Folklore is defined in the English dictionary as “the traditional customs and beliefs of a people preserved by oral tradition” and “the stories, etc attached to a particular place, group.” Explore with us some of the fascinating folklore attached to the Christmas season’s pivotal figures, dates, objects, food and pastimes.
Where and when did it all begin for the jolly bearded fat man in the red suit? How to Christmas hereby offers you Santa’s back story.
Call Me Kris: We know him as Father Christmas in the UK but around the globe he has many names, including Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, St. Nicholas, Pere Noel and Sinterklaas. Whatever the name, whatever the country, the common denominator is he is the world’s main bringer of Christmas gifts.
Odin: Ancient pagans revered the bearded, cloaked and hooded god Odin, who climbed down chimneys as he rewarded the good with gifts. His sidekick was a horned demon called the Dark Helper, who admonished the bad. Does Odin sound like Santa at all? Before Christianity, the midwinter event was Yule. Supernatural senses were heightened. The Wild Hunt was believed to be a ghostly procession through the sky, led by Odin. Yuletide celebrations would be absorbed into Christmas with the Christianisation of Germanic Europe.
St. Nicholas: The legend of St. Nicholas is rooted in Eastern Europe. He was a fourth century Greek Bishop in Lycia, which is now in Turkey, and has been depicted through time with a white beard and robes. Born in 265 AD, he was renowned for his generous gifts to the poor. His story of legend is that he threw bags of gold through an open window as dowries for the daughters of a devout but poor Christian, so they would not have to turn to sin to survive. But for the youngest daughter of the family, the window was closed so he had to throw the bag of coins down the chimney. It landed in a stocking drying by the fire. Oranges and tangerines have long been left in Christmas stockings to mark this golden generosity. In some cultures, they believe the gold landed in a shoe by the fire – thus the importance to this day across Europe of leaving shoes out to filled by gift-bringers. Bishop Nicholas was destined to become a Catholic saint by the ninth century. There are legends of his miraculous feats, like standing and speaking just moments after his birth to praise God and rescuing three murdered boys in a barrel who were about to be cut up and used as meat, bringing them back to life. Late in the 11th century, there are tales that Sicilian sailors took half his skeleton from Myra and in 1087 they were laid in a tomb in Bari, Italy where pilgrims flocked to pay homage (as they had to his tomb in Myra). The minor fragments from his grave were collected by Venetian sailors during the first crusade and taken to Venice, where a church to St. Nicholas was built on the Lido. The shrines in Bari and Venice exist to this day, although many churches in Europe and the USA claim to own small St. Nicholas relics, such as a tooth or a finger.
St. Nicholas may first have become associated with Christmas in England. At the end of every year the English celebrated a “Feast of the Fools”, a Saturnalian-style affair that started on St. Nicholas’s Eve (December 5) and ended on December 28. In this often rowdy celebration, St. Nicholas, the Boy Bishop and Old Father Christmas were the three figureheads of a festival in which all order was reversed. While Father Christmas would grow to dominate British Yuletide proceedings, St. Nicholas, in his red bishop robes, would become the main gift-bringer in countries like the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium. However, he does not deliver presents on Christmas Eve but the eve or morning of his special day: St. Nicholas Day, December 6.
Father Christmas: As far back as Henry VIII’s time in 16th century England, there are images of Father Christmas. Even then he was pictured as a large man in red or green robes lined with fur. He may have been known as Captain Christmas, Lord Christmas or Father Christmas (the latter became the commonly used title from the 17th century onwards) and was the bringer of good cheer, fine food and wine and joyous revelry – but not gifts. In other words, he was an overseer of Christmas celebrations. He had a demonic Dark Helper to keep the unruly at bay, as in the legend of the Norse god Odin. This Father Christmas is very much the kind of figure seen in Charles Dickens’s 1843 story “A Christmas Carol”, in which the Ghost of Christmas Present is an imposing genial man in green and fur robes who embodies the spirit of the season.
