By Tom Anderson
Christmas is a festival which has reached around the world, and given birth to a host of different traditions in different countries. Indeed, the ‘Christmas Around the World’ travelogue is almost a cliché in itself these days, though the information presented in such descriptions is often outdated or exaggerated, and people from those countries might not recognise those descriptions! I will therefore not attempt such an article myself, but focus on the development of Christmas traditions in the United Kingdom (or more specifically England) and what points of history they stem from.
It is sometimes stated that Christmas was not significantly celebrated in England until Victorian times. While many of the traditions we take for granted do indeed stem from that age (as we’ll see later) this is not really a fair description. Christmas was simply celebrated in a different way in the past, and Englishmen and –women were certainly attached to it.
Perhaps the best-known instance of pre-Victorian Christmas intruding into English history is the controversy of 1647. For background, this followed the first phase of the English Civil War, a very complex period (covered in great detail in Ed Thomas’ “Bloody Man” books).
Charles I still had his head at this point, but Parliament was already dominated by the Puritans. The Puritans regarded Christmas as being a ‘popish’ (Catholic) festival with no Scriptural underpinning, and banned its celebration, replacing it with a day of fasting. This was not well received by the people, who launched a campaign of pro-Christmas rioting in multiple cities. Canterbury (seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Church of England) in particular fell under the control of the rioters for weeks, who decorated the city with holly—a tradition that clearly already existed. The Puritan ‘war on Christmas’ continued after Charles I’s execution, and Christmas was only restored along with the monarchy when Charles II took the throne in 1660.
Like many English Republican activities, it is often (somewhat unfairly) attributed specifically to Oliver Cromwell. This anti-Christmas attitude was also replicated in the Puritan-dominated New England colonies, and persisted even after anti-Christmas laws were formally banned in 1681. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that New England Puritan-descended churches began to accept Christmas as a festival. In old England during the Commonwealth, and in New England for this longer period, a big point of contention was whether Christmas was a day off work. Under the Puritans businesses were forced to stay open and treat it as a normal working day, while in later New England there were cases of Royalist governors forcing them to shut, sometimes against their will if they were Puritan-owned.
As early as 1652, the political pamphlet “The Vindication of Christmas” slammed the Commonwealth government’s position on Christmas (as well as its taxation regime). This pamphlet is interesting not only because its title page makes reference to the sadly departed English Christmas-Ale (which allegedly would knock down Hercules and trip up the heels of a Giant), but also because of the figures depicted in the woodcut image there. A Roundhead soldier warns off an old bearded man with “Keep out, you come not here,” the old man rejoins “O Sir, I bring good cheer,” and a countryman dressed in rural costume says “Old Christmas welcome; Do not fear.” This represents the divide in attitudes between the Puritans and their New Model Army to Christmas, with the fact that many ordinary English people wanted the return of Christmas. But who is the old bearded man?
This is, in fact, the spirit of the Old Christmas—the ancestor of today’s Father Christmas. There are disputed and evanescent examples of English anthropomorphic personifications of Christmas as far back as the 1400s, but it was in this period that they became codified around the figure of an old man. Old Christmas became used and celebrated by writers precisely as a counter to the Puritan ‘war on Christmas’, which began long before they reached political ascendancy during the Civil War.
Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson depicts Old Christmas in Christmas, His Masque (1616) which is a fascinating insight into how Christmas was celebrated at this time. The costume depicted in the 1652 woodcut (once compared by the author of this article to ‘Gandalf with Indiana Jones’ hat’) is prefigured here: Jonson’s Old Christmas is dressed in a doublet and hose (albeit with the colour frustratingly not specified), with a high-crowned hat and a long thin beard.
Jonson depicts Old Christmas with ten children, each representing a different English Christmas tradition of the time. The Sons and Daughters of Christmas are Carol, Misrule, Gambol, Offering, Wassail, Mumming, New-Year’s-Gift, Post-and-Pair, and Minced-Pie and Baby-Cake. Carol obviously represents Christmas carols, and Wassailing (making mulled cider and singing for the new year) survives as a tradition today in the South of England; mince pies are still associated with Christmas, although the recipe has changed (back then it was real minced meat, not the fruit-based mincemeat we know today). Mumming refers to mummers’ plays, a form of theatrical entertainment involving exaggerated comic duels—the modern British equivalent is arguably the Italian-influenced pantomime, though one could make a case that the real cultural descendant of mummers’ plays is professional wrestling!
