THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR
We Americans have the British to thank for many of our Christmas customs.
In the 8th and 9th centuries, Britain was overrun by repeated Viking raids. The main Viking deity was Odin, followed by twelve lesser gods, corresponding to the months of the year. December’s god was Jul, and his month was Jultid, later Yuletide. In late December, it was believed that Odin would come to Earth disguised in a long, hooded, blue cloak carrying a staff and a bag filled with bread. He would join families around their fires and learn about their problems, occasionally leaving bread for the poor. Odin laid the foundation for a hooded figure who made secret visits and left gifts.
The Norman invasion in 1066 brought St. Nicholas, a saintly parish visitor who, mingling Viking and Christian traditions, acted as a sort of medieval social worker. An actor or neighboring cleric would be hired to dress in disguise and visit homes, reporting back to the parish about the conditions he found there so that help could be provided if needed. Holly, ivy and mistletoe also are associated with English rituals going back to medieval times, although kissing under the mistletoe is believed to have been part of an older, pagan tradition.
By the Commonwealth in the mid 17th century, St. Nicholas had become Father Christmas. His religious element had disappeared, but he remained a jovial, benevolent figure who represented the goodwill of the holiday season and brought happiness at a time of year when the weather was especially dismal. The Puritans promptly banned him, along with mincemeat pies and Christmas games. In the 1950s, with influence from the United States, he became Santa Claus.
Those cosy pictures of Christmas Eve hearth fires you may remember from Coca Cola ads (let’s hope the flames died down before Santa made his descent) reflect the British tradition of the Yule log, a large piece of wood burned in English fireplaces as part of holiday celebrations. The log is decorated with ribbons and ceremoniously dragged to the hearth where, once lit, it must be kept burning for the twelve days of Christmas to assure warmth, prosperity, and blessings throughout the year.
The first Christmas card was posted in England in the 1840s. The Christmas tree was introduced into the royal household by Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, and was popularized in the 1840s by Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. Christmas crackers were invented by a London baker, Thomas Smith, in 1846, after a visit to Paris introduced him to the bon-bon, a small candy wrapped in paper twisted at both ends. He duplicated the sweets in England, but found that they sold only at Christmas.
In the 1850s he added a motto, printed on a small strip of paper, to the package and, in about 1860, he added a banger, two strips of chemically impregnated paper that made a loud noise when pulled apart. Soon the bon-bons were called crackers. Other merchants copied his product, so he replaced the sweet with a surprise gift. Paper hats were added when his sons took over the business in the 1900s (The tradition of wearing crowns at parties may date back to Roman Saturnalia celebrations, which also occurred in late December, or may have originated from Twelfth Night celebrations, where a king or queen was chosen to preside over the activities.) By the end of the 1930s the written mottos were replaced by jokes or limericks.
Christmas crackers today consist of brightly colored paper tubes, twisted at both ends. When pulled at both ends, the cracker pops and its contents, the crown, joke and toy, fall out. It’s traditional for Christmas dinner guests in England to cross arms around the table, holding their cracker in the right hand and their neighbor’s cracker in the left, and pop them all at once.
Charles Dickens reflected an English Christmas dinner tradition when, writing A Christmas Carol in 1843, he had Scrooge send Bob Cratchitt a large turkey. The birds had been a holiday mainstay since the reign of Henry VIII. Roast beef or goose also are typical English Christmas entrees (Americans took to the roast beef because Christmas came on the heels of Thanksgiving, when turkeys were a native necessity). Sides include roasted vegetables, mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts, often with chestnuts. And for dessert, mince pies or Christmas puddings, served with hard sauce or brandy butter, are the order of the day.
Christmas pudding is another English tradition that dates from medieval times. It began as a plain porridge called frumenty, and later dried plums or prunes, eggs and pieces of meat were added. When cooked, it became plum pudding, and the name continued even after the plums were replaced by raisins, currants or sultanas. Traditionally made a month before Christmas on what the English call “stir-up Sunday,” the pudding is always stirred from east to west, in honor of the three wise men, and it is always made with thirteen ingredients, to represent Christ and his disciples. Every family member is expected to stir the pudding and make a secret wish. After it is flamed and presented under dramatically lowered lights, the pudding is cut and served. A silver coin, baked inside the pudding, brings good luck (and not a broken tooth) to the finder.
Americans follow many of these traditions, although regional differences are common. Virginia oysters, ham pie and fluffy biscuits belie that state’s 17th century English founders, while Scandinavian traditions in Minnesota call for lutefisk, fruit soup and mashed rutabaga or turnips.
A note to Santa:
Anything else, Andrew?