There is mention of Father Christmas before Tudor times. This extract is taken from a Medieval play performed at Christmas in Sussex: “Here comes I, old Father Christmas. Christmas or not, I hope old Father Christmas will never be forgot. Make room, make room here, gallant boys, and give us room to rhyme; we’ve come to show activity upon a Christmas time. Acting youth or acting age, the like was never acted on this stage; if you don’t believe what I now say, enter, St. George, and clear the way!”
In the Middle Ages, he was not the magical figure full of round-bellied laughter, abundant joy and bountiful gifts but rather someone who might test children on scripture and beat them if they underperformed. He was severe, sometimes even threatening: a judge of children’s character and morals.
Quite how Father Christmas should be depicted was open to conjecture from the 17th century through to Victorian times. Father Christmas would then develop very much along the lines of Santa Claus in the USA, influenced by literature, art and advertising.
Santa Claus: Americans called their Christmas gift-bringer Santa Claus, a derivate of the Dutch Sinterklaas. Dutch emigrants took the tradition of St. Nicholas to the east coast of America and by the early 19th century he was established as a deliverer of presents for youngsters. In 1823, Clement C. Moore’s poem “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” delivered its verdict on the appearance of St. Nick. He was “chubby and plump” and his belly “shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.” Moore’s character was still a diminutive “jolly old elf”, but a lasting image was forming. By the time American cartoonist Thomas Nast had drawn Santa Claus in Harper’s Weekly in 1863, the great gift-giver’s stature was considerable. In 1869, American poet George P. Webster gave Santa a new home “near the North Pole” in “a city called Santa Claus-ville” in his poem “Santa Claus and His Works”, with illustrations again provided by Nast (for more on Thomas Nast scroll down this page). It was around 1890 that an American department store first hired a costume-clad Santa impersonator. In 1897, the New York Sun newspaper published a now famous editorial: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” in response to a letter from an eight-year-old girl.
Coca Cola’s advertising campaign in the 1930s began to take away any of Santa’s rough edges. Here he was in all his smiley-faced, rosy-cheeked, red and white splendour. So powerful and lasting was the Santa campaign, a myth grew around it that Coca Cola determined the colour of his suit. However, he was pictured in a red suit in 19th century works by Nast and in early 20th century covers of Puck magazine. Santa’s story was told on the big screen in films such as “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947) and “Santa Claus: The Movie” (1985). Santa Claus Village theme park at the Arctic Circle opened in Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland in 1985. And still the movies kept on coming, like “The Santa Clause” trilogy and “Get Santa” (2014).
The Yule Goat: The Yule Goat is a traditional Scandinavian figure. Known as Julebukk in Norway, Julsvenn in Sweden and Joulupukki in Finland, the Yule Goat was a caprine beast who arrived just before the pagan midwinter festivities to ensure all the preparations were being carried out properly. It was once a figure of fear, punishing naughty children and demanding gifts. But by the middle of the 20th century, the tables had turned and this Christmas Goat was himself a gift-giver.
Jultomte: In the 1840’s in Nordic countries, a figure from folklore became responsible for delivering presents instead of the traditional Yule Goat. In Sweden, this is the Jultomte (also Jultomten or just Tomten). In Norway and Denmark he is the Julenisse. In Finland he is the Joulutonttu. He was initially portrayed as a short, bearded man in a grey suit and red hat – a depiction apparently influenced by the arrival in Scandinavia of traditions associated with Britain’s Father Christmas or the USA’s Santa Claus. Think garden gnome. Now he may be seen wearing more colourful clothes, but is still no bigger than about three feet tall. In Denmark, the Julenissen are often beardless. They need feeding on Christmas night with a bowl of porridge or rice pudding, otherwise they will cause all manner of mischief.
