My festive podcast: St Nicholas & co

Tags

, ,

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 WhyChristmas.com
– 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.

 

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-ca7nc-7fcdba

Paul’s Christmas book is Hark! The Biography of Christmas: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hark-Biography-Christmas-Paul-Kerensa/dp/0745980171

Paul’s Yule blog is www.kneeldownstandup.wordpress.com

James’ Christmas site is www.whychristmas.com
Donate to the podcast here and fund our future: www.heptagonclub.co.uk
Music by Rob Halligan: www.robhalligan.co.uk
Rate us on iTunes + share us around – thanks, and Merrrrrrry Christmas!
Advertisements

10 Carols A-Carolling (+ Stories Behind Them)

Tags

, ,

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.

fra_angelico_dance_of_the_angels

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.

    silent-night-oberndorf-chapel-ap-xlarge

    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

Tags

, , ,

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:

 

MIDNIGHT MASS:
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.

 

BOY BISHOP & THE FEAST OF FOOLS:
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.

watteville18

John de Watteville: Mr Christingle

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.

article-2010392-0cd1078b00000578-550_634x985

Edward Benson: Mr Nine Lessons & Carols

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

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

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.

18622byule2blog2bwindsor2bcastle2bking2bhenry2bviii

Just hang it up there.

EVERGREENS:
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.

 

THE HOLLY & THE IVY:
…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”.

 

FRUIT:
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?

 

TINSEL:
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.

bunch1

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

THE CHRISTMAS BUNCH:

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!

 

WREATH:
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.

 

PAPER DECS:
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.

8cebaa9d5d5e1c2c4fdef981d21e44a2e7fed0cb

You missed a bit.

LIGHTS:
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

Tags

, ,

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.

hqdefault1

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.

christmas-sweaters

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

Tags

, ,

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.

2f95154d00000578-3371891-tom_smith_is_believed_to_have_invented_the_christmas_cracker-a-13_1450881594680

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.

crackers

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

Tags

, , ,

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.

p03cnf8s

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.”

article-2528304-1a43aae500000578-476_470x634

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.

alan2bpartridge2b2

“Ahohoho!”

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.

princess-leia-star-wars-special

“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.

Why are you putting THAT on your tree?

Tags

, , ,

Yesterday’s post on this Yule blog looked at the history of the Christmas tree. Today we’ll look at the things we put on it. Because my guess is that this weekend is the weekend that most of us will be doing it. I’m hoping to do ours, if I can stop blogging for a brief moment (but all this of course is in the hope of convincing you-yes-you to buy a copy of my Christmas history book – thanks, you!)

how-to-make-paper-chains

Paper chains. No longer used in prisons after too many break-outs.

PAPER:
The Germans were fond of decorating their trees, with apples, nuts, gingerbread, sweets, even sweetmeats (you’ve never hung meat on a tree? You haven’t lived). Coloured paper decorations joined too – although with candles a few inches away, the colour of this paper often went through yellow, orange, red, then into black dust very quickly. There were pricier accoutrements too, like glass beads on a string. Fancy.

TINSEL:
In Nuremberg in 1610, a new Christmas decoration was unveiled. 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 too were rather flammable next to the candles.

tree-candles_3

What can possibly go wrong?

LIGHTS:
We read yesterday how Martin Luther apparently started the Christmas light boom, by putting candles on his tree to represent the starry sky (and the original Bethlehem star). Those candles clung to the tree for years. After Edison marketed lightbulbs from 1879, his underling Edward Johnson used them in a string of lights to decorate the family Christmas tree – in 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.

THE ANGEL:
Or the fairy. Or the star. Well let’s start with the last one – that makes sense – Christianising the pagan old tree, as the Magi looked up to the star, so do we if we plonk it atop our trees. The angel started out as Jesus. Then that became a male angel, to flout the ban on Christmas iconography. The male angel changed gender when Victoria was on the throne – she liked dolls, her daughters liked dolls, so the shops thought, “Let’s make it a doll. A girl’s doll.” (This was before modern-day degendering of toys, o’course.)