Misrule is the apparent odd one out nowadays. This refers to the mediaeval tradition of the Feast of Fools, in which a peasant or junior priest was chosen by lot and appointed as the Lord of Misrule (also called the Abbot of Unreason in Scotland and the “Prince des Sots” in France) to rule over wild Christmas parties and other festivities. It has been argued that this was the most spiritually Christian aspect to Christmas in this era, which was, and always has been, a mix of Christian and pre-existing pagan celebratory ideas: emphasising the Biblical principle that the exalted shall be humbled and the last shall be first. Unsurprisingly, it was also the tradition which established authority often had the most problems with, and there were repeated attempts to limit or restrict the Feast of Fools in Tudor times. The tradition was finally wiped out by (guess who) the Puritans during the aforementioned period.
Shakespeare himself, of course, wrote “Twelfth Night” in 1602, which is also an insight into the Christmas traditions of the period. A common complaint in our own time (made since at least the 1950s) is that commercialism means that the visibility of Christmas begins too early in the year. However, a less-well known difference with the past is that Christmas also often ends rather abruptly today. Indeed, many modern people are confused by what the song ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ is referencing. Christmastide, traditionally (allowing for calendar shifts) says that Christmas celebrations start on December 25th and end with Epiphany on January 6th, traditionally said to be the day when the Wise Men returned home from the Nativity. Epiphany remains a major celebration in many countries (for example, in Germany, where children dress up as the Wise Men and go around houses for treats, chalking the doors for luck) but in England today it is often only known as the last day on which one can take down one’s Christmas decorations without risking ‘bad luck’. Despite this, just as shops stereotypically clear out the holly for the Easter eggs on December 26th, many people today take down their decorations immediately after Christmas Day—something for which their partying ancestors would probably call them sad half-Puritan killjoys.
Twelfth Night, the end of the celebratory period, went out with a bang with a number of traditions that Shakespeare references in his play. Women and men would cross-dress in one another’s clothes, jump over bonfires, and a ‘Twelfth Cake’ would be baked, with one slice containing a bean or dried pea. Similar to the Lord of Misrule tradition, whomever had this slice would be treated as king for a day, no matter their social position. This was particularly popular in the Low Countries. Shakespeare’s play features a cross-dressing protagonist (Viola/Cesario) and a servant (Malvolio) who dreams of social advancement, to fit the theme of the holiday his play was meant to tie in with.
Much of these old traditions were destroyed by the Puritan period or its aftermath, but—as noted above—this also gave birth to Old Christmas, then Father Christmas, as the English personification of the celebration. Almost every nation has its own version of this figure, and in the melting pot of the United States, syncretism combined Father Christmas with the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas, himself based on the historical St Nicholas of Myra. That saint was identified with a gift-giver because of the story that he saved a poor family of a father and three daughters, who lacked money for dowry and would otherwise have had to become prostitutes, by anonymously throwing bags of gold through the window. From this story came the idea of Sinterklaas, a figure with a long white beard and a bishop’s hat, as the giver of gifts to children at Christmas. Sinterklaas was combined with England’s Father Christmas in America to produce Santa Claus. (To those who object to depictions of Santa as an ass-kicking action hero in films—there is also a legend that his prototype St Nicholas slapped the heretic Arius in the face at the First Council of Nicaea for denying the Trinity and was temporarily defrocked for it!)
England’s Father Christmas had always been more of a figure associated with adult celebration, not the giving of gifts to children, but American influence in the mid-nineteenth century combined with a shift in English Christmas attitudes towards a more child-centred celebration. This is the Victorian era in which modern English Christmas was born, although even then it was a transitional period. For example, Charles Dickens’ eternally popular A Christmas Carol, in which the miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge is visited by three spirits who warn him of what will happen if he continues in his attitudes, is heavily influenced by the figure of Old Christmas in artist John Leech’s depiction of the Ghost of Christmas Present.