Christkind: The Christkind came out of the 16th century Protestant Reformation and was prevalent across German-speaking Europe. The Christkind is a sprite-like youngster with wings and golden hair or a golden crown. With the Christkind introduced, Protestants could distance themselves from St. Nicholas. The angelic child would distribute gifts on December 24th, not St. Nicholas Day of December 6th. In some areas of the world today – like regions of Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, Upper Silesia in Poland and parts of Hispanic America – the Christkind is more important than Santa Claus. However, the power of movies and advertising is seeing the American version of Santa Claus (the Weihnachtsmann) take more of a foothold in Christkind territory.
Weihnachtsmann: For Catholics, St. Nicholas was the Christmas man. Protestants wanted a bearded old man they could revere and thus, from the late 19th century, Weihnachtsmann (literally Christmas Man) appeared in Germany. He did not wear bishop’s robes and he did not deliver gifts in early December like St. Nick. His presents arrived on Christmas Eve. Elsewhere across Europe we saw Pere Noel, Father Christmas, Old Man Winter, the Starman and Father Frost. These secular figures, of no fixed religion, set the scene for the Christmas domination of Santa Claus.
Gwiazdor: Some people in certain parts of Poland – for instance in the area of Great Poland (Wielkopolska) which encompasses Poznan and the region of West-Central Poland – believe in Gwiazdor (the Starman), who delivers presents on St. Nicholas’ Day dressed in a sheepskin and carrying a paper star. He’s not meant to be quite as friendly as the Father Christmas we know. He first threatens to beat children with a wooden birch before opening his sack of gifts for them. The tradition of the Starman is older than that of Santa Claus and he is believed to have been a derivative of Germany’s Weihnachtsmann.
Dyadya Moroz: Russia’s own gift-bringer is Dyadya Moroz – Grandfather Frost. You will also see it written as Ded Moroz, suggesting this frosty character can be referred to as Father Frost or sometimes even uncle Frost. He carries a pike staff made of silver or crystal and is accompanied by his granddaughter the Snegurochka (the Snow Maiden). Communists had him delivering on New Year’s Eve, wanting to separate themselves from Christmas Day, St. Nicholas Day, Epiphany and Christianity in general.
Jolasveinarnir: From December 12th, Icelandic children put one of their shoes in the window each night and await the Yule Lads. There are 13 Yule Lads or Jolasveinarnir (also sometimes Stekkjarstaur or Sheep-Cote Clod), with one a night paying a gift-bringing visit. Youngsters hope that the Yule Lads, who come into town from the mountains on the nights leading up to Christmas and who each have a specific idiosyncrasy, will leave sweets or a small gift in the shoe. The children must earn the treats by being well behaved. If they are naughty they will find a potato in their shoe instead.
“Was there ever a wider and more loving conspiracy than that which keeps the venerable figure of Santa Claus from slipping away, with all the other old-time myths, into the forsaken wonderland of the past?” Hamilton Wright Mabie (1846-1916), American Essayist
Liverpool is famous for many things: The Beatles, its European conquering football club and its legendary comedians, like Ken Dodd, among them. But it is also where the world’s first Christmas Grotto was established in 1879 by London businessman David Lewis, when he moved to Liverpool and set up Lewis’s department store.
Known as “Christmas Fairyland”, a huge 10,000 square feet was given over to the grotto. Father Christmas took residence, surrounded by characters from children’s fairytales like Aladdin and Snow White & the Seven Dwarves, and gave presents to young visitors. The idea was adopted in the USA, which was linked to Liverpool by Transatlantic liners. Lewis’s closed in 2010.
For centuries, the most important church service in the western world has been Mass. When Mass was performed in Latin, the service ended with the words “Ite. Missa Est.” In English that’s “Go. It is finished.” The name Mass derived from that ending. The Mass held on December 25 was named after Jesus Christ, marking the birth of the Holy Infant: Christ’s Mass. The church service eventually gave its name to the entire day: Christ’s Mass Day evolving into Christmas Day. The earliest recorded use of the term for the day itself is in Old English from 1068: Cristesmaesse. Middle English Cristemasse followed and in 1131 the day was recorded as Cristes-Messe. And so the pattern continued until we reached the word we know and use today: Christmas.
