Friday, December 13, 2013

English Christmas Traditions - Andrea Downing

Andrea Downing

It never ceases to amaze me how Christmas traditions have changed and evolved over the centuries, along with the Christmas meal. In England, where I've spent a great deal of my life, Christmas, of course, meant tree-dressing—a tradition which grew popular during the reign of Queen Victoria when Her Consort, Prince Albert, brought the idea from Germany. It also meant Christmas crackers, those rolls of paper that would 'pop' on pulling each end to reveal a small gift, a funny hat and a joke. Many families found the game of Charades a good post-prandial pastime, while gathering round the telly for the Royal Christmas Message was also part of the day. No doubt the younger generation has laughed all this off in favour of watching sport!

Many Christmas traditions regarding decorations were originally ideas the Christians garnered from pagans. For instance, the use of holly and ivy—as per the carol—came from celebrating the Winter Solstice and warding off evil spirits. Holly was 'converted' to represent the crown of thorns, and in an English Calendar from 1866 is shown to represent the month of December. Ivy is said to represent our need to 'cling' to the Lord. Ivy, in ancient Greece, was Cissos, a nymph who danced wonderfully before the god Dionysus at a feast, and dropped dead at his feet. Dionysus was so moved by this, he turned her into the plant that embraces everything near it. Mistletoe, that lovely excuse for a good smooch, was sacred in the Dark Ages, particularly with the Celts and Teutonic tribes. Druids had a ceremony incorporating the plant, and it was suspended from the ceiling to ward off evil spirits. Some churches banned it because of this association but the custom of kissing under it took hold in England, having arrived with the Norse as a sign of love and friendship.

Playing the modern game of Charades probably had something to do with the English tradition of Pantomine at Christmas, an idea that evolved from the Italian Commedia dell'Arte. More British was wassailing—from the Anglo-Saxon meaning "good health"—a custom of drinking something akin to the American Eggnog over the holiday period, and 'mumming,' which came from pagan times. Basically, it is dressing up and being silly but it evolved into going door to door to beg. Christmas Mummers now put on skits to raise money for charity.

The idea of Christmas cards started in 1843 in Britain, shortly after the introduction of the penny post when the common man could, at last, afford to use the postal system. Christmas crackers came along shortly after, in 1850, started by a London candy-maker. But it is the Christmas feast that is truly steeped in tradition and sums up the family coming together to celebrate this day. Mrs. Beeton, in her Book of Household Management, from 1861, tells us that the "common turkey is a native of North America, and was thence introduced into England, in the reign of Henry VIII" and "…about the year 1585 it began to form a dish at our rural Christmas feasts." Mince pies, which actually started by being made with 'mince' or chopped meat but evolved into small pies of dried fruit, are quite delicious and eaten throughout the holiday period. But it is the Christmas pudding, which, to me, is the pinnacle of Christmas traditions.

A steamed suet pudding of raisins, currants and other preserved fruit marinated over months in brandy, it is put alight at the feast with a final dousing of liquor and served swimming in custard, or crème anglais if you prefer the fancy name.

Sadly, for my English family at the Faringdon Ranch in Loveland, the Christmas meal was left sitting when a blizzard blew in and the cattle needed tending. But I like to think the cowpunchers might have at least returned, however much later, to that liquored-up pudding which keeps for months.

I'm happy to give one digital copy of Loveland to someone randomly chosen, tba on my website January 7th. Just go to and leave your name and email address in the comment box to be in the running—and Merry Christmas!

My thanks to:

The Book of Household Management, Beeton, Mrs., Isabella, 1861, ebook 2003, Project Gutenberg

Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants and Trees, Lehner, Ernst and Johanna, Tudor Publishing Company, New York, 1960.
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Liz Flaherty said...

Hi, Andi! Great post!

Carol Henry said...

I'm always find the behind the scenes tidbits that make up our customs regardless of their country of origin. Thanks for giving us another look into Christmas. Lovely post.

Andrea Downing said...

Thanks Liz and Carol. I had fun doing a bit of extra research for this while checking my facts. Who knew the myth about Ivy????

Anonymous said...

Fun info! Now I'll be able to dazzle the guests at my Christmas table.
Thanks for your research.

Andrea Downng said...

You're very welcome Thonie. Dazzle away!

Lilly Gayle said...

Lovely post, Andi. I love Christmas and family traditions but as I've gotten older, I realize it's not always possible to follow those traditions as families grow and go their separate ways. Nowadays, it's about getting together when we can and finding the time to celebrate and remember the real meaning of Christmas. Wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas!

Andrea Downng said...

You're so right, Lilly--the main thing is being together with good friends and family. Happy Holidays

Karen Casey Fitzjerrell said...

Very interesting, Andrea. While reading your post, I couldn't help but wonder how all those traditions fit or morphed from Mexico's traditions. Hmmmm. Maybe you can post on that subject next holiday season.

Andrea Downng said...

Karen, I'm not too familiar with Mexico's holiday traditions but maybe down in TX you are? I'll have to get the info from you! But nice idea for a future blog.

Debra St. John said...

I used mistletoe in a story once and did some research about the plant. It always amazes me how our traditions and history evolves.

Andrea Downing said...

Yup, Debra, the evolution of traditions is certainly an interesting topic. There was quite a lot on mistletoe I could have said, as could you I'm sure, but not enough space here! Thanks for stopping by