December is a time for magic and the sparking of our imaginations to bring us warmth through bleak days and long cold nights. As the end of the month draws near, our worlds are filling with images of twinkling lights, decadent festive food, and idyllic Christmas card scenes. We welcome Christmas traditions back into our homes, spend time being thankful for what we have, and spend time with family. For how Christmas is shaped today we have the Victorians to thank, but for many of our modern day traditions their origins lay even further back, from times when celebrations were deep rooted in our wild landscapes. As Christmas creeps closer, let’s take a look back at the origins of a few popular traditions, and get in touch with our wild and remarkable past.
The celebration of mid-winter can be traced as far back as the Roman times. Even before the birth of Jesus, the Romans celebrated this time of year with a festival called Saturnalia, a pagan festival honouring Saturn the Roman god of agriculture and fertility. It was a celebration of the year’s harvest, whilst looking forward to the spring and return of the sun, and trying to ensure a successful next harvest. Starting around the 17th of December, the Romans would offer gifts and sacrifices, decorate their houses with wreaths and greenery, wear colourful clothing, light candles, hold feasts, and be merry. Today’s paper crowns and festive hats can also be traced back to the Romans and Saturnalia. Thus, it is not a new thing to honour the end of the year and welcome the next with colourful celebrations and festivities!
One part of the magic of Christmas for me is the making of sweet treats that are only associated with this time of year. For example, sweet biscuits have long been made to mark Christmas festivities, gaining their spiced flavour, reminiscent of winter, during the Middle Ages. This evolved into gingerbread men, first appearing in 16th century England when Queen Elizabeth I had them made to impress foreign dignitaries and subjects in court. A century later, gingerbread houses joined Christmas traditions, becoming popular in Germany in 1812 following the publication of the Brothers Grimm story, Hansel and Gretel. For many years now I have continued the tradition of making both gingerbread men and houses as part of my Christmas celebrations!
Though the first sweet mince pie is a more recent creation, the first genuine mince pie was enjoyed during the Middle Ages, hundreds of years ago. These mince pies were instead filled with savoury minced meat, chopped fruit, and a preserving liquid, and were larger than those we know today. Traditionally people would eat one of these mince pies every day from Christmas to Twelfth Night (5th January), otherwise it was said that they would suffer misfortune for the whole of the next year. Since then the mince pie has undergone its evolution, becoming the mince pie many of us know and love today.
From the Yule log to stollen, many Christmas sweet treats have been around for hundreds of years. One such is the iconic candy cane that originated in 1670’s Germany. It was said that they were first made as white candy sticks by the choirmaster of Cologne cathedral to give to young singers to keep them still during the long Christmas Eve church services each year. If this is true or not, by 1900 they had taken on their curved shape, red stripes and peppermint flavouring reminiscent of Christmas.
Many of our Christmas traditions and symbols are rooted in nature, for example one popular symbol of Christmas close to nature is the Robin. It is unknown exactly why this is so, but there are lots of interesting legends and reasons associated. For example:
- A Robin was at the birth of Jesus, and fanned the flames of the dying fire to keep Mary and Jesus warm. The Robin’s breast was scorched by a stray ember though, and so for the bird’s kindness, Mary declared that this badge of kindness would in memory pass on to the Robin’s descendants
- In the UK, Robins are seen in increased numbers in our gardens during the winter months
- Royal Mail postmen were nicknamed Robins during the Victorian times due to their bright red uniforms
Whatever the true reason, they are a colourful addition to Christmas celebrations!
Even the origins of Father Christmas can be connected to nature. Though the image of Santa Claus and his reindeer sleigh first came to our shores from America in the 1870s, the idea of Father Christmas has been around for a very long time. Father Christmas was once associated with pagan winter festivals in the 17th century and represented the coming of spring. He was dressed all in green with a wreath of Holly, Mistletoe, or Ivy and was a symbol of happy times, and those to come, brightening winter celebrations.
During the festive period, one ancient custom is still being practised in orchards across the country. Traditionally held on Twelfth Night (5th January), this 400 year old tradition is called Apple Wassailing, where wassail comes from the Anglo-Saxon for whole or healthy. During these celebrations, a wassail king and queen would lead a group of revellers to an orchard, where cider would be poured over the roots of the largest and most prolific apple tree, known as the Apple Tree Man, cider-soaked toast would be hung in its branches, and a toast would be made to the health of the tree. This tradition aimed to scare away bad spirits in the orchard and wake up the trees in the hope of a bountiful harvest next autumn!
One of the most popular modern Christmas traditions still celebrated across the UK is putting up a Christmas tree. Last year alone, ninety per cent of families in the UK put up a Christmas tree in their home. This tradition first became popular during the Victorian era, when Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert brought trees over from Germany for his family in 1840. Despite this, the first Christmas tree was actually brought to England in 1800, by Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III.
Greenery has long been used to decorate homes during the winter, with trees even being used during the Roman times. In some countries, evergreen boughs were believed to keep evil spirits and illness away, but most importantly they were a reminder that abundance would once again return. Check out my next Christmas-themed blog post out on Monday 21st to take a look at the history of natural decorations, and how you can bring some natural colour into your own home this Christmas.
However you celebrate Christmas time, it is important to stop and think about where our traditions come from. They are rich in history and meaning and can allow us to anchor ourselves during a turbulent season. My favourite parts of Christmas often relate to nature and baking, which have long been a part of celebrating this time of year. Why not join me in honouring our history and start a new Christmas tradition this year!