Why December 25th? Why 12 Days?
The Bible offers no clue to Jesus Christ’s birth date. By the time His birth became something to celebrate no one could remember a specific date and there was no record of it. Third century Christians believed Christ was conceived at the Spring Equinox, March 25th. His birth, nine months later, would thus fall on December 25th. This was the day after Roman Saturnalia celebrations ended. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was believed one celebration was purposely linked to the other for convenience sake. Scholars now widely doubt and dispute this theory. The twelve days of Christmas are rooted in the time it supposedly took the Magi to travel to see the infant Jesus. In the ninth century, King Alfred the Great made it law to observe Church feasts, including winter celebrations. December 25th was declared a holiday, as were the days that followed…twelve in all. The twelve days if Christmas.
The first Christian winter festival emerged in the fourth century. Existing winter festivals like Saturnalia in the Roman Empire and Yule in Scandinavia were gradually overtaken by Christmas, which developed with a mixture of Christian customs and pagan celebrations. But some pagan elements – like rowdiness and public drunkenness and debauchery – saw Christmas marginalised in later centuries. Such behaviour was considered unchristian. Christmas was something of a minor event in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and was even banned altogether for a short spell in Britain by the Puritans. Although that ban ultimately failed, what came thereafter was a Christmas celebration of more modest proportions: altogether smaller and more private affairs, with the birth of Jesus the focus.
In his excellent book “Bad Santas & Other Creepy Christmas Characters”, author Paul Hawkins points out that between 1790 and 1835, the December issues of the London Times mentioned Christmas in just 25 of those years – and did not mention it at all in the other 20. Christmas seemed something of an irrelevance to many. Certainly the Industrial Revolution, running from the mid-eighteenth to mid nineteenth centuries, played its part as the move from rural to urban employment fragmented families and saw work hours increase.
The Christmas resurgence came in Victorian times when modern Christmas was effectively born. Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, Charles Dickens and famous illustrators of the time all played significant parts. As Hawkins states in his book: “In England, certainly, it is hard to separate the revival of Christmas from the Victorian perception of Britishness…Swiftly, the almost- forgotten traditions of Christmas became central to English identity. As a religious festival Christmas had a moral and ethical kudos that fitted in well with promoting traditional Christian values.”
The Winter Solstice falls on December 21st or 22nd each year. The word solstice comes from the Latin sol for sun and sistere, which means ‘to stand still’. Ancient Celts believed the sun did indeed stand still late in the year, so they blessed a log and kept it burning for 12 days at the end of December with the aim of persuading the sun to move again. This is the Yule log. There was a time when an entire tree was brought into the house amid ceremonial pomp – then chopped and burned as required. The first written account of a Yule log in Britain dates back to the early 17th century by clergyman Robert Herrick, leading some historians to believe this was not an ancient British custom but rather imported from continental Europe and Scandinavia. The word Yule is of European, most particularly Germanic, origin, so this stands to reason.
Herrick refers to the British ‘Christmas Log’ being brought into a farmhouse by a group of males to bring prosperity and protection from evil. If the Yule Log was too big for the dwelling, one end was burned in the fireplace while the other end poked out of the front door. The fire used to burn the log was started with a remnant from the previous year’s log. This tradition was less prevalent by the early 20th century as farm labour and the use of open hearths dwindled.
Through the centuries, the Yule log in Britain has also been called a Yule Clog, a Yule Block, a Gule Block and ‘Stock of the Mock’. Traditions attached to the use of the log in England involved draping it in evergreens and sprinkling it with cider and grain, while in Scotland (and certain parts of England) a human face or figure was etched on the log. Across Europe, how to treat the Yule Log took on varied forms. In France, people sang to it and carried it round the house three times before burning it – all in the hope it would bless their home and farm. In the Balkans, the log was covered in silk and offered wine. Strong superstition was attached to the Yule Log. Sparks from it carried lucky wishes for some, while for others ashes from the log made the fields more fertile or protected cattle from pests. Witches and demons were kept at bay as long as the Yule Log burned.
