Origins of English Christmas traditions

Written on 12/04/2023
Mark Milligan

Christmas embodies a tapestry of ritual traditions and customs shared by many countries and cultures. Some hearken back to ancient times, while others represent more recent innovations.

Many English customs, such as the Ashen Faggot, Smoking Bishops, and the Shoe the Mare have faded into history, yet several traditions (some shared) persist and endure into the present day.

The Christmas Cracker

Christmas crackers are festive table decorations that are traditionally pulled during Christmas dinner and parties to reveal a gift, a joke, and a paper hat. Christmas crackers are found on tables across the United Kingdom, Ireland, and countries such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.

The tradition of Christmas crackers is a Victorian invention pioneered by Tom Smith, a confectioner and baker from London. Smith drew inspiration from the French ‘bon bon’ that he sold in his Clerkenwell shop. At the time, the majority of 'bon bons' were still sold at Christmas and he began to think up ways to capitalise on this short but very profitable season.

To enhance the experience, Smith incorporated a "crackling" feature in the packaging, inspired by the sound of a burning log. His innovation involved employing two slender strips of paper, layered together with silver fulminate on one side and an abrasive surface on the other. When these strips were pulled, friction ensued, resulting in a small explosion.

Smith patented his first cracker in 1847 and sold the product for a wide range of celebrations. Initially labelled as the Cosaque, the product was renamed the "cracker" due to its sound. Inside the cracker he included a surprise gift and expanded his range of designs due to rising competition.

By the turn of the century, crackers celebrated current trends and events - from greyhounds to Jazz, Frothblowers to Tutankhamen, Persian Art to The Riviera. Paper hats made of tissue and decorative paper were introduced, as well as corny jokes and elaborate surprise gifts to further enhance the experience.


Father Christmas

Father Christmas (not to be confused with Santa Claus) was a Yule-tide visitor that many sources have associated with the coming of spring, the Saxon “Father Time”, or even the Norse God Odin.

Father Christmas was first recorded in England during the 15th century, where he would travel from door to do, encouraging merrymaking, drinking and singing. “Sir Christëmas” – A contemporary carol attributed to Rector Richard Smart describes how “Sir Christëmas” announced the news of the birth of Christ, encouraging listeners to drink in celebration.

By the 16th century, Father Christmas appeared in a more distinct form wearing green or scarlet robes during an old English midwinter festival. He typified the spirit of celebrating Christmas - embracing joy, revelry, good food and wine.

With the rise of puritanism in England, the Puritans considered Father Christmas a figure of popery and made efforts to abolish Christmas and outlaw the traditional customs. Following the Restoration in 1660, most Christmas celebrations were revived, but interest in Father Christmas’s profile had declined.

Father Christmas saw a revival again during the Victorian period, appearing in various text, such as Thomas Hervey’s, The Book of Christmas (1836), which depicts "Old Christmas" dressed in a fur gown crowned with a holly wreath and riding a yule goat.

The most notable appearance is arguably “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens in 1843, where the “’Ghost of Christmas Present”, albeit not definitively named Father Christmas, is portrayed wearing a furred gown and holly wreath, whilst sitting among food, drink and a wassail bowl (hot mulled cider).

The Christmas Tree

The Christmas tree finds its roots in Central Europe and the Baltic States, when Renaissance-era guilds decorated trees with sweets during the 15th century.

In the 16th century, Lutheran Christians started a tradition of adorning their homes with evergreen trees, embellishing them with coloured paper, apples, wafers, tinsel, and sweetmeat.

Evergreens have long been associated with pagan and winter celebrations, however, the earliest documented representation of a "traditional" Christmas tree can be traced back to a 16th-century keystone sculpture adorning a residence in Turckheim, Alsace.

Christmas trees eventually made their way to Western Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries in the ranks of nobility and royal courts. The German-born Queen Charlotte of Great Britain introduced a Christmas tree at a party she gave for children in 1800, which became a royal tradition for the young (Queen) Victoria growing up.

