Christ is born! (And Christmas since, in a nutshell)


Happy Christmas!

Today’s the day. So we won’t go on here. You’ve got things to do.

But in case you’re wondering how we got here, to this Christmas, now, here are the last 2000 Christmases in the briefest of nutshells…

1. Christ is born! Fulfilment of OT prophecy, Mary possibly might have been expecting to be expecting… or not expecting, but wondering whether it would be someone in her generation who would carry the Messiah. It was foretold that it’d be her extended family, so it’s a possible thought… Jesus is born, in a miraculous virgin birth, in a barn, in Bethlehem. Angels rejoice, send shepherds to do likewise. Herod not so happy – he thought HE was King of the Jews.

2. A hundred years later, Jesus had been and gone and been back again and been gone again. The twelve disciples became several hundred, then they died. Then the early church, meeting in homes, slowly formed the church. At first, Christianity was a secret sect, or when public, was persecuted. So any celebration of the birth of Christ was carefully managed.

3. Two hundred years later, December 25th was picked as a day of celebration for Christmas. Some say it was because you could calculate Jesus’ death date or conception date or maybe then birthdate from the gospels… Possibly… More likely, there were other Roman festivals around that time of year, and even on that day there was a pagan festival: The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. Either way, Christmas became official. December 25th.
About the same time, a bloke called St Nicholas did some nice things… but at this point, had nothing to do with Christmas.

4. A thousand years later, St Francis of Assisi helped give Christmas back to the people again, with local language carols and a live Nativity scene.

5. Four hundred years later, Cromwell and his Puritans banned Christmas in England. When the Pilgrim Fathers left for America, they took their Bah Humbug ways too – so Christmas didn’t land in America for some time.

6. Two hundred years later, though Christmas was legal again, it wasn’t as much fun. No spark. It took a few creative writers to give it its zing again: people like Charles Dickens, Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore. Christmas gained charity, family and legends of St Nicholas.

7. A hundred years later, Christmas pop culture rose, largely to cheer us up during the wars. That meant the revival of the carol in the Nine Lessons & Carols service, Bing Crosby crooning away, and jolly films and TV shows.

But in amongst all this, Christians never stopped celebrating the birth of Christ. Whatever your Christmas looks like today, whether it’s Bing Crosby, St Nick or whoever else, wishing you a blessed and merry one!



It was Christmas Eve, babe: 23 epic Christmas Eve-nts from the Nativity to Nakatomi


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‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the past, we’ve been busy doing all sorts of key, important, vital, ridiculous, epoch-changing things on this day.

The below dates are partly harvested from my book Hark! The Biography of Christmas but also from my time-frittering website The Movie Timeline. (Oh and Wikipedia and Google and things, but we never need acknowledge them, right?) In reverse chronlogical order, here’s what happened – in reality and in movie-land – on December 24th…

1995 – In the film Toy Story, on Christmas Eve ’95, Andy receives a puppy named Buster. His baby sister Molly receives a Mrs Potato Head.
1990 – John McLane foils a terrorist attack at Dulles International Airport, Washington DC… THE VERY SAME DAY that in Chicago, young Kevin McAllister stops two burglers from robbing his house via bunch of ingenuity and no care for the welfare of others (according to Die Hard 2 and Home Alone)

Yippee-ay-Merry Christmas

1988 – John McClane battles international terrorist Hans Gruber in the Nakatomi Tower. The same day that TV boss Frank Cross is visited by the Ghosts of Christmas. AND the same day that Evelyn Salt’s parents are killed in a car accident. (You may not have seen Salt. But hopefully you’ve seen Scrooged and Die Hard…)
1968 – Back in reality, the crew of the Apollo 8 become the first see the dark side of the moon (not the Pink Floyd album) – here’s the message they transmitted, which included readings from Genesis (not the band).
1945 – George Bailey of Bedford Falls decides that yes, life is worth living, because it’s a wonderful life.
1944 – The first US performance of The Nutcracker by the San Francisco Ballet, who’ve performed it every Christmas Eve since. Most ballet ticket sales each year are for The Nutcracker.

1941 – Churchill and Roosevelt light the White House Christmas tree for last time for 3 years, due to wartime energy restrictions.

1922 – In the BBC’s first year of transmission, the first original radio drama is broadcast on Christmas Eve: ‘The Truth About Father Christmas’, starring ‘Uncle’ Arthur Burrows.
1918 – King’s College Cambridge relaunch the Nine Lessons and Carols after the Great War. Ever since, they’ve ‘owned’ it, broadcasting it when technology allowed – even without the stained glass during the Second World War, and without the name ‘King’s’ attached so that the enemy couldn’t quite place where it was coming from.
1914 – One of the most famous Christmas Eve events, the Christmas Truce of the Great War sees French, English and German troops unite in No Man’s Land – largely thanks to the widespread recognition of Silent Night/Stille Nacht. Without the English troops recognising the Germans singing it, there might not have been that moment of peace, handshakes, tobacco trading… and football the next day. I’ve got plenty more on this event in my book, or on this post.
1906 – A great unsung hero of broadcasting, Reginald Fessenden gives the first transmission of any radio entertainment programme on Christmas Eve 1906. It’s a one-man impromptu carol service courtesy of this Canadian inventor and amateur violinist. He transmits a demonstration to ships’ radio operators (“sparks”) from Brank Rock, Massachusetts. Instead of the usual Morse code weather updates and time signals, receivers hear a brief burst of Fessenden reading Luke’s Nativity account, performing “O Holy Night” on violin, singing “Adore and Be Still”, and playing Handel’s Largo on vinyl. He signs off wishing his audience (not knowing if he had one) a Merry Christmas and asked that if anyone has heard him, to get in touch about the quality of broadcast. Sparks on ships from hundreds of miles away wrte to him of its success – and a little crackling is always expected at Christmas.
1880 – The first Nine Lessons & Carols takes place in Truro Cathedral, the idea of Bishop Benson – who also had the idea for classic Christmas ghost story, The Turn of the Screw. More on him and the service on this blog post here.
1865 – Ku Klux Klan forms. The less said about that the better, but insert your own joke about a White Christmas here.
1843 – Scrooge is visited by apparitions and sees the light. Dickens didn’t mention the year of the events, but many film adaptations but it as that very Christmas the Dickens released it. Oh and seven years earlier on Christmas Eve…
1836 – Jacob Marley dies. He’s as Scroogish as Scrooge, but he dies before seeing the error of his ways, so he’ll wander the spirit for seven years, then haunt Scrooge and play compere to three exciting ghosts. No idea why he waited seven years, but maybe he was waiting for Scrooge to get properly miserly, or waiting for Dickens to write him up.
1822 – “‘Twas the Night before Christmas, and all through the house…” …of Clement Clarke Moore, preparations were readying. We don’t know if he gave his children this poem on Christmas Eve on Christmas Day – but this poem was written just one day earlier by the Hebrew scholar.
1820 – Around this year, the writer Washington Irving experiences a Christmas Eve at Aston Hall in Birmingham, with the Watt family (whose name would adorn lightbulbs one day). Irving writes it up, exaggerates, spoofs and harks back to Christmas of old, in a travelogue tale ‘Christmas Eve’ as well as other festive writings. He talks of the old tradition of twelve days, of an uninspiring season of Christmaslessness, of the warmth of winter holiday celebrations, of the joy of carriage rides and fireside games, of the benefit of looking back to old customs… Irving explains mistletoe and its kissing custom to Americans, and tells of an English Christmas of church, carols, nostalgia and rosy-cheeked children. Dickens later reads this and is inspired to write of the Cratchit family Christmas in A Christmas Carol. So yes, the cosy rosy English Christmas was sold back to us by the Americans. More on Irving and Dickens here.