Nowadays, we more commonly eat Yule logs than burn them. They are created from chocolate sponge, cream and chocolate icing made to resemble tree bark and are a nod to the traditions of old. In France this popular dessert is known as Buche de Noel.
Did you know…‘The Yule Log’ is also the simplest of television programmes made in the USA? A static shot of a Yule Log burning on a New York hearth, with Christmas stockings hung from the fireplace, was first broadcast in 1966 and was shown until 1989. It was some three hours in length and originally aired on New York channel WPIX. A new shorter version of a fireplace’s flickering flames was made in 1970 and played on a continuous loop, without commercial interruption, to the sound of Christmas music. It was revived in 2001 and has since spread to other media outlets owned by WPIX’s parent company.
Yule candles were once widely used throughout Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia and were usually of considerable size as they were expected to last the twelve days of Yule celebrations. The candle was lit either on Christmas Eve and left to burn throughout the night or early Christmas morning and kept alight all day. It was rekindled on each successive night of Yule and extinguished for the last time on the twelfth night. Glowing Yule candles were said to bring blessings on the home. It was considered a sign of bad luck or misfortune for the candle to accidentally go out or be intentionally blown out. The chosen ‘lucky’ extinguishing method: pressing the wick with a pair of tongs. The head of the household did this. For anyone else to do it was again considered bad luck. Yule candles were often given out as gifts to valued customers by grocers and chandlers in Victorian times and well into the 20th century.
Nineteenth century political cartoonist Thomas Nast is chief creator of the image of Santa Claus we recognise today. Born in Germany in 1840, young Thomas moved to the United States with his family six years later. He was first employed as an artist on Leslie’s Illustrated aged just 15 but financial cutbacks forced him out and he went freelance. In 1859, his full-page drawing exposing a police scandal was accepted by Harper’s Weekly – and so began an association that lasted until 1886. Nast joined Harper’s as a war correspondent in 1862 and received acclaim for his coverage of the Civil War. Nast became a significant and influential political power. His cartoons helped to expose and bring down William Marcy Tweed, who had been bleeding dry the New York treasury. Every presidential candidate Nast supported was elected. He was responsible for creating the Republican Elephant and Democratic Donkey and the popular conception of Uncle Sam.
As Harper’s Weekly introduced management less willing to tolerate his often-radical views and brought in new techniques in production, making out-dated the hand-engraved woodblock Nast had used to such effect, Nast’s drawings appeared less frequently. The last was a Christmas drawing in 1886.
Aged just 39, he was at his peak – a wealthy, happily married family man with nationwide recognition. However, unwise investments robbed him of his financial independence and he found himself falling on harder times. It came as some considerable relief, then, when his old friends at Harper’s suggested in 1889 that he collate his Christmas drawings in a book to be published by Harper & Brothers. “Christmas Drawings for the Human Race” was issued the following year and included Nast’s work from Harper’s Weekly festive issues from the previous 30 years, plus new work created specially for the book.
Nast portrayed Santa Claus as the white-bearded, round-bellied, jolly old soul described by Clement C. Moore in his famous nineteenth century poem “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”. Before that, Santa was more likely to be depicted as a slimmer figure in robes like St. Nicholas or small and elf-like, as seen in the first illustrated editions of Moore’s poem.
Nast was also responsible for introducing Santa’s North Pole home to the world with illustrations for American George P. Webster’s 1869 poem “Santa Claus and His Works”. Nast put children and toys at the heart of so many of his drawings, using his own children as models. Nast, like the genius author Charles Dickens, is responsible for so many of the accepted Christmas traditions of today.