For many of us it’s still a female angel on our trees – though others call her a fairy. That came about thanks to the good ol’-fashioned British pantomime. The Good Fairy was one of the later roles to join the Christmas panto, but very popular as a bridge between the audience and the players – so some enterprising shops marketed a fairy you could take home, and put on top of your tree (to fight it out with the angel).

nice-baubles-red-christmas-tree-bauble-4916-p

Thanks.

BAUBLES:
I love this story. As Christmas markets blossomed through Europe in the 1870s, one guest stall joined them entirely by accident. Some Bohemian glass-blowers were cooling down with a beverage or two after a hot day at the furnace, and challenged each other to a bubble-blowing contest – biggest bubble wins. Fun and games over, they returned to work – but amid the empty tankards were the left over glass bubbles. The blowers’ wives spotted them and sold them in markets as “spirit balls”, to be hung in doorways to ward off the “evil eye” (the perfectly rounded reflection meant that you could see evil coming in all directions).

They were too heavy for real tree branches, and stronger artificial trees were still a way off yet. Once new gas technology meant that smaller baubles could be blown with greater accuracy, they found a home with the paper chains and tinsel on the branches of the tree.

DOUGHNUTS:
I genuinely have one friend who has a doughnut on top of his tree. Haven’t managed to ask him why.

Buy the book. Put it on your tree. Or read it. Just buy it.

From Boniface to Charlie Brown… 14 notable Christmas trees

Tags

, , , ,

I’m guessing, that this weekend is when most of our Christmas trees will go up. True to their evergreen nature, they’ve been one of the most resilient of Christmas customs – dating back before there was a ‘Christ’ in ‘Christmas’, yet only reaching Britain less than 200 years ago.

Here’s a brief rundown of some Christmas trees through the ages…

  • NORSE TO SEE YOU TO SEE, NORSE… The Northern Europeans have been worshipping evergreens in midwinter for millennia. In a time when nature’s wintry decline actually worried people (that the sun wouldn’t come back and grow things again), the evergreen firs were a handy reminder that some greenery stuck around.
  • ROMAN AROUND… Romans brought some evergreens inside for their midwinter celebrations, to help decorate homes.
  • BONIFACE-PALM… St Boniface of Crediton was a missionary to the Germanic lands in the 8th century. Legend has it that he saw some pagan sacrificing types tie a damsel to an oak tree. Boniface stopped them by chopping down the oak, and miraculously a fir tree grew in its place, which Boniface then used as a visual aid for the three points of the Trinity (before Powerpoint presentations and Alpha courses). The noble fir tree had its place in history thereafter – though tales grow tall as well as trees.
  • I CAN’T THINK OF A PUN ABOUT AUSTRIANS… Austrians were known to bring trees into homes in the Middle Ages, and the first we know of to bring cherry and hawthorn trees inside. They’d daub them with fruit and nuts, a custom that stuck as the trees made the jump to Britain and America – many trees still have impossibly uncrackable walnuts in there somewhere today.
  • ADAM AND EVE… had a festival day on 24 December, so Germanic Christians linked the Garden of Eden’s Tree of Life with Christmas Eve, tying the tree to the festival firmer than you could tie it to a car roof. There were legends that at the moment of Christ’s “midwinter” birth, every tree in the world would spark back to life with shoots of green.
  • TALLINN, ESTONIA… claims the first use of the public Christmas tree in the town square. In 1441 a group of bachelor merchants called the Brotherhood of the Blackheads erected a tree in the centre of town, danced around it, then set it on fire, like a Yule log. Boys, eh? This trend spread (though the fire didn’t), with similar reports from Riga in 1510.
  • FRANCE… was known to have decorated trees in 1521: “They set up fir trees in the parlours of Strasbourg and hang thereon roses cut out of many-coloured paper, apples, wafers, gold foil and sweets.” The wafers symbolized the Eucharist; their descendants are the gingerbread men or biscuits hung on trees today.
  • MARTIN LUTHER… didn’t just spark the Reformation; a legend tells how he developed Christmas tree decoration. Admiring the forest and the night sky, he was enthralled by a starlit fir tree and recalled the star over Bethlehem. He tried to convey this scene to his family, but words failed him, so he felled the tree and brought it home, adding candles to recreate the starry night. This was thought to be the first traditional German Christmas tree: the Christbaum.
  • A ONE-OFF… In 1789 a Mrs Papendiek wrote about having “an illuminated tree according to the German tradition” – but this was an isolated occurrence, and Mrs Papendiek must have received odd looks.

