How British is our Christmas?

Not very, is the answer. We may think we are wallowing in time- honoured customs but they are usually borrowed from other cultures, or else not traditional at all. A guide to festive trimmings and their origins...
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The date: 25 December

Middle Eastern/German

Pagan antecedents for festivities on or about this day abound. There were mid-winter festivals in ancient Babylon and Egypt, while Germanic fertility festivals, including Yule, took place at this time. The birth of the ancient sun-god Attis in Phrygia was celebrated on 25 December, as was the birth of the Persian sun-god, Mithras, while the Roman Saturnalia, the festivities dedicated to Saturn, god of peace and plenty, ran from 17 to 24 December. The 25th was chosen as Christ's birthday (replacing the earlier date of 6 January) by the Western Christian church in AD 354. The Christians had already appropriated many pagan traditions and myths of the season as part of their drive to stamp out paganism. The earliest English reference to 25 December as Christmas did not come until 1043.

Father Christmas


A pious bishop of 4th-century Turkey may seem an unlikely model for the modern Father Christmas, but two legends associated with St Nicholas provide the link. He was said to have brought back from the dead three children murdered by a butcher, and thus became patron saint of children. He also saved three daughters of one impoverished family from being sold into prostitution by secretly delivering to their home bags of gold which could be used as dowries. His cult became popular in the Western Christian church in the Middle Ages, and tradition in Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands linked him with children and gift-giving on his feast day, 6 December. His name was abbreviated (the Dutch call him Sinterklaas) and his story was taken to America by emigrants.

It was Clement Clarke Moore's influential poem of 1822, "A Visit From St Nicholas" (better known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas"), which synthesised the various stories and gave us the figure we know today. Moore's "St Nick" is a "right jolly old elf" with a bundle of toys on his back. The name "Father Christmas", by contrast, is British in origin, having first appeared in mumming plays in late medieval or Tudor times.

Reindeers and chimneys


The shamans of Lapland, Greenland, Siberia and northern Canada were believed to descend from the skies with their reindeer during the winter, distributing rewards to worshippers through the smoke-holes in the roofs of their homes. The Norse god Odin was also said to bestow gifts upon his followers through chimneys with the help of his eight-legged flying horse, Sleipnir, and, in anticipation, the recipients would leave food out for him - perhaps a precursor to Santa's sherry and mince pie today.

The flying reindeer eventually gained a foothold in our Christmas folklore, but it took Clement Clarke Moore to give them names. "Now Dasher! Now Dancer!/Now Prancer and Vixen!/On Comet! On Cupid!/On Donner and Blitzen!" Rudolph had to wait to become the ninth reindeer until 1939, when he and his red nose figured in a story by American writer Robert May. The song, made into a hit by Gene Autry, followed 10 years later.

Santa's red suit


Until a century ago, Father Christmas was most likely to wear a holly crown and cross and carry a wine flask, while the colour of his suit was undetermined. Moore's St Nick, for example, was "dressed all in fur from his head to his foot/ And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot". It may well have been Coca-Cola that fixed the modern image of Santa Claus when in the early 1900s they dressed him in their company colours of red and white to advertise their product.

Shop Santas


Shop Santas date from the 1860s in the United States and Canada, where they were conceived as a means of encouraging spending. British shopkeepers soon followed suit. In 1870 Lewis's Bon Marche in Liverpool introduced its first Christmas Fairyland and 1898 saw the first Santa set up shop in Fortnum and Mason.



Santa's little helpers were probably the invention of Thomas Nast, a popular American illustrator of the 1860s, who immortalised so much of Santa's world, including the children's letters. The elves have been seen by some as capitalist propaganda; a nameless workforce content to toil for the material prosperity of others.



When the original St Nicholas secretly gave away his gold, one version says that he did so by throwing bags down chimneys, and that the coins landed in stockings that were drying by the hearth. Again it was Clement Clarke Moore who crystallised the modern tradition: "He spoke not a word/ But went straight to his work/ And filled all the stockings,/ Then turned with a jerk."



During the Saturnalia the Romans exchanged strenae, small gifts including dolls, believed to hark back to the days of human sacrifice. But it was not until the growth of American consumerism in the 1870s and 80s that the tradition of gift-giving became commonplace, the trend quickly transferring itself to Britain. Originally gifts were presented unwrapped, but as crafty shopkeepers began to wrap gifts in paper decorated with the company name the custom spread to home-wrapped gifts.

Christmas Cards Egyptian/German/British

Forerunners have been found in ancient Egypt (as New Year tokens), 15th- century German New Year "pieces" (children's handwriting samplers) and Valentine cards. But the first Christmas Card proper was a British invention, produced by Henry Cole in 1843. Many early cards were secular and sometimes bawdy, but the Victorians soon brought them into the religious fold.



The Saturnalian festivities involved role-reversals and inversions of authority, including men dressing in women's clothes and animal skins. This spirit continued with medieval mumming plays, the Feast of Fools and the Tudor Lords of Misrule. In 1770 John Rich, an Englishman, invented the closest forerunner of the pantomime in his harlequinade, which included acrobatics, cross-dressing and magic. By the mid-18th century nursery rhymes were introduced as a theme, but it was once again left to the Victorians to appropriate the pantomime as a specifically Christmas feature in the 1830s and 40s.



The Christmas curmudgeon who declared, "I don't make merry myself at Christmas, and I can't afford to make idle people merry", was, of course, the invention of Charles Dickens. In fact the story of A Christmas Carol was taken from an episode in The Pickwick Papers, published seven years earlier in 1836, in which a misanthrope called Gabriel Grub sees visions which convert him to festive good cheer. For Victorians, A Christmas Carol gave the season (through the Cratchit family) its social conscience, and established the link between Christmas and ghosts.



These originated in France as cosaqueus, bags of sweets wrapped up with a message in tissue paper, but it was an Englishman, Tom Smith, who made them crack. Already marketing the French novelty under the name of Christmas bon-bons, Smith added an explosion when inspired by the unexpected crackling of a log in 1840. The paper hat found in most crackers is thought to hark back to the Tudor Lords of Misrule.

The Christmas Tree


The Christmas tree has pagan origins but is also thought to be descended from the paradise tree and the tree of life, which both figured in medieval religious drama. The first Christmas tree on record was in 1521 in Alsace, but the German tradition didn't become fashionable here until the mid- 19th century, when Prince Albert, suffering an attack of nostalgia for his native Germany, imported a tree to Windsor Castle.

Holly, ivy and mistletoe


In the Saturnalia, the Romans decorated buildings with evergreens as symbols of everlasting life and regeneration. These had quasi-magical properties: holly was used to ward off evil spirits and cure toothache; ivy to cure drunkenness and mistletoe as a universal panacea. The use of mistletoe has its metaphoric roots in Celtic, Greek and Roman mythology; in Norse mythology it represented peace. The Christian churches were quick to adopt holly as a symbol of Christ's blood (red berries) and Mary's virginity (white flowers), but were unable to find a symbolic significance for mistletoe, subsequently banning it.



Christmas flames are associated with the sun worship of ancient Persia and the fire and light imagery in the Viking Yule, fire being used ritually to encourage the sun to restore life to the earth. It was not difficult for the church of Christ, the "light of the world", to imbue pagan practice with Christian symbolic significance.



The origin of the carol is traced to France, where it existed in the form of the popular dance song, literally the first Noel. Carols came to Britain in the 13th century, but were then mainly about money, wine and women - for example "Ale makes many a man to lie in the mire", and "Money, money thou goest away and wilt not abide with me". Many were obscene and thus condemned by the church. Carols underwent both a revival and religious infusion during the 19th century. Some of our most popular carols are foreign in origin: "Silent Night" is an Austrian tune, while "We Three Kings of Orient Are", "Away in a Manger" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem" were written by Americans.



The poet Lucian, describing the Saturnalia, wrote of "drinking and being drunk, noise and games and dance, appointing of kings, feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of trembling hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water". Today we follow this tradition most loyally in the pre-Christmas office party, but in terms of games perhaps the commonest is charades. This began in a verse form in France in the 18th century and soon became popular in England (they figure in Jane Austen's Emma). The modern mime form was described in Thackeray's Vanity Fair (1848).

Nativity Play


Mithras, the Persian sun-god, was born of an impoverished virgin on earth, spread eternal goodwill among men while he lived and was resurrected after his death. Each year his birth was celebrated with the worshipping of a statue of a child. The early Christian church laid great emphasis on the role of the Nativity story to obliterate the pagan myth. The first Nativity play, developed from choral songs devoted to seasonal subjects, has been traced to the Abbey of St Marital in Limoges, France.



The turkey surfaced in Britain in the 16th century. It is often taken for an American interloper which has barged in from Thanksgiving dinner. Not so. It is true that turkey was not around in medieval times, when roast peacock and swan had pride of place. Taken from the wild in Mexico, the turkey was brought to Spain in 1530, and from there to England (where it was believed to have originated in Turkey). It was this domesticated English fowl that the Pilgrim Fathers brought to the New World in 1620. Turkeys were popular in Tudor and Stuart feasts. By the early 18th century the poet John Gay could say: "From the lowest peasant in the land/ The turkey smokes on every board."

Bread Sauce


A vestigial trace of medieval cooking, when every sauce was thickened with breadcrumbs, a practice discontinued after French cooks showed us in the 17th century how to make a roux with flour and butter. Bread sauce is quite similar to the sause blaunk

of the 14th century, seasoned

with perhaps cloves, mace and a bay leaf.

Cranberry Sauce


This, by contrast, is straight out of the United States Thanksgiving dinner and arrived in Britain in

the 1890s.

Sage and Onion Stuffing


Some time after 55 BC the Romans introduced sage to England, although at first it was prized more for medical than culinary properties and largely taken like tea as an infusion. As for the stuffing, the breadcrumbs (see above) are very traditional.

Chestnut Stuffing


Chestnuts were introduced by the Romans, but because they do not mature in our climate they have not acquired the popularity they found in Spain and Italy. There is no chestnut stuffing in Mrs Beeton, and it probably arrived on the Christmas dinner table some time in the 1930s.

Brussels Sprouts


It is claimed that this unusual member of the cabbage family was discovered in Brussels in 1213, but it was certainly the 19th-century French who put it on the culinary map. Before we learnt how to boil them to death they were initially cooked in dainty French ways in creamy bechamel sauces. The first recorded English recipe is in Eliza Acton's Modern Cookery of 1845.

Roast Potatoes


If the potato arrived in 1586 (to be grown on Sir Walter Raleigh's estate in County Cork) it didn't become a part of our diet for 200 years. Then it was mashed potatoes which became popular, since until this century most people had nowhere to roast them.

Roast Parsnips


This native root was an important ingredient of the medieval English kitchen, often eaten as a sweetmeat, with honey, or made into fritters. A very English taste, it is not shared in other parts of Europe - the French have a saying, "des panais", which means "no bloody good".

Roast Ham


The most traditional of all the elements of Christmas dinner. Today's honey-roast ham is a descendant of wild boar, which was central to the Twelfth Night festivities, described in all the early records of courtly eating. By the 17th century, however, the wild boar was being hunted to extinction and it was the turn of the domesticated pig.

Christmas Pudding


George I (1714-27), known as the Pudding King, is credited with raising the profile of the suet pudding and of Christmas pudding in particular. A French visitor to England in this period marvelled: "To come in Pudding Time is to come in the Most Lucky Moment in the World." Queen Victoria later played a promotional role, instigating the practice of putting coins in the pudding. She threw some sovereigns into the mix by way of thanks to her cook.

There is a parallel tradition of non-suet plum puddings. Plum referred to all sorts of dried fruit besides prunes, such as the raisins of Corinth and currants, introduced around the time of the crusader Richard I in the 12th century.

Rum Butter


The Cumbrian view is that rum and butter were first brought together some time in the 1700s in the Lake District, and was served by the port of Whitehaven which had well established trading links with the West Indies. There are many rich, rum-based puddings to be found in Cumbria.

Mince Pies


Pies stuffed with mincemeat evolve from the Tudor tradition of Shrid (shredded) pies. Minced chicken, or beef or tongue, with dried fruit and spices, were made into oval tarts and eaten throughout the 12 days of Christmas. The figure of Jesus was shaped on to the pastry. The spices were said to allude to the gifts from the three wise men. The Puritans put a stop to this excess, the figure of Christ was removed, and the shape made into a simple round.