It is sometimes claimed that Father Christmas and Santa Claus (now often treated as the same figure) only wear red because of a 1931 Coca-Cold advertising campaign. While that campaign likely codified red as the only colour in which he would be depicted, red had always been the most common colour before that (appearing, for example, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Father Christmas Letters”, written from the North Pole to his children, which began in the 1920s). I will not attempt to suggest any significance of the colour; like nursery rhymes and the colours of modern flags, far too much ink has been expended in attempting to draw questionable symbolic interpretations of Christmas traditions old and new. Sometimes a bauble is just a bauble.
The Victorian era gave birth to the tradition of Christmas cards, although Christmas dinner was already well established—turkey, imported from America, was a popular choice as early as the 1600s (alongside goose and other alternatives). Henry VIII is said to have been the first monarch to have turkey for Christmas dinner, though this may be based on the image of him always holding a turkey drumstick (an image created by a 1930s film depiction, not a painting as many people have false memories of).
The other well-known Victorian innovation was the Christmas tree. As is reasonably well known, Christmas trees were introduced to Britain by Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. They had long been a tradition in the German lands. In contrast to the association of Puritanism with a ‘war on Christmas’ in England, in Germany the Protestant leader Martin Luther is said to have been the first to decorate an evergreen tree with candles. The first recorded representation of a Christmas tree is from 1576. Like many Christmas traditions, it was likely built on pagan roots (no pun intended!) in this case the Germanic pagan veneration of the dark forest. A story tells that in AD 723, St Boniface stopped a group of German pagans from sacrificing a baby to Thor beneath a decorated oak tree. Boniface is said to have toppled the tree with one blow of an axe after calling on the name of Jesus, then saying that from that day forth, the evergreen tree which never died would instead represent the true God.
Britain had had German royalty since 1707, and George III’s Queen Charlotte had introduced a Christmas tree in 1800, but the tradition had not spread much beyond the Royal Family. At the age of 13 in 1832, Victoria wrote in her journal of presents being placed around two trees decorated with lights and sugar ornaments on Christmas Eve. In an interesting aside, her name was actually Alexandrina Victoria (she was ever known as ‘Drina’ to the family) and as a teenager she signed her letters ‘Xandrina’, thus illustrating that what teenage girls think constitute cool names has never actually changed. When she became Queen, the Government initially wanted her to change her name to something ‘more English’ like Elizabeth or Charlotte—rather missing the point that in the earlier Queen Charlotte’s time, that name had been considered German and un-English! Victoria held firm, and now her name is inextricably associated with Britain.
But the popularisation of Christmas trees stems from 1848, when the “Illustrated London News” published an engraving of the Royal Family around their tree. Albert had written the year before that he was determined to give his children the same Christmas as he and his brother Ernest had grown up with in Coburg. It still took time for the tradition to filter down from the upper to the lower classes (in the 1850s German papers contrasted the universal tree tradition there with it being class based in Britain) but by the turn of the twentieth century, there were charities to ensure even the poorest children of Britain enjoyed a Christmas tree.
So as we turn to celebrate Christmas, let’s ponder for a moment just how many of our traditions rest on happenstances of history—many of which involve the English or British Royal Family.
Without Charles I’s intransigence and the Civil War, the Puritans would never have wiped out so many old English Christmas traditions—but we also wouldn’t have Father Christmas who rose to oppose the ‘war on Christmas’;
Without his son the Duke of York (later James II) pursuing an aggressive policy against the Netherlands as Lord High Admiral, there would not have been a Second Anglo-Dutch War in 1665-7, and New Amsterdam would not have been conquered and renamed New York (after the Duke, not the city). Without the melding of Dutch and English culture in New York to combine Sinterklaas and Father Christmas, there would be no Santa Claus;
Without the succession passing to the Hanoverians in 1707, there would not have been the German influence on British Christmas, and if Victoria had not succeeded to the throne and married Albert, Christmas trees would probably have remained an obscure foreign tradition. We must remember that Victoria taking the throne was an exceptionally strange set of circumstances, reflecting George III’s enormous number of children proving less than capable at providing heirs, and the tragic death of George IV’s only child Princess Charlotte in childbirth in 1817.
It is thanks to these twists of history that we celebrate Christmas as we know it today, even though its spiritual heart comes from long before then. Think about how the actions we take today might influence the Christmas of three centuries hence!
A merry Christmas to you all from all at Sea Lion Press.
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth