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Christmas Traditions
by Denise Silvester-Carr
contributor to The Illustrated London News

Before you write your cards, decorate the tree and contemplate kissing a pretty girl under the mistletoe, let me tell you a little about the traditions of Christmas in Britain and how they evolved.

Christmas as we celebrate it today is largely the invention of the Victorians. Charles Dickens wrote Christmas stories in magazines as each Christmas approached. Pictures of Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert gathered around a tree in Windsor Castle prompted the public to follow suit, and Henry Cole, a friend of the prince, was responsible for the Christmas card.

Cole, who masterminded the Great Exhibition of 1851 and founded the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, was too busy to write personal letters of greetings to his friends in 1843. Instead, he asked the artist John Calcott Horsley to design a card. A thousand copies showing a family raising their glasses to absent friends were printed and the surplus cards were sold to the public.

Instant Success
Within a few years the idea had caught on, and the first mass-produced cards in 1862 were an instant success. By 1880 more than 11.5 million cards were being despatched, prompting the Post Office to use the slogan "Post Early for Christmas". Today, almost 65% of Britain's population buy at least 50 cards each and more than 1,200 million cards are printed in an industry that is worth 250 million.

Prince Albert is usually credited with introducing the Christmas tree that graces nearly every house and high street in December. In truth, they appeared 40 years earlier. Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III, had a yew tree hung with sweets and toys and illuminated with small wax candles for a party for local children at Windsor on Christmas Day in the year 1800.

The tree became a royal tradition but was not generally adopted until the middle of the 19th century when the magazine "The Illustrated London News" published a picture in 1848 of the Royal Family around one. The engraving captured public imagination and soon every household had a tree.

Enormous Tree
In the 20th century the custom of putting up a tree outdoors spread from California. The most famous Christmas tree in Britain goes up in London's Trafalgar Square. The tiny, twinkling white lights on the enormous spruce, an annual gift from Norway in gratitude for help during the Second World War, are due to be switched on on 5 December, and between 1600 hours and 2000 hours each evening until Christmas Eve, carols will be sung beneath it in aid of a variety of charities.

Carols are very much part of the traditional Christmas and concerts in the City of London's churches and in chapels and halls throughout Britain are well attended. One of the biggest is "Joy to the World", a spectacular extravaganza organised in the Royal Albert Hall by Major Michael Parker, the Queen's pageant master, to raise money for a children's charity.

Barnardo's will be the beneficiary of the 1996 concert on 17 December when more than 600 musicians, choristers, actors, dancers and a cluster of star celebrities that will include Jeremy Irons, Anthony Newley and Michael Ball tell the story of why the little known, mysterious fourth king never arrived in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. A member of the Royal Family always attends (Queen Elizabeth II once defied convention and pre-recorded her annual Christmas Day message in front of the audience at this concert) and Princess Alexandra has already confirmed her presence for this year.

College Choir
The best known carol concert in Britain is the Festival of Nine Lessons, televised around the world on Christmas Eve from King's College Chapel, Cambridge. Besides listening to the famous college choir, look for camera shots of the delicate lacework fan-vaulting, the medieval stained glass and for the Rubens painting on the altar," The Adoration of the Magi". The tradition of illuminating the streets with Christmas lights may belong to this century but it follows the Victorian practice of decorating shopping arcades. In London the most imaginative lights are in Regent Street and "Noddy in Toyland" and other characters from Enid Blyton's ~ooks will be featured this year to commemorate the centenary of the birth of this famous children's writer. They will be switched on at 1700 hours on 12 November. Those in Oxford Street come on earlier, on 7 November.

Food plays a large role in the festivities and, contrary to popular belief, turkey is not a recent addition to Britain's Christmas tables. Food historians have ascertained that the bird was introduced to England from Spain in the 1530s during the reign of King Henry VIII.

Tudor Entertainment
Visitors to Hampton Court Palace, in Surrey, will be able to experience the flavour and atmosphere of a Tudor Christmas between 27 December and 3 January when suckling pig, game birds, almond custard and other dishes savoured by the king will be prepared over the original charcoal stoves and spits in the great kitchens while jesters, jugglers, dancers and musicians will recreate Tudor entertainments upstairs in the state apartments.

Fifty years before Henry VIII's splendid yuletide banquets, Edward IV was host to 2,000 people for Christmas dinner at Eltham Palace in south-east London where pageants based on commedia dell'arte were performed. In time these Court masques developed into pantomime, that splendidly eccentric Victorian music hall spectacle that fills Britain's theatres each Christmas.

Up and down the country principal boys (played by girls) and dames (played by men) will prance across the boards pursued by sinister devils and jolly clowns in performances of such well known tales as "Jack and the Beanstalk", " Mother Goose" and "Aladdin". Charles Dickens will once more take centre stage when Anthony Newley returns to London's West End, to the Dominion Theatre, in the international hit musical version of "Scrooge", proving that no matter how hard you try, in Britain it is hard to escape the traditions of Dickens and the Victorian Christmas.      Copyright ©1999, LLC