Christmas dinner in a nutshell


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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.

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”.

Turkeys To Market

Turkeys being walked from Norfolk to London, to their ultimate dinner-plate fate. They were even given little leather boots to protect their feet. True. 

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.

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.


An old style crib-shaped mince pie, banned by Cromwell.

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.



Solstice, Yule, Saturnalia and today


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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.


Yule’s wheel of fire: meant to look like the sun, but doesn’t fool me.


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.



Io Saturnalia = Happy Saturnalia = Merry Christmas, but in Roman


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.




Apple tree wassailing in Devon

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.

Christmas cards: Annie Oakley, boiled pudding & kids drinking wine…

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…




Cheers, drunk child!

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.




Annie get your 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)



A Christmas Quiz to take to your Christmas dinner table

At the back of m’new book, just after the EPIC TIMELINE OF ALL CHRISTMAS (might do a blog of that another time)… I’ve put a Christmas quiz. Answers are all in the book, or, alright, since you may not have it/might want to know ’em in a quicker fashion than scouring every page, they’re also at the bottom.

Take this to your Christmas dinner table by all means. G’luck!


1. Which climatic conditions inspired the writing of “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”, “The Christmas Song”, and “Sleigh Ride”?
a) A Baltimore blizzard b) A Hollywood heatwave c) A Manhattan monsoon

2. A letter-writing private at the 1914 Christmas Truce went on to write which animal-based book?
a) Fantastic Mr Fox b) Tarka the Otter c) Jeffrey the Weasel

3. What was the only new carol permitted by the Church of England in the 1700s?
a) “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” b) “Joy to the World” c) “Happy Christmas Cromwell”

4. According to Catholicism, who was conceived in “the immaculate conception”?
a) Jesus b) The shepherd girl c) Mary

5. Who are the only biblical characters to celebrate their own birthdays?
a) Noah and Judas b) Pharaoh and Herod c) Wise men #1 and #3

6. What featured on the first Christmas card in 1843?
a) A child drinking booze b) Prince Albert giving two thumbs up c) A crib scene with four wise men

7. Jester Roland Le Pettour was lured out of retirement by Henry II for what Christmas Day routine?

a) A leap, a whistle, and a fart b) Juggling hedgehogs c) “I hope my tunic doesn’t catch fire…”

8. What did Chicago locals look at, bemused, in December 1804?
a) Norwegian farmers’ briefly flying reindeer b) German soldiers felling fir trees c) Russian chefs’ impromptu ballet-dancing

9. Which of these was Christmas NOT called in England in the 1640s?
a) Boxing Eve b) The Profane Man’s Ranting Day c) The Multitudes’ Idle Day

10. Which of these was the original spelling of a reindeer’s name from Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit from St Nicholas”? a) Dunder b) Flitzen c) Thrasher


Write your answer, check it twice…

11. Candlemas is otherwise known as what?
a) The Day of the Triffids b) Groundhog Day c) The Day the Earth Stood Still

12. The composer of “Little Donkey” also wrote which other animal-based song?
a) “Ox and Ass and Gerbil” b) “One More Sheep till Christmas” c) “I’ve Got a Little Whippet”

13. In what Christmassy-sounding place was St Nicholas born?
a) Bethlehemville b) Turkey c) Caracas

14. What Christmassy substance was said to emanate from St Nicholas’ bones?
a) Gold b) Frankincense c) Myrrh

15. Which one of these song facts is NOT true?
a) “Jingle Bells” was the first song in space, as part of a Santa/alien prank
b) “White Christmas” was the warning alarm for US troops to leave Saigon
c) “Silent Night” was the first song to top the charts in Klingon

16. Washington Irving is responsible for popularizing Santa Claus in North America – and what else?
a) Robinson Crusoe and the word “pants”
b) Rip Van Winkle and the word “knickers”
c) Rupert the Bear and the word “stockings”

17. Which of these was NOT the name of one of King Herod’s wives?
a) Herodia b) Cleopatra c) Doris

18. What’s the customary Japanese Christmas dinner?
a) Burger King b) KFC c) McDonald’s

19. The poinsettia plant is named after whom or where?
a) A school in Poinse, New Jersey
b) Dr Joel Poinsett, first US Minister to Mexico
c) Edgar Allen Poe, in Seattle

20. What’s the traditional response to “Wassail!”?
a) “Who’s there?” b) “Wassail who?” c) “Drinkhail!”


ANSWERS in the Amazon bestseller Hark! The Biography of Christmas or here:

1 b). 2 b). 3 a). 4 c). 5 b). 6 a). 7 a). 8 b). 9 a). 10 a). 11 b). 12 c). 13 b). 14 c). 15 c). 16 b). 17 a). 18 b). 19 b). 20 c).

My festive podcast: St Nicholas & co


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Here’s my 2nd of 2 festive podcasts – this one on St Nicholas and the folks who made him, well, someone rather special. With 2 live guests + 5 festive historical wonders…

– Xmas Xpert JAMES COOPER from
– My 3yr old DAUGHTER playing Father Christmas
plus tales of these festives ledges:
– ST NICK and his 5:2 plan
– WASHINGTON IRVING, the man behind Gotham City, knickers and the modern Christmas
– CLEMENT CLARKE MOORE, poet and champion of what to do when you’ve left it too late for a present
– BISHOP BENSON, inventor of Nine Lessons & Carols and a classic Christmas ghost story

– ROLAND HUSSEY MACY: Mr Macy’s. Well Mr Macy.

Paul’s Christmas book is Hark! The Biography of Christmas:

Paul’s Yule blog is

James’ Christmas site is
Donate to the podcast here and fund our future:
Music by Rob Halligan:
Rate us on iTunes + share us around – thanks, and Merrrrrrry Christmas!

10 Carols A-Carolling (+ Stories Behind Them)


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Yesterday our Yule blog looked at the histories behind some carol services, from Christingle to Nine Lessons & Carols. Today then, lets zoom in on a few carols. (For more on this and everything else Christmassy, don’t forget to add Hark! The Biography of Christmas to your Christmas list.)

First up, a brief history of the carol. They’re thought to have began in France, not
as songs but as dances, and not necessarily to do with Christmas (otherwise why would we call them “Christmas carols”?). They weren’t necessarily sacred – in fact they were rather bawdy. Any religious music of the day was generally written by monks – the only ones who could read music.

Carols that started as brash circular dances were dragged into church and used for festivals and processions – circles becoming lines. And while the French danced and the church processed, the Anglo- Saxons wassailed: small choirs touring the parish, not to spread the church’s message, but because they weren’t welcome in church until they stopped singing their silly songs. Pure festive escapism.


A circular carol dance. Or the hokey-cokey – it’s difficult to tell.

To show how frowned-upon the carol was by the church, hear from the twelfth century’s William of Malmesbury. He told an advisory horror story: “Othbert, a sinner” refused to stop dancing his outrageous carols, so was cursed to keep dancing for a full year, till he danced into a deep pit. So, obey the church’s instruction, or that could be you, the eternal dancer of carols…

  • IN DULCI JUBILO – From 1328, one of the earliest carols still played in some form (if only by Mike Oldfield on The Best Christmas Songs Ever album), it’s also noted for being macaronic. Nothing to do with the Macarena (apart from that the Macarena is also macaronic) – it means mixing two languages, in this case alternating German and Latin. Its writer Heinrich Suso was the most popular vernacular writer of the day.
  • COVENTRY CAROL – Medieval Christianity saw reverence grow towards Mary. This shifted attention from Easter towards Christmas, and helped carols transform from uncouth dances to gentler sacred songs, even lullabies. They had a perfect home alongside, or in, the new non-Latin mystery plays – ever since St Francis of Assisi started staging Nativity plays, and writing carols in non-Latin. So the stage is set for this 16th century classic: “The Coventry Carol”, taken from the Coventry mystery play, The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors. It was a retelling of Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents, and features this brutally sad song – a mother’s lullaby to her doomed son. It still haunts today, when sung alongside its later, more joyful carolling counterparts:

    This poor youngling
    For whom we do sing
    By, by, lully lullay
    Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child By, by, lully lullay.