  • AMERICA’S TREE… American locals were also confused by German tendencies to become seasonal lumberjacks. American Revolutionary troops at Fort Dearborn in 1804 were baffled to see their German soldier-for-hire colleagues dragging firs from the forest. Pennsylvanian Germans continued the custom over the next few decades, but it remained a Germanic habit – until reports of the fashionable royal Christmases in England.
  • PRINCE ALBERT… wasn’t the first British royal to put up a Christmas tree, but he was more popular than Queen Charlotte, who tried a British Christmas tree in 1800. When Albert tried again a generation later, we all followed. It helped that he had a habit of donating trees to good causes too. His trees in the palace included upside-down chandelier trees from the ceiling, and miniature table-top trees with presents around them. A picture of Victoria and Albert with their family around a tree made the Illustrated London News and sold the tree to the British public; when it was reprinted in America, it started the tradition there.
christmas_tree_albert2_747156

The pic that sold Britain the Christmas tree. A similar pic sold it to Americans – though Victoria had no crown and Albert had no moustache, in case they put off the American public.

  • THAT’S YOUR LOT… New York entrepreneur Mark Carr created a new tree-based trade in the 1850s, when he took two ox-sleds to the Catskills and felled a few firs. He returned to the city to sell them and started the first Christmas tree lot. The Germans had started it, the English had popularised it – now the Americans were mass- marketing it.
  • THE LOO BRUSH TREE… In the 1930s, the Addis Brush Company had a brainwave. William Addis had already invented the toothbrush – now his company took another sidestep, and marketed the artificial tree. Helpfully they were less flammable than the real ones, which still mostly had candles on.
  • ALUMINIUM OR ALUMINUM… Either way, they were popular for just under a decade, from the 1950s to 1965. They just looked too fake – and Charlie Brown’s Christmas special, in which he goes out of his way for a real tree – even a small sorry-looking sapling – won hearts across America, seeing off the aluminium trees for good.
womens-charlie-brown-christmas-tree-t-shirt-logo

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree…

Next time, we’ll look more at the things you put on the tree, from baubles to lights to sellotaped needles because they all fell off by mid-December (serves you right for buying cheap).

Also cheap is my book Hark! The Biography of Christmas.

Panto: 300 years old this year! (Oh yes it is…)

Tags

, , , , ,

My local panto opens tomorrow (“oh no it doesn’t…”). Guildford hosts Dick Whittington this year; before that it was Aladdin, Jack & The Beanstalk, Snow White, Cinderella, Aladdin, Jack & The Beanstalk, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Aladdin, Jack & The Beanstalk, Cinderella, Aladdin…

Pantoland has clearly found its favourites over the past three hundred years. Yup, I’ve seen no mention of it anywhere… but it’s exactly three centuries since the first ever modern pantomime.

Oh, and if you’re not in the U.K., all of this probably needs nothing to you. The British panto was born in London and acquired a peculiarly unique London flavour, thanks to, as ever, a few historical quirks.

On December 26th 1717,  this new theatrical form was born, as John Rich put on ‘Harlequin Executed’, a fusion of the old Mummers plays with Italian Harlequinade.