1818 – Another classic Christmas Eve moment: when church mice (apparently) ate through the church organ of an Austrian village church, causing the priest and the organist to write a new song against the clock, to debut at Midnight Mass that night. The man who came to fix the organ then saw the song written down, and took it with him around other churches as he travelled. Your organ breaks? You get it fixed, you learn Silent Night, that’s the deal. More on it and other carol origins here.

1777 – James Cook discovers Christmas Island. During Christmas! What are the chances…?
1223 – St Francis of Assisi stages the first live Nativity scene, with a stone Jesus, his Franciscan monks as shepherds… and hopefully an audience if the rural Italian villagers turn up (they do).
1166 – King John is born. It means that when he reigns, he’ll celebrate Christmas AND his birthday in a blow-out of a feast, that will inspire and enthuses hungry monarchs to come.
100 AD – Midnight Mass starts being celebrated on Christmas Eve roundabout nowish. But in secret, in homes. (The smell of the incense probably gave it away though.)
1BC/ADish – Well, more than likely somewhere in the decade around then, Joseph and Mary arrive in Bethlehem, but find little room available due to the census dragging all of J’s extended family to the locality too. So they end up in the lower room, or the cave, or the cowshed…
…and the rest is history. The rest is his story…


Royal Feasts: William I’s edible plates, Henry II’s farting jester & Elizabeth II’s Christmas stilton


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Our Yule blog is nearly finished! Well I’m not blogging about Christmas beyond January. That would be weird. (Although I did start this in August, so…)

As you tuck in to your Christmas dinner, waiting for the Queen’s Speech, you might ponder how the royals are eating. So here’s a taste of that, from Christmas past to present day.


The current royal Christmas. Or a spoof.

So let’s start with who I was always told was England’s first king, even though he patently wasn’t (but my Kings & Queens pencil case had to start somewhere)…



Willy the Conqueror was one of several monarchs who opted for Christmas Day as their coronation day – a double celebration. Unfortunately it caused so much raucous cheering that guards outside Westminster Abbey thought the king was being attacked. they rushed to break up the rabble, killing many in the crowd and setting a few houses on fire.

His subsequent Christmases were formal, relatively calm occasions, with elaborate tableware and endless courses. Lower-ranking guests ate boiled meat on a plate made of stale bread. Having a plate you could eat certainly saved on washing up.



The only non-UK one we’ll mention, in 1100 Baldwin was crowned as first king of Jerusalem. The coronation took place on Christmas Day in Bethlehem, at the Church of the Nativity, winning the prize for the Christmassiest coronation ever.



In 1125, William’s son Henry I had a special Christmas gift for some traitors who had debased his currency: vengeance. All the country’s mint-men were invited to Winchester; by Twelfth Night, all had been deprived of their right hands and their, er… – well, they may have literally made money, but they le with no family jewels.



1171: The grandest feast of Henry’s reign. In Dublin, Henry shocked his hosts with the sheer size and scale consumed by his travelling court. Birds served included swan, peacock, and most controversially crane. The Irish noblemen refused to eat it; Henry insisted. After-dinner entertainment featured dwarf-tossing and Henry’s legendary jester Roland le Pettour (Roland “the Farter”), lured out of retirement for his famous “leap, whistle, and fart” routine.



John’s 1213 banquet upped the game, by serving everything from peacock to, well, game. His order included:

24 hogsheads of ordinary wine (each hogshead holds between sixty and ninety gallons. They aren’t actual hogs’ heads…)
420 pigs’ heads (oh, these are actual hogs’ heads…) 16,000 hens

Partridges and pheasants – as many as can be found
50lb pepper
2lb saffron
100lb almonds
15,000 herrings
10,000 salted eels
500lb of wax for candles
Plus cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger spices, fresh from the Crusades

…which were starting to appear in newly-spiced mince pies. Yum.



