wrte to him of its success – and a little crackling is always expected at Christmas.
1880 – The first Nine Lessons & Carols takes place in Truro Cathedral, the idea of Bishop Benson – who also had the idea for classic Christmas ghost story, The Turn of the Screw. More on him and the service on this blog post here.
1865 – Ku Klux Klan forms. The less said about that the better, but insert your own joke about a White Christmas here.
1843 – Scrooge is visited by apparitions and sees the light. Dickens didn’t mention the year of the events, but many film adaptations but it as that very Christmas the Dickens released it. Oh and seven years earlier on Christmas Eve…
1836 – Jacob Marley dies. He’s as Scroogish as Scrooge, but he dies before seeing the error of his ways, so he’ll wander the spirit for seven years, then haunt Scrooge and play compere to three exciting ghosts. No idea why he waited seven years, but maybe he was waiting for Scrooge to get properly miserly, or waiting for Dickens to write him up.
1822 – “‘Twas the Night before Christmas, and all through the house…” …of Clement Clarke Moore, preparations were readying. We don’t know if he gave his children this poem on Christmas Eve on Christmas Day – but this poem was written just one day earlier by the Hebrew scholar.
1820 – Around this year, the writer Washington Irving experiences a Christmas Eve at Aston Hall in Birmingham, with the Watt family (whose name would adorn lightbulbs one day). Irving writes it up, exaggerates, spoofs and harks back to Christmas of old, in a travelogue tale ‘Christmas Eve’ as well as other festive writings. He talks of the old tradition of twelve days, of an uninspiring season of Christmaslessness, of the warmth of winter holiday celebrations, of the joy of carriage rides and fireside games, of the benefit of looking back to old customs… Irving explains mistletoe and its kissing custom to Americans, and tells of an English Christmas of church, carols, nostalgia and rosy-cheeked children. Dickens later reads this and is inspired to write of the Cratchit family Christmas in A Christmas Carol. So yes, the cosy rosy English Christmas was sold back to us by the Americans. More on Irving and Dickens here.
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.
1777 – James Cook discovers Christmas Island. During Christmas! What are the chances…?
1223 – St Francis of Assisi stages the first live Nativity scene, with a stone Jesus, his Franciscan monks as shepherds… and hopefully an audience if the rural Italian villagers turn up (they do).
1166 – King John is born. It means that when he reigns, he’ll celebrate Christmas AND his birthday in a blow-out of a feast, that will inspire and enthuses hungry monarchs to come.
100 AD – Midnight Mass starts being celebrated on Christmas Eve roundabout nowish. But in secret, in homes. (The smell of the incense probably gave it away though.)
1BC/ADish – Well, more than likely somewhere in the decade around then, Joseph and Mary arrive in Bethlehem, but find little room available due to the census dragging all of J’s extended family to the locality too. So they end up in the lower room, or the cave, or the cowshed…
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.
The current royal Christmas. Or a spoof.
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.
We are not amused at the lack of food.
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.