John Rich had inherited the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre from his father… but much as he tried, like recent cinematic true tale ‘The Disaster Artist’, Rich took on yet failed with tragic roles. So he reluctantly drifted into comedy, taking on the familiar role of Harlequin – a known clown role familiar across European theatre.

2006ah6269_john_rich

John Rich as Harlequin, with his ‘slapstick’

But London had an odd theatrical rule at the time: spoken drama was banned, for fear of dissent. So while the European Harlequin was a vocal role, John Rich’s version was mute. It made for a unique mime show, put on the day after Christmas.

He tried further similar plays, importing favourite characters from the continental commedia dell’arte: young lovers, old man Pantaloon, and a collection of servants like Scaramouche and Pierrot. The stories changed over the years, but the staples of modern British pantomimes were there – clowning servants, youthful love, and a grotesque character or two. Opera and ballet later joined, making an anarchic hotchpotch of all-round entertainment.

The “transformation scene” was a favourite – and still is. Harlequin would hit the scenery with his magic wand and it would change, with much backstage wizardry. The wand was actually the bat from traditional commedia dell’arte (known for causing a loud slapping sound without transferring much force – literally a “slap stick”). John Rich’s ingenious intertwining of stagecraft and story, though popular long before him in different forms, paved the way for the wondrous transformations in British pantos today, whether Cinderella’s magical ballgown or a quick set change from Jack’s beanstalk to giant’s lair.

panto-dames-comp2

Victorian panto dames. The stuff of nightmares.

The Italian elements were hugely popular with the London crowds of the early 18th century: The anarchy resembled the topsy-turvy Roman Saturnalian celebrations, so when cross-dressing dames joined years later, they were the perfect fit. Like the old Roman ‘Lord of Misrule’, the dame would direct the madness, in this case with singalongs from the stage.

These plays were lowbrow yet won over London, especially thanks to actors like David Garrick and the clown-to-end-all- clowns Joseph Grimaldi. By the 1800s, families made a habit of making this their Christmas outing – Harlequin’s chase scene being the children’s favourite.

220px-warnepantomine1890

An 1890 pantomime.

 

Vaudeville and music hall added their influence over time, and there came a need for fuller storylines. Just as in their Harlequinade roots, people preferred classic tales, so that the audience would follow the story easily, and focus on the fun and games added on top. Traditional fairy tales became a popular choice.

One of the most famous, Peter Pan, debuted at Christmas 1904, not as a pantomime but a serious play. The audience of adults were surprised when the curtain rose to discover a play for children, though children who did see it that winter were petrified by Captain Hook (fearsomely portrayed by Sir Gerald du Maurier, father of novelist Daphne). Many fainted and had to be carried out.

dumaurier

Gerald du Maurier as Captain Hook. Boo, hiss.

Oh and it’s thanks to panto that some of us put a fairy on our trees, rather than an angel. It was an angel for centuries – a male angel in fact, representing Jesus. It was called the ‘tin-gold angel’ to get past Puritan banning types, who wouldn’t allow an icon of Jesus anywhere, let alone atop a pagan shrub. The male angel became female (like those fish in The Blue Planet II recently – did you see it?) when Victoria was on the throne – she loved dolls, her kids loved dolls, so by making the angel a female doll, the commercial world sold a few more each year to be played with by girls across Britain.

With panto still as popular as ever, the Good Fairy had joined the show now, as a bridge between audience and performance, to assure the children all would be well, to help narrate the plot, and to give roles to her from that thing (oh that would bit would come later). She was a popular role – so popular that the angel on the tree sometimes was packaged and sold as a fairy. So it’s a fairy on top of your Christmas tree… that’s why.

Oh yes it is.

All this and more is in Hark! The Biography of Christmas. It’s now technically a bestseller (in a very niche sub-category on Amazon, but it all counts).