  • GOD REST YE MERRY, GENTLEMEN: “Waits” were buskers of their day; street musicians licensed to collect money in the Christmas build-up. One favourite, dating back to at least the 1500s, was “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”. So this was originally a song sung on street corners, to get a bit of money from those merry gentlemen.

  • WHILE SHEPHERDS WATCHED: When the Puritans banned Christmas in the 1600s, the carol became little more than poetry for individual contemplation – still read, rarely sung. When the monarchy and Christmas returned, Christmas celebration was cautious. So this carol reigned supreme for a century as the only Christmas hymn authorised by the Church of England. After all, it was biblically accurate. “I Saw Three Ships”, dating back to at least the 1600s, didn’t stand up to a literal interpretation: how can anyone see three ships sailing into Bethlehem? It’s twenty miles inland.
  • JOY TO THE WORLD: This 1719 rewrite of a psalm sounds Christmassy now, but it was written about Christ’s return at the end of days, not the Bethlehem birth. The first eight notes are actually a simple scale backwards. We all could have written that.
  • HARK! HOW ALL THE WELKIN RINGS: Er, don’t you mean “Hark! e Herald Angels Sing”? Well yes, Methodist leader Charles Wesley wrote the original on hearing chiming Christmas church bells. It was first sung to the same tune as the hymn “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”; today’s familiar tune was written a century later by Queen Victoria’s favourite notesmith, Felix Mendelssohn. He wrote this music for the four-hundredth anniversary of the printing press, and expressly requested that the “soldier-like and buxom” tune should never be used for religious purposes. Then he died, and, well… whoops.
  • CHRISTIANS AWAKE!: A Christmas gift poem by John Byrom for his daughter. Byrom also created a modern shorthand writing system – though that would be an even weirder present.


    The ‘Silent Night’ chapel in Obendorf, Austria.

  • SILENT NIGHT: Legend has it that church mice ate through the organ of the village church in Oberndorf, Austria – so Father Joseph Mohr had to run to his organist pal, and they spent Christmas Eve 1818 putting music to Mohr’s poem, for a performance that night, just the two of them and a guitar. Joseph Mohr’s godfather was Salzburg’s final official executioner, fact fans.
  • ONCE IN ROYAL DAVID’S CITY: Another poem to begin with, written specifically for children by Cecil Frances Alexander. The same 1848 book of poems also included ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ and ‘There is a Green Hill Far Away’.
  • O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM: Written after an inspirational trip to the Holy Land in the 1860s. Notice that the 18th century was all Hallelujahs and Herald Angels – Jesus as divine – while the 19th century was more child- and crib-focused – Jesus as human.
  • MISTLETOE & WINE: It’s not a carol. Don’t be silly.

More in the book, if you fancy.

Christingle, Midnight Mass or Lessons & Carols? The History of Christmas Services


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Going to a carol service this weekend? Millions are, this weekend or next. For many it’s the only time they go through the doors apart from weddings or funerals or because they mistake it for a Wetherspoons. But then, which Christmas service do you go to?

Depending on the church in question, it’s often variations on a theme: the Children’s Carol Service, Carols by Candlelight, Traditional Carols, Contemporary Carols… But whichever non-silent night you opt for, there are some hidden histories behind each of them. Here are a few:


The first liturgy of Christmastide. It’s Christmas Eve, it flows over midnight, there’s a warm shaking of hands, and a lot of warm scarves and coats hopefully too. It’s a lovely occasion, and really, properly feels like Christmas. You need a good dose of incense smell in there too… And it’s pretty much the only time that non-Catholic denominations will call a church service a ‘Mass’.

Then again, it is in the name of Christmas of course. ‘Christ’s Mass’ was one of the earliest formal church services we know about, with some private celebrations happening a a century of so after the Nativity. But it was secret and solemn – before there were even churches to worship in. We know it was celebrated more formally by the late fourth century in Jerusalem, though it’s thought the tradition began further east… so this was on January 5th, the Eastern Christmas Eve, before the Western date of December 25th had fully landed. It took till the twelfth century to become widespread.


Sadly the Reformation took this celebration from us – though it sounded fun. It was the church’s spin on the topsy-turvy celebrations that Roman Saturnalia had started. Just as the Lord of Misrule would lead the chaotic festivities outside of the church, the Boy Bishop was the church’s attempt to join in the fun.

The popular Lord of Misrule reigned from Halloween to Candlemas (31 October to 2 February), while the church’s child equivalent ruled between the church’s two key dates for children: from St Nicholas Day on 6 December to Holy Innocents Day (more catchily named “Childermas”) on 28 December, the day commemorating Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents. Once elected, the Boy Bishop would replace the real bishop, sitting in his seat and dressed in full mitre and robes. He would perform all church ceremonies except Mass – even delivering sermons, while the regular clergy took on junior tasks.

The related “Feast of Fools” was similarly anarchic – generally on New Year’s Day, lower clergy and peasants dressed up as animals, women, or their superiors. Clearly its heathen origins had little place in the church, post-Reformation. The Council of Basle abolished the customs in the fifteenth century, and Henry VIII banned them in England by 1541.


John de Watteville: Mr Christingle


Rev John de Watteville came up with a new visual aid on 20 December 1747, at a children’s service in Marienborn, Germany. To help explain Jesus, he lit candles for each child and tied them with red ribbon – to signify the Light of the World and the blood shed for humanity. He concluded with a prayer: “Lord Jesus, kindle a flame in these children’s hearts, that theirs like thine become.”

In 1968, John Pensom of the Children’s Society revived and updated the service. To raise funds, children would donate money and receive an orange in return. Now the orange represents the world, the ribbon wrapped around it in love, while four cocktail sticks – with fruit, nuts, marshmallows, and Jelly Tots – represent the four seasons and fruits of the earth.

The name “Christingle” means “Christ fire” – not to be confused with “Kris Kringle”, which is either an old name for Santa Claus, the name of Richard Attenborough’s character in Miracle on 34th Street, or another name for “Secret Santa” in some parts of the world.


Edward Benson: Mr Nine Lessons & Carols


Edward Benson was a schoolmaster at Rugby school, arriving soon after it popularized the sport of tiddlywinks. Sorry, rugby. Just checking you’re paying attention. Benson became Bishop of Truro in Cornwall in 1877, and went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury, and to influence Christmas literature by telling his friend Henry James a simple ghost story, developed into festive favourite The Turn of the Screw. In that way that Victorian society people appeared to, Benson left creative successes all over the place: one of his sons went on to write the Mapp and Lucia novels, another wrote the lyrics to “Land of Hope and Glory”. But in terms of Christmas, Bishop Benson had a major impact all on his own.

On Christmas Eve 1880, he put on a new service at Truro Cathedral, ostensibly to lure the drunks from the pubs. Forget that image of sacred solemn singing from innocent choirboys at King’s College, Cambridge… The first Nine Lessons & Carols must have sounded bawdy, after a night in the pub.

At the time, it was feared that folk carols were on the way out, so Benson was also responsible for renewing an interest in the carol and helping preserve its future. He modelled his service on the medieval feast days, when a church would present nine lessons; his choices spanned Old and New Testaments, a bluffer’s guide from original sin to Jesus’ birth. Readings were given by successive church staff from chorister upwards to Benson himself for the closing lesson. Songs include “The First Nowell”, “Good Christian Men Rejoice”, and “O Come, All Ye Faithful” – it would take King’s College, Cambridge’s revival of the service after The Great War to put “Once in Royal David’s City” in its now traditional place at the front of the service.

The book Hark! The Biography of Christmas is available on this link.

Deck the Halls! Why we put up what we put up


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At the time of writing, it’s December 16th. That means most of us have put up decs – though some busy folk/lazy folk/me last year will be decking their halls this year. In this latest adaptation from my Christmas history book, we’ll look at why we put up what we put up.


Just hang it up there.

The oldest Christmas decorations are still there today. The Northern European Yule-makers put evergreens on the festive map – since they were just soooo good at not dying. And in a landscape that was snowy and lacking much sun, not dying was impressive.

As well as the fir tree, other plants like holly, ivy and mistletoe became popular adornments – their rebellion against the season giving the impression of special powers of fertility.

The Romans were a classy lot, so they brought their evergreens inside the home and decorated accordingly – a sprig here, a shrub there. Free decorations! Nature provided.


…of all the trees that in are in the wood, you had to put up that one… (to paraphrase the song and Casablanca at the same time). The holly represented the male (something to do with the berries) and the ivy the female. Whichever plant you hung on your doorway theoretically governed which gender might rule the house that year, so be quick to put up yours. Holly’s sharp edges gave it extra evil-repelling signicance too (even evil hates being pricked by shrubbery, which may be why so many supervillains wear gloves).

The church has fallen in and out of love with this evergreenery over the years. The plants were banned for some time, so they became simple decorations purely for the home. At other times Christianity has claimed holly back again, the thorns representing Christ’s crown of thorns and the red berries his blood. To this day, the Danish word for holly is “kristtjørn” – “Christ thorn”.


We might not put much fruit up now (although the odd orange or even apple might make some people’s Christmas wreaths), but our ancestors used to – and it’s the coloured fruit that we’re representing with tinsel and coloured Christmas lights.

Germany in particular put apples and nuts on their tree, plus gingerbreads, sweets, even sweetmeats… because who doesn’t love meat on a tree?


In Nuremberg in 1610, a new Christmas decoration was unveiled: tinsel. Shredded strips of beaten “fool’s gold” silver were draped around wealthy homes, though it was very expensive and far heavier than our modern equivalents. Other materials appeared over the years between the silver and our present-day PVC, though unfortunately they were a bit flammable next to Christmas candles.


A Cornish Christmas Bunch. Except it’s lacking a pasty.


From Scandinavian Yule to Roman Saturnalia then Christian Christmas, we’ve always liked hanging evergreens inside our front doors. In England, Cornish households had a ‘Cornish bush’ or Christmas bunch’, or ‘kissing bough’: all different names for a globe of greenery. It’s like the familiar mistletoe sprig, except two intersecting hoops support a ball of fruit, nuts, evergreens, ribbons and even a candle (watch that ribbon). The bunch used to include models of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, underneath which the local priest greeted house-holders with a holy kiss. Post-Reformation, holy dolls were seen to be a little idol-worshippy, so the models vanished, but the mistletoe kiss stuck. Get off!


Meanwhile on the outside of the door, there’s yet MORE greenery, like the Advent wreath. Popular in Germany and based on ancient Roman decoration, it became cropped up all over Europe: an evergreen circle of life with four candles (no, not handles for forks) to be lit each Sunday in Advent, then possibly a fifth on Christmas Day. The wreath we keep on our doors has lost the candles – the flames never lasted long in December weather anyway.


Again from Germany, coloured paper decorations were popular, and imported to England by Prince Albert in the Victorian age. German families were also fond of glass beads on a string, bearing a resemblance to today’s wired Christmas lights – and at least if one blew, you didn’t have to change the lot.


You missed a bit.

Thomas Edison marketed lightbulbs from 1879, and three years later his employee Edward Johnson used them in a string of lights to decorate the family Christmas tree – in good ol’ American red, white, and blue. They were their own advertisement, illuminating his window for his neighbours to see. What will those crazy Edison employees think of next?

Well, flashing lights. Johnson’s neighbours were blown away. Not literally – in fact these lights slowly helped stop the all-too-frequent fires courtesy of the pretty yet unfortunate combination of flammable trees, candles, and ornate paper.