In 1901, wanting to rid himself of debt, he accepted an offer from President Theodore Roosevelt to become Consul General in Ecuador. He sailed alone from New York in July 1902 and did, indeed, earn enough money to send home to settle his financial problems. Sadly, he contracted yellow fever and died on December 7th that year. He was 60.
Fifty years after his death, Nast’s home in Morristown, USA was designated a National Historic Landmark and the Thomas Nast Christmas Village on the Morristown Green remains a hugely popular seasonal attraction. In December 1977, a two-day festival was held in Nast’s honour in Landa-Pfalz, Germany – the place of his birth.
Nast’s festive work is widely available in book form today, including the splendid “Thomas Nast’s Christmas Drawings”. The foreword from his grandson and biographer Thomas Nast St. Hill, from which this mini-biography has been created, ends with the words: “Thomas Nast loved Christmas and entered into its spirit with childlike delight. And may his Christmas drawings serve to remind us that it is still true, as it was in 1843 when Charles Dickens wrote his immortal Christmas Carol, that ‘it is good to be children sometimes and never better than at Christmas when its mighty founder was a child himself.’”
Tudor Christmas Fayre
The Christmas bird of choice in Tudor times was not turkey but goose, swan or even peacock. But only the wealthy could afford such luxuries. The Medieval penchant for cooking peacocks and dressing them in their own skin and feathers for the table continued in these times. There is record of turkeys being introduced to Europe around 1519, but their connection to Christmas feasting was long off. Another popular meat dish for the rich was wild boar, whose decorated head was delivered to the banquet table as part of the celebrations. Christmas pudding and mince pies were savoury dishes. Puddings included such ingredients as meat and oatmeal, wrapped in a pig gut and shaped into a fat sausage. It was often served with the boar’s head. Mince pies were sometimes shaped like a crib to honour the infant Jesus.
By the Tudor period, the forty days before Christmas were known as ‘the forty days of St. Martin’, as well as Advent. Martinmas, the Feast of St. Martin of Tours, was on November 11th – traditionally the start of winter. This would be the start of Christmas preparations for most people, although others began preparing from November 1st or All Saints’ Day. Advent was a time of fasting before the great Christmas feast.
The Roman Empire
The first record of Christmas being celebrated in Rome is from 336AD. But long before that, Ancient Romans held Saturnalia: a feast to honour the sun god Saturn that ran from December 17th to 24th. Like so many Winter Solstice festivals around the world, this was about chasing away darkness and inviting in the light. There was gift giving and misrule (slaves became masters and vice versa). The day after Saturnalia, December 25th, was known as Natalis and had great significance because days would get lighter from thereon in. The English word ‘nativity’ comes from the Latin ‘natalis’. In the later Roman Empire, the sun god Sol Invictus – or Unconquered Sun – grew in importance. The feast day for Sol Invictus, the patron of soldiers, was December 25th.
December 26th was traditionally known as St. Stephen’s Day but became more commonly known as Boxing Day after money collected in church alms boxes was distributed to the poor after Christmas Day. The term ‘Boxing Day’ may also come from Feudal times when serfs had to work on Christmas Day but were given St. Stephen’s Day off. On December 26th they would receive boxes of practical gifts from their Lord (like cloth and tools) as thanks for their year’s work. Some people still refer to giving tips to workmen at Christmas as “giving them their Christmas box”. Boxing Day has been an official holiday since 1871, when Sir John Lubbock introduced the Bank Holidays Act.
January 6th is the ancient Christian feast day Epiphany. This is a day on which western Christians commemorate the visit of the three Magi to the infant Jesus, while eastern Christians instead commemorate the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan by John the Baptist.
Martin Luther & the Christmas Tree
German Protestant leader Martin Luther created the first illuminated Christmas tree in 1522 – or so the legend goes. Travelling home one winter night, he was enraptured by the starlight that served as a blanket backdrop to the beautiful wintry fir trees of the forest. Having cut the top of a small tree to take home, he was disappointed to lose the twinkly starlight once inside. He therefore lit candles on the tree – and so began a wonderful tradition.
