23rd December 2015 at 2:30pm
As a nation we love our Christmas traditions, decorating the house, hanging up our stockings and making sure Santa enjoys a mince pie and a sherry on his travels, experience has shown me he’s also quite partial to a couple of After Eights and a glass of Sauvignon, never fails to finish them!
While always magical, the way we celebrate can also seem a little strange and actually has little to do with the Christian festival at all. For example, why would we drag a tree inside and festoon it to resemble a belisha beacon? The Romans decorated their homes in evergreens during the festival of Saturnalia on 25 December to celebrate Saturn, their harvest god. Ring any seasonal bells?
With nuggets such as these in mind I thought I’d delve deeper into the mystery behind a few festive traditions and have parcelled up 5 Christmas facts for you to mull over…
Return to Santa
Although the good old letter to ‘St Nick’ appears to have been around since time immemorial, the history behind where it all started seems about as mystical as the man himself. Despite much research there’s very little information about where the tradition stems from – the only early marker we have is a single reference to a letter written from a little girl in the 1200s to the real St. Nicholas. It read “St. Nicholas patron of good children, I kneel for you to intercede. Hear my voice through the clouds and this night give me some toys. I want most of all a playhouse with some flowers and little birds”.
Nowadays our letters generally bear the North Pole postmark but traditionally UK children took it easy on the postman by burning the letters in the fireplace so the ashes flew up the chimney; it appears our multi-talented Santa can also read smoke signals.
German children take a different tack and deposit the letters on their windowsills for Christkind, a winged figure dressed in white robes and golden crown who hands out gifts. Sometimes they even decorate their letters with glue and sprinkled sugar to make them sparkle and catch the winged one’s eye.
I can’t believe my pies
Who doesn’t enjoy a mince pie – well me in fact, however I am interested in finding out where they stem from. Mince pies were originally filled with meat such as lamb rather than a dried fruit mix as they are today. They were also first made in an oval shape to represent the manger that Jesus slept in as a baby, with the top representing his swaddling clothes.
Interestingly, back in the 17th and 18th centuries they became quite a status symbol. The rich liked to show off at their Christmas parties by having pies made in increasingly ornate and intricate shapes. They were even known to have them fit together like a jigsaw. Having the most exotically fashioned pies meant you were rich and could afford to employ the best, and most expensive, pastry cooks!
But beware, before you tuck into your first mince pie of the year it’s worth taking note – you may in fact be breaking the law. Back in 1657 Oliver Cromwell turned Grinch and banned Christmas, condemning it as being filled with Roman Catholic superstition, an institution he despised. As a result, all celebration of our favourite day was outlawed and even something as simple as tucking into a mince pie deemed illegal. Historian Mark Connelly from the University of Kent even believes the ban of eating mince pies still hasn’t been abolished.
Whether there’s a crust of truth to Mark’s claim I’m not sure, however it does have an aroma of mince pie myth and a seasoning of urban legend about it. As I’ve yet to see a perpetrator vilified on Crimewatch or a dawn raid on Mr Kipling, I think you may be ok.
Wassail that about
There are some customs that only take place, or were started, in the UK. Wassailing is an old anglo-saxon custom that doesn’t happen much today and when you hear what it consists of, you’ll maybe understand why. The word ‘wassail’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon phrase ‘waes hael’, which means ‘good health’. Originally, wassail was a drink made of mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and sugar (just make mine a single thanks). A bowl of this pungent gruel was carried in to a backdrop of traditional carol singing and passed amongst the gathered as a way of saying Merry Christmas to each other. I think perhaps a nice mulled wine might work better at your festivities!
Boxing Day is often seen as just an extra day off work but in reality it’s a very old custom. It started in the UK about 800 years ago during the Middle Ages and is now recognised as a holiday in many countries around the world. It was the day when the alms collection boxes for the poor, which were often kept in churches, were traditionally opened so that the contents could be distributed to those in need. Some churches still open these boxes on Boxing Day.
What’s behind the pantomime?
It’s believed the origin of the pantomime lies in the old Christmas mummers plays. These early folk plays are one of the oldest surviving features of the traditional English Christmas and date back over a thousand years. The plays were based loosely on the legend of St. George and the dragon and intended to show the struggle between good and evil. Presented by an all-male cast and held in the great halls of manor houses, they were a stalwart of the festivities of the time. The date for Widow Twanky entering stage left to a chorus of ‘behind you’ is still up for debate.
Let’s wrap this up
We hope these five festive ‘did you knows’ will arm you with a few interesting gambits to share when little Tommy reaches for a pen, cousin Clive a mince pie, you’re passed a bowl of steaming gruel, wake up on Boxing day – and are next handed a ticket to Aladdin.
Enough of our seasonal santamentality (sorry!) enjoy your day…one and all.
The Moneyplus features team