Elsewhere and apparently unknowing of this, telephonist Ralph Morris was inspired by the lights flickering on his switchboard as people dialled in. What a perfect addition to the Christmas decorations, he thought – and safer than candles. His son had recently suffered burns, and a decade earlier a Chicago hospital had burned to the ground due to decorative candles on a flammable tree. In 1908, insurance companies tried to ban Christmas candles for this very reason.

Meanwhile in Britain… why do we call them ‘fairy lights’, and no one else seems to? Well in a third instance, and away from Christmas, the Savoy Theatre became the world’s first building to be lit entirely by electricity in 1881, thanks to Sir Joseph Swan and his incandescent lightbulbs. For the Savoy’s Gilbert and Sullivan opera Iolanth, Swan went a step further, and kitted out the fairy characters with miniature lights. Very impressive, and very catchy – so ‘fairy lights’ caught on, in Britain at least.

All of this is from my new book – except the fairy lights bit. I found that bit out just after the book was published. Grrrr. Yes. I know. Something for the second edition…

It’s Christmas Jumper Day but don’t sweat it


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New traditions are still joining the Christmas party. From Santa Fun Runs to Google Earth tracking a sleigh for us, we’re quite happy – as a society – to introduce new customs, even if we’re seemingly fed up with these fads as individuals. Step forward: the Christmas jumper. Well it is Christmas Jumper Day…

…Lest we get too irritated at the very concept, let’s remember it’s all in aid of Save The Children. There’s a history of children’s charities spawning Christmas customs. The Christingle service in church (though starting out in 18th century Germany) was revived by The Children’s Society in 1968 (they added the orange & jelly tots).

For the past few years, the Christmas jumper has been on the rise. It will fall again, I’ve no doubt – this Christmas one pub has made the papers by banning anyone who wears them. The link to the hipster trend is likely to be the jumper’s downfall – but enough about its future, this Yule blog is all about Christmas past – so let’s look at the monstrosity’s origins.

Cold winter, blah blah, Norse Yule, blah blah, general warmth, blah blah. Yes they all play their part, but really I think we can pin the blame on those seasonal TV specials of yore. Bing Crosby’s last TV appearance may have given us Little Drummer Boy (with David Bowie), but it also gave us a charming winter cardie. Nothing too exotic or wacky, I’ll grant you, but it was the latest in a bunch of TV appearances by old-time crooners showing off their woollen ware.


Crosby in cardie (a change from his formalwear), Bowie in suit (a change from his informalwear)

Similar seasonal specials from the likes of Perry Como, Andy Williams and Val Doonican found such sweaters – often garish – were a handy way of showing lounge-suited entertainers at rest. Away from their sharp suits, it was like their cosy downtime had a convenient film crew on hand to pick up every impromptu quip and ditty.

But as they aged, so did the fashion – so like your dad trying too hard to dress down from his work suit, the Christmas sweater became an embarrassment. Gyles Brandreth wore them – and then that was it. They were the uncoolest thing on the planet, worse even than the word ‘uncoolest’.

Colin Firth sported one in the Bridget Jones film – in fact on the day of release of my festive history book on which all this is based, I met him in a radio studio, and gave him the first ever copy of the book, telling him he was in the book. For The King’s Speech, that is. Colin reckoned he must be in it for the Christmas jumper, and kicking off that craze. So we’ll give him a nod here, shall we, instead.


And lo, the shepherds brought a sheep to the baby Jesus, and sheared it and knitted its wool into… well you had to be there.

Kitsch comes full circle anyway, so the Christmas jumper is back. Even Jeremy Corbyn’s been seen wearing one. Which surely means, they’ll be unfashionable again by this time next year.

If you like these posts, share one on your social media and help us out. All these Yule blog posts are based on my book Hark! The Biography of Christmas – if you haven’t got a copy, get one. Thanks.

Pull! The History of the Cracker


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Our whistlestop tour of Christmas past comes to that odd bangy paper thing that Brits will be buying the bucketload this week: the cracker. America doesn’t do the cracker. They think we’re mad. That’s okay, we think… (don’t mention Trump, don’t mention Trump).

London in the 1840s saw Christmas culture boom. December 1843 alone gave us Christmas cards, A Christmas Carol and O Come All Ye Faithful. Albert was introducing Victoria to a tree, and paper craft, and gingerbread. Victoria in turn was looking at the ancient male angel on top of the tree (formerly Jesus), and deciding she’d prefer a female angel doll to play with. London Panto meanwhile was introducing a Good Fairy character, who also had her sights on that treetop role (more on that on this tree-based post on this Yule blog).

Millions were descending on the capital for work, so Christmas now included a return home, back across country, via newfangled trains. City-dwellers took new urban festive customs back to the villages; London lit each fuse, while the country stood back to see if it went bang.


Tom Smith, cracker inventor

For the cracker, we thank London confectioner Tom Smith. On holiday in Paris in the 1840s, Smith admired the packaging of some sugared almond bonbons, delicately wrapped in wax paper, twisted at each end. Wrapping food – how very French. Smith’s English upper-class clientele were always on the look-out for culinary fashion, so he combined these French fancies with mottos from Chinese fortune cookies, selling them at his shop on Clerkenwell’s Goswell Road.

Smith’s bonbons were a hit among party hosts. They were so popular each December, Smith spent the other eleven months concocting new twists on the old formula. His customers couldn’t wait to see this year’s innovation, from trinkets to new patterns. By rebranding them as party essentials, Smith made multiple sales per customer.

In need of another redesign, Smith was sitting by the fire one night, when he heard the fiery crackle of a log burning. Eureka! Next Christmas, he added what he called ‘bangs of expectation’. By the 1870s they were called ‘cosaques’, named for the cracking sound like the whips of Cossack horsemen. A decade later, they became ‘crackers’.

As for the mottos, what began as love verses became New Year predictions, then jokes in the twentieth century. As long ago as ancient Rome, little messages were given at midwinter festivals – so this, like many Christmas innovations, was just a twist on an old theme.


By the time Smith’s sons took over, thirteen million crackers left the factory each year. Walter Smith thought to add paper hats, like the mock crowns worn at Twelfth Night parties. These January shindigs were on the decline, but the hat stayed on in the crackers. With no room for the bonbons, the Smith factory – originally a confectioner’s – removed the confectionery.

How that bit of toilet roll cardboard got in there, who can say…

This is all from Hark! The Biography of Christmas. Treat yourself, grab a copy. It’s a cracker.

The Christmas Radio Times, the British Broadcasting Christmas & The Star Wars Holiday Special


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Christmas isn’t Christmas without… presents, according to the opening line of Little Women. But according to little me, the answer was the bumper Christmas edition of the Radio Times. So now this year’s has hit our shelves (shows I’ve worked on in there? Miranda Hart hosting the Royal Variety Performance, ITV, Tue 19th December… and Not Going Out, BBC1, Christmas Eve. As you were…), our seasonal historical tour now stops at the TV schedules.


The first Radio Times Christmas cover: The family turning away from the Yule log, which was on its way out, and to the box in the corner, which was on its way in.

The first Christmas Radio Times was published on 21 December 1923, three months into the magazine’s run, and had its first colour cover. It included an article by Lord Riddell entitled “Modern Witchcraft”, and a defence by BBC boss John Reith in defence of broadcasting, suggesting benefits such as the chance  for all to “delight in ‘Hunt-the-Slipper’ or ‘Hunt-the-Thimble’ to musical accompaniment – and no one out of the fun at the piano! …The loud-speaker is such a convenient entertainer. He is so ready to oblige when wanted, so unassuming when other sport is forward. He doesn’t feel hurt if a cracker is pulled in the middle of a song, or offended if the fun grows riotous during his performance.”