After Victoria's marriage to her German cousin Prince Albert, by 1841 the custom became even more widespread as wealthier middle-class families followed the fashion. In 1906, a charitable initiative was launched by the Poor Children's Yuletide Association to provide Christmas trees to the poorest districts of London to partake in the holiday joy.

The aftermath of World War I saw a brief decline in Christmas trees caused by anti-German sentiments, however, this decline was only temporary, as by the mid-1920s Christmas trees had transcended social classes and became widespread across all segments of British society.

Mince Pies

The original mince pies went by various names throughout the centuries, including: mutton pie, shrid pie, and Christmas pie.

The ingredients of the original mince pies can be linked to the homecoming of European crusaders from the Holy Land during the 13th century. The crusaders introduced Middle Eastern recipes featuring meats, fruits, and spices. These recipes carried Christian symbolism, representing the gifts presented to Jesus by the Biblical Magi.

During Christmastide, mince pies were conventionally formed in an oblong shape resembling a manger and were often adorned with an image of the Christ Child.

During the English Civil War, mince pies were associated with supposed Catholic “idolatry” and were subsequently banned by the Puritan authorities: "Nay, the poor rosemary and bays, and Christmas pie, is made an abomination."

Typically, the ingredients in mince pies is a mixture of minced meat (meat types vary by location), suet, a range of fruits, and spices such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Today, mince pies are filled with “mincemeat”, a blend of spiced fruits and spices.

Christmas Pudding

Christmas pudding, also known as plum pudding, is a dried-fruit pudding traditionally served with Christmas dinner on the 25th December.

Christmas puddings were boiled in a "pudding cloth," but nowadays, they are commonly steamed in a bowl. When served on the table, they adorned with a sprig of holly and are ceremoniously drenched in brandy and set ablaze to represent the passion of Christ.

Several sources suggests that Christmas pudding is linked with a medieval custom, where "pudding should be made on the 25th Sunday after Trinity, that it be prepared with 13 ingredients to represent Christ and the 12 apostles, and that every family member stir it in turn from east to west to honour the Magi and their journey in that direction."

One of the earliest recipes was written by Mary Kettilby in her 1714 book titled "A Collection of above Three Hundred Receipts in Cookery, Physick, and Surgery."

It was common practice to hide small silver coins such as a silver threepence or a sixpence in the pudding mixture. It was believed that discovering the coin in a serving would bring wealth in the forthcoming year. This tradition originated from a past practice involving the placement of tokens or small figurines of Christ within a cake referred to as a King Cake, which holds significance in relation to the Epiphany.

Christmas Cards

The first Christmas card was sent in 1611 by Michael Maier to James I of England and his son Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales.

Early Christmas cards depicted flowers, fairies, and imaginative designs evoking the upcoming spring season. Popular themes included humorous and sentimental portrayals of children and animals, rarely showing a winter or religious theme.

The tradition of "official" Christmas cards was started by Queen Victoria during the 1840s. The royal Christmas cards typically feature portraits that reflect notable personal events from the year. This led to a widespread tradition that followed the fashion, with the first commercially available Christmas cards being available in 1843.

Mulled Wine

Mulled wine is a popular Christmas beverage, traditionally made with red wine and various mulling spices.

The earliest reference of spiced and heated wine can be traced back to Plautus's play "Curculio," written in the 2nd century BC. Mulled wine is also mentioned in the Forme of Cury, an extensive 14th-century collection of medieval English recipes.

A popular mulled wine in Victorian England was Smoking Bishop, first mentioned in Dickens' 1843 story A Christmas Carol. Smoking Bishop is a type of mulled wine or wassail, made from port, red wine, lemons or Seville oranges, sugar, and spices such as cloves.

Other variations of Smoking Bishop emerged, such as the Smoking Archbishop (crafted with claret), the Smoking Beadle (infused with ginger wine and raisins), the Smoking Cardinal (blended with Champagne or Rhine wine), and the Smoking Pope (prepared with burgundy).



Merry Christmas to all our readers - HeritageDaily Team