However, there are other theories as to how, where and when the first Christmas tree originated. Some believe the Christmas tree represents the Paradise tree in the Garden of Eden from which Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit…others believe seventh century British missionary St. Boniface is responsible. He worked especially in the regions we now know as Germany. He’s said to have chopped down an oak tree being worshipped by pagans, quickly converted them to Christianity and then planted a fir tree to symbolise God’s eternal love. The converted Christians would return to decorate the tree each Christmas and the tradition duly spread in Bavaria and beyond.
It is believed St. Nicholas is responsible for the stocking’s link to Christmas. The legend tells how in the fourth century he threw coins down a chimney to help a poor father with a dowry for his youngest daughter. The coins landed in a stocking drying by the fire. Putting oranges and tangerines in stockings has long been a way of representing this golden generosity. Christmas stockings were firmly in public consciousness by the 19th century. The 1823 poem “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” twice refers to stockings and German-born, American-based illustrator Thomas Nast’s cartoon “Christmas Morning” showed children rummaging through stockings for presents. In 1854, Susan Warner had her book published entitled: “Carl Krinken; or, The Christmas stocking”. It tells of a poor boy who receives a magical, talking stocking. In 1869, Nast’s drawing of Father Christmas taking toys from his sack near a fireplace bearing four stockings is further proof of their growing use at this time in America. It appears in George Webster’s story: “Santa Claus And All His Works”. Among the many and varied Christmas drawings by Nast (1840-1902) is one of a small boy standing on the head of a bearskin rug, nailing a stocking – personalised with the word ‘Mother’ – to the mantelpiece.
Candy Cane Custom
According to German folklore, candy canes were first enjoyed in 1670 when Cologne Cathedral’s choirmaster handed out sweet sticks, shaped like shepherd’s crooks, at the Christmas Eve Living Crèche service in the hope they would keep the children quiet. He had the candy canes made by a local sweet-maker.
In its simplest original form, wassailing was to offer a blessing or greeting and had nothing to do with Christmas carolling. Wassail comes from the Anglo-Saxon phrase ‘Waes pu hael’, which means: ‘be in good health’. Wassailing developed by the 12th century, though, to become more of a winter celebration in communities – with alcoholic drinks aplenty. A wassailer was a merry-maker, the wassail bowl carried the cider or beer and groups of wassailers would go singing door-to-door. The next twist came in the cider-producing regions of England, where wassailers would sing to the health of trees in orchards hoping for bumper fruit harvests. The song “Here We Come A-wassailing” was first published in the 1871 “Oxford Book of Carols” and starts:
Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green
Here we come a-wandering
So fair to be seen
Love and joy come to you
And to you your wassail to
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year
And God send you a Happy New Year
Henry VIII introduced the Unlawful Games Act in 1541, making it illegal to participate in any sport on Christmas Day except archery – which was considered essential military training and thus allowable. Ten years later, Edward VI passed a law stipulating everyone had to walk to church on Christmas Day. As far as we can discover, this is still the law today although hardly enforceable. The church introduced another curious law around this time. It forbade all pictures of infant Jesus being bathed.
Christingle originated in the Moravian Church, which grew out of the Bohemian Brethren in Eastern Europe in the 15th century. Moravian Christians were pledged to a life of poverty. The idea of Christingle started in the Moravian congregation of Marienborn, Germany on December 20th 1747. At a children’s service minister John de Watteville explained the happiness that had come to people through Jesus, saying He “has kindled in each little heart a flame which keeps burning to their joy and our happiness”. To emphasise his point, the minister handed each child a small, lit candle tied with red ribbon. For this reason, Christingle is widely believed to mean “Christ Light”. However, it is possible it also derives from the German words ‘kind’ and ‘engel’ – making the meaning “Christ-child” or “Christ-angel”. The Moravians