Life around the world

Wednesday, 18 December, 2013 - 10:01

A short history of Christmas traditions

by SarahB

With only a few weeks left until Christmas, our biggest winter festival is just around the corner! So, we all know why we celebrate Christmas; the birth of Jesus, Bethlehem, the three wise men ... but do we know why we celebrate in the way we do? The tree, the turkey, mistletoe, card-giving? Have you ever wondered where our best loved Christmas traditions come from?

Well actually, most of them can be attributed to the Victorians; Queen Victoria and her husband specifically. Take the Christmas tree which is arguably one of the most iconic symbols of Christmas. Although the symbolic tree dates back to pagan tree-worshiping traditions in Europe, the modern Christmas tree as we know it today was brought to England by German-born Prince Albert. In 1848 the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the royal family celebrating around a decorated fir tree, a tradition that was reminiscent of Prince Albert's childhood in Germany. Soon afterwards every home in Britain had a tree covered with homemade decorations, fruit, sweets and candles.  

The Christmas feast has its roots from before the Middle Ages, but it's during the Victorian period that the dinner we now associate with Christmas began to take shape. Previously, meats such as beef and goose were the centrepiece of the Christmas dinner. Turkey however was favoured by the wealthier, middle class sections of 19th century society and before long it had became the fashionable choice; by the late 20th century it was the dominant meat in a traditional Christmas day feast!

The ‘official’ Christmas card didn’t come about until the 1840s.  It all started with Henry Cole. He commissioned an artist to design a card for Christmas. The image was a joyous and festive one and promptly encouraged people to make their own. The advancement of colour printing technology and the halfpenny postage rate helped the Christmas card industry take off and in 1880 the Christmas card industry had produced 11.5 million cards in that year alone. The beginnings of a commercialised Christmas?

Christmas carolling today is a seasonal tradition to wish our neighbours a merry Christmas in song, but carolling originally had little to do with Christmas. Carols of the 12th and 13th centuries were liturgical songs reserved for church processions. Many of the more popular seasonal songs we associate with Christmas— "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing!," "The First Noel," and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" — were written during the 19th century.

Lastly,the elusive mistletoe. Celtic legend says the plant can bring good luck, heal wounds, increase fertility and ward off evil spirits. While the tradition of kissing underneath the mistletoe, unsurprisingly, began in the Victorian era. They believed that a kiss under the mistletoe would inevitably lead to marriage!

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Did you learn anything new about Christmas by reading this post? 

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