A History of Christmas in the British Isles
Although if you ask the average Briton what they associate with Christmas they may say snow, robins and Christmas gifts, the days leading up to 25 December have not always been this way.
Although Christmas takes its name from the birth of Christ, and is therefore thought of as a religious festival, many of its traditions stem from the mid-winter customs that were practised in pre-Christian Britain.
Pagans lit fires on the shortest day of the year to encourage light and fertility to return to the Earth. Evergreens were also used to decorate the home – a tradition that remains today – and plants used in the home included:
- Holly and ivy – holly was thought of as masculine and ivy as feminine, thereby encouraging balance
- Evergreen herbs such as bay and rosemary
- Mistletoe – although it is now recognised as a plant under which to kiss, mistletoe was sacred to the druids and used in the home for luck
During the reign of Elizabeth I, food became a central aspect of Christmas celebrations. The banqueting course – also referred to as sweetmeat – was the finale to an elaborate meal in aristocratic households and used to display wealth. Sugar, which was increasingly being imported from the West and East Indies, was an expensive delicacy at the time, and it formed the main ingredient of these opulent dishes.
Commonwealth and Restoration
A stark contrast to the celebratory Elizabethan and later periods, the strict Protestantism of the Commonwealth era forbid Christmas celebrations, which were seen as an excessive distraction from core Christian beliefs. Although, in reality, Christmas continued to be celebrated behind closed doors, it was not until the monarchy was restored in the 17th century that food and celebration returned to the December festival.
This is also the era when the turkey (now deemed an essential part of the Christmas feast) began to appear on British tables at Christmas.
Georgian and Regency
The introduction of the Twelfth Cake reflected the enthusiasm with which people of the period celebrated Twelfth Night (5 January) widely. Although it is usually attributed to Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, this was also the time that the Christmas tree, a lush fir decorated with blinking lights or (at the time) candles, was first introduced to the home in Britain.
The domestic Christmas scene, and the many symbols associated with it, emerged during the reign of Victoria. In 1848 an illustration from Illustrated London News showed the royal family gathered around their tree. Other traditions that emerged during the period included:
- Christmas crackers, which were invented by ingenious confectioner’s apprentice Tom Smith
- Christmas cards, which first appeared in the 1840s
- Father Christmas, who some believe originated from the Norse god Odin, but who is also a culmination of European figures such as St Nicholas and the Dutch Sinterklaas
Twentieth century to the present day
In the last century the custom of exchanging gifts really took off. Popular gifts to the present day include:
In the early twentieth century shops began to take their Christmas window displays to new levels. Gamages, a department store in Holborn, was famous for its elaborate displays in the 1910s, and London shop windows are still an impressive sight at Christmas.
Christmas food hampers have their origins in the 20th century, when presents were given to those in need during the Christmas period. Nowadays the hamper has more luxurious associations, and companies such as Forman & Field select prized Christmas foods such as suckling pig and British cheeses to put in hampers for customers to give to family, friends and colleagues to enjoy during and after Christmas Day.