A Bluffer’s Guide to St Nicholas

Tags

, , ,

December 6th! St Nicholas’ Day! Traditionally the day of present-giving in many countries to this day, leaving Christmas for church or family or turkey dinners or what have you. But for many, THIS is the big one.

So as a present from my book Hark! The Biography of Christmas, here’s all you need to know about the St Nicholas, before the Santa Claus…

Nikolaos, to give his Greek name, was born in around 270 to wealthy Greek parents in the busy Mediterranean port town of Patara, living along the coast in Myra in Lycia. Yes, Nicholas began life, like Christmas stuffing, in Turkey.

One story tells that as a newborn, he stood up on the altar for several hours, raising hands heavenwards as if in prayer. Another legend holds that even as a baby, he abstained from breastfeeding for the traditional two fasting days each week (the original 5:2 plan). When he did feed, it was only ever from the right breast, so loyal to God’s right hand was the infant Nicholas.

st-nicholasjpg

Saint Nicholas: The Wonder-Worker. One of his best albums.

More historically reported is the early demise of his parents after an epidemic, so the boy moved in with his uncle the bishop, and trained under him as a priest. Nicholas became Bishop of Myra, and attended the Council of Nicaea: crucial in the establishment of the early Christian church. Emperor Constantine invited 1,800 bishops; only 300 bishops attended. One attendee was also a man called Arius who believed that Jesus was created by God, therefore subordinate to Him. Nicholas was so vehemently anti-Arian that it’s said he punched Arius in the face. One legend has it that his peers were so shocked they instantly called for his dismissal as bishop – till Jesus and Mary appeared as visions alongside him, and the bishops for some reason thought better of it and awkwardly consulted their minutes.

With no family that we know of, Nicholas had little use for money he’d inherited, instead opting to give much away to those in need. Word reached Nicholas of a local widower with three daughters, poor business sense, and very little money. Nicholas’ fortunate circumstances were down to his parents’ good investments, so he was inclined to help the man. The fellow needed a dowry to pay for each daughter to be married and their futures secured. Failing that, slavery or prostitution were the only options left.

Nicholas waited till dark and threw a bag of gold through a downstairs window of the house – for the eldest daughter. He repeated his trick for the other daughters, till he was caught by the father. Nicholas swore him to secrecy over his identity as the mystery benefactor, not wanting the world to latch onto his free payouts, but the father couldn’t restrain his gratitude and spread word of Nicholas’ generosity – and presumably his mean aim at basketball.

Nicholas died on December 6th, 343 AD. Tales quickly spread of his generosity. One story had him stopping at an inn to discover that the innkeeper had been slaughtering boys and pickling them in brine, to sell on as ham. Nicholas not only saved three boys but actually reassembled them after the innkeeper’s butchering… according to the legend.

The miraculous tales ensure Nicholas’ sainthood. One had him being rewarded in Jerusalem by the church doors of the Room of the Last Supper; they swung open to greet him as he approached, in possibly the world’s first recorded automatic door.

Nicholas’ tomb became a shrine, particularly to sailors, who took him as their patron saint. They took his tales across the Mediterranean, particularly to Italy, who craved his bones for their shrines. Then to the Netherlands, where nearly 2,000 years on, ‘Sinterklaas’ is still celebrated on December 6th in a big way, with his arrival by sea from, apparently, Spain. Other countries adore him too; in Russia there’s an expression: “If God dies, at least we’ll still have St Nicholas.”

In Northern Europe, St Nicholas’ legends merged with Norse worship of other bearded folk like Odin and Thor. Merging with Odin over time, Nicholas was pictured with full beard and bishop’s robe, flying through the sky on a horse as Odin did.