In 1236, the king of France gave King Henry a live elephant. 1251’s feast was Henry III’s biggest: this Christmas coincided with his daughter’s wedding, at the age of eleven. Her husband, the king of Scotland, had just turned ten – clearly he was drawn to the older lady (it’s encouraging to hear that they waited to consummate the marriage, although only till they were both fourteen).

The Christmas/wedding banquet included 70 pigs, 1,000 cod, 500 conga eels, 10,000 haddock, 1,992 hens (how specific), 1,600 partridges, 120 peacocks, 290 pheasants, 300 rabbits, 125 swans… and that was just for starters. Well it may not have been just for starters, but there was plenty more ordered too.

One guest, Benedictine monk Matthew of Paris, noted at the time: “The worldly and wanton vanity of the scene, if it were to be described in full, would produce wonder and weariness in those who heard it.”



He encouraged dressing up at Christmas, requesting that his lords and ladies wear fancy silk finery for an Arthurian-themed dinner at a specially constructed round table.



Sixty years later, Edward III was so taken with King Arthur’s legend that he created a brand new chivalrous order at Christmas – “the Order of the Garter”. His love of entertainment gave us one of our most persistent Christmas entertainments, still celebrated in some British pubs today: the mummers’ play.



Henry’s Christmases were typically grand with great pageantry. In his early reign, one Christmas dinner featured “an abundance of viands as hath beene few times seene”, including venison, peacock, swan, porpoise, seagull, and heron – the more exotic the better! It’s alleged that the Duke of Northumberland ate five swans that Christmas.



She added the goose to the Christmas dinner table. It was previously a Michaelmas dish, but when news of the Armada defeat reached her on Michaelmas Day while she was tucking into her goose, to celebrate she declared goose a celebration bird for all occasions – including Christmas. Not a great celebration for the goose, of course.



Insisted on a play for Christmas. Bad news for the actors who thought they had the day off.



Brought back Christmas, after Cromwell’s ban. Thanks Charley! He was also the first Briton to taste a pineapple, and the first to put ice cream on a ceremonial menu. He was served on bended knee, with a servant whose only job was to dab Charles’ mouth between forkfuls.

Table décor was sparse, but the food displays made up for it, from a two-foot high castle-shaped salt cellar to wine- owing fountains. 1671’s dinner boasted 145 dishes in the first course alone.



George I was German, and so enjoyed the plum pudding at his first English Christmas in 1714, that his new nation nicknamed him “The Plum Pudding King”. The dish was very popular; that year saw one of its first appearances, in Mary Kettilby’s recipe book A Collection of above Three Hundred Receipts in Cookery, Physick and Surgery, where it sat alongside the first recipe for orange marmalade.



I won’t go on about her. I have enough elsewhere, like here or here. Suffice to say she could eat a seven-course dinner in half an hour, and when she finished her food, all plates were cleared away – even of those who hadn’t been served yet.


We are not amused at the lack of food.


Had a very nervous Christmas dinner in 1932, and didn’t eat a thing – he was about to give the first royal Christmas message.



To the present day… At a typical British royal Christmas, the extended family gather at Sandringham House, arriving in order of inferiority: junior royals first on 23 December, the heir to the throne joining later the next day. e youngest royals decorate the tree under supervision from the monarch, followed by German-style Christmas Eve present-opening and a formal supper.

Christmas morning sees the customary royal walk to church, possibly harking back to the Holy Days and Fasting Days Act of 1551, which states that every citizen must attend church on Christmas Day, without using any kind of vehicle. The Act was repealed in 1969, though perhaps no one ever told the Queen.

One of her favourite platters is a whole Stilton cheese, pitchforked on top with port poured on to seep through. They say it’s rather nice on a cracker, though surely you’ll dampen the bang and get a soggy crown. Then again, they’ve got enough crowns lying around.

All this is from the Amazon bestseller, Hark! The Biography of Christmas.


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…