Reith declared this “the first wireless Christmas” – after all, cities were being added gradually, so now Cardiff, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Bournemouth, and Sheffield joined the party. The BBC’s New Year broadcast that year was the first time that Big Ben’s chimes were heard outside of London.

The year before though was actually the first wireless Christmas. On Christmas Eve 1922, the BBC broadcast the first original British radio drama: ‘The Truth About Father Christmas’, starring ‘Uncle Arthur’ Burrows, who became Britain’s first newsreader that year. The 1922 Christmas schedule also featured the first religious broadcast in Reverend John Mayo’s Christmas message (probably preaching to more people than anyone else in history at the time):

“I have come from my church in Whitechapel situated amidst all the noise and the turmoil and the dust and the slums – all that Whitechapel connotes; and it is my privilege through the wizardry of Mr Marconi to speak, as I understand, to many thousands of people. Surely, no man has ever proclaimed the Gospel from such an extraordinary pulpit as I am now doing.”

On New Year’s Eve, a live bagpiper concluded with “Auld Lang Syne”, and at that exact moment the British Broadcasting Company became the British Broadcasting Corporation. At the time it had 30,000 listeners but just four employees. The Illustrated London News reported that “the invention of broadcasting has immensely extended the power of music to diffuse the spirit of Christmas. The range of carol-singers’ voices, hitherto restricted to the limits of a building, a short distance in the open air, has been increased by hundreds of miles.”


1924’s Christmas Radio Times

Other early festive radio highlights included a play, ‘Bethlehem’, live from a Cornish field – the first British drama broadcast outside of a BBC studio. And of course Britain’s first royal Christmas message; John Reith spent a decade convincing George V to give one, and His Maj only relented after a free radio set to try out the new media outlet, a visit to the BBC studios, plus strong encouragement from Queen Mary and the Prime Minister. On his first nervous broadcast, he went to sit on his favourite chair in a makeshift studio at Santadringham House (as he foolishly didn’t rename it), and fell straight through the seat.

Fifty years later, TV reached peak viewing figures. Since Netflix, tablets and Snapchat, the viewing figures of the 1970s to 1990s have become unsurpassable. In Britain, the “highest evs” (just trying to speak yoof) were shows like comedian Mike Yarwood’s 1977 special (the highest viewing figures for any Christmas Day show at 21.4 million) and Morecambe & Wise (a still very respectable 21.3 million). For Britain’s largest single TV audience of all time, see Only Fools and Horses’ 1996 Christmas special – 24.35 million people watched Del Boy and Rodney finally become millionaires.

Elsewhere on the schedules, a modern-day British Christmas wouldn’t be complete without Raymond Briggs’ heart-warming The Snowman, a Top of the Pops recap of the year, and a timely reminder from EastEnders that our family Christmas isn’t as bad as it can get. Their 1986 special was the most-watched TV show of all time (over two viewings – so Only Fools trumps it for the at-the-time audience).

Then there’s the seasonal variety special, from stars like Bing Crosby and Val Doonican, Christmas jumper-clad, crooning, with special guests aplenty. The format was never better sent up than in Knowing Me, Knowing Yule with Alan Partridge, broadcast live from a replica of Alan’s Norwich house.



For the format at its worst, see 1978’s Star Wars Holiday Special. Never-repeated lowlights include: Dynasty’s Diahann Carroll performing an erotic fantasy song for Chewbacca’s dad Itchy, and Princess Leia’s musical finale adding Wookiee “Life Day” lyrics to the Star Wars theme. This, not The Empire Strikes Back, was technically the first Star Wars sequel, though George Lucas said of this hopeless Jedi menace, “if I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it.” Bad luck, George – even if you attacked all the clones, the Internet has awakened.


“This aren’t the songs you’re looking for…”

So when you’re enjoying the new Star Wars film in cinemas this Christmas, remember that forty years ago we had to make do with wonky Wookiees…

Hark! The Biography of Christmas – now an Amazon bestseller – is available now. The perfect accompaniment to the Christmas Radio Times on any coffee table.