When the Dutch settlers reached New Amsterdam, which then became New York, they brought the stories with them. Writers like Washington Irving perpetuated their myths, still with generosity and a care for children at the heart of the stories. So children’s books  cottoned on, and printed pictures and stories like this:

 

1200px-the_children27s_friend-_number_iii-_a_new-year27s_present2c_to_the_little_ones_from_five_to_twelve-_part_iii_281821292c_page_1

…where he sat alongside pics of his delivered stockings, complete with birch sticks for whipping children who hadn’t learnt their prayers. Nice. Or naughty. And once Clement Clarke Moore wrote ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ for his children the day before Christmas Eve 1822 (too late to buy a present, I’m sure), St Nicholas’ future was set. Like jelly. Like a bowful of jelly.

All this and more is in Hark! The Biography of Christmas. You knew that.

Happy St Nicholas’ Day!

 

Hark! The Soundtrack

Apparently they’re all doing it now. Soundtracks to books. It’s slightly tricky, as you need to guess people’s reading speed. The odds of them getting through the right bit at the right pace to the right music makes it an odd fit. But since our most recent Yule blog post was on the tales behind the best Christmas music, let’s give this a go…

And the reasons?

  1. Jesus refulsit omnium – “Jesus illuminates all”: Quite simply, the first Christmas carol… that we still know of. Goes back to the fourth century – only very soon after Christmas began to be celebrated.
  2. Coventry Carol – one of the earliest English carols, from the medieval mystery plays.
  3. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen – A ‘wait’s’ song from the 1500s, like a Middle Ages version of a busker (nothing to do with Tom Waits, although he should do a cover version).
  4. The World is Turned Upside Down – A 1640s protest song, ranting against the Puritan ban on Christmas. Lyrics inc:
    “Listen to me and you shall hear, news hath not been this thousand year:
    Since Herod, Caesar, and many more, you never heard the like before.
    Holy-dayes are despis’d, new fashions are devis’d.
    Old Christmas is kickt out of Town.
    Yet let’s be content, and the times lament, you see the world turn’d upside down.”
  5. While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night – The only legal carol in England for the entire 18th century, as it’s pretty biblically accurate.
  6. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing – Charles Wesley’s 1739 classic.
  7. Stille Nacht – Christmas Eve 1818, an allegedly broken organ and a race against time spawned this, apparently the world’s most recorded Christmas song.
  8. ‘Twas the Night before Christmas – Here’s Perry Como’s version. As a poem it became America’s favourite (sorry, favorite) and almost single-handedly sparked the Santa industry.
  9. Away in a Manger – Part of the 1840s Christmas cultural revival of Victorian/Dickensian/Ye Olde London. Except this was written in Ireland. Doesn’t matter. Part of the refocusing of Christmas onto the kidlings anyway.
  10. The Lord at First Did Adam Make – The first song at the first Nine Lessons & Carols in 1880. Once in Royal David’s City would replace it as the traditional first carol, but not for forty years.
  11. Carol of the Bells – A 1914 Ukrainian carol but a huge hit in the United States, featuring in Home Alone, The Santa Clause and The West Wing.

    61pb9m1b3tl

    No one sings like Bing.

  12. White Christmas – The world’s bestselling song, never to be surpassed, I’d wager. Because who buys songs now we have Spotify?
  13. Merry Xmas Everybody – Britain’s first Christmas-themed Christmas number one.
  14. Do They Know It’s Christmas – Band Aid broke all sorts of records with this 1984 song, that all started with a news report from Michael Buerk, on Ethiopian poverty. Dickens’ charitable festive focus was still with us.
  15. Driving Home for Christmas – Chris Rea. Say no more.
  16. Fairytale of New York – Now I’m just putting good songs in.
  17. All I Want for Christmas is You – As Christmassy as pop culture gets – I’m sure every cultural Christmas custom after this isn’t necessary. Jesus’ 2000th birthday pretty much completed Christmas.
  18. Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want – Alright, one more. This soundtrack to a John Lewis ad still gets me when I hear it… (though I don’t know that it’s made me shop in John Lewis)…

…though you can shop here for my book Hark! The Biography of Christmas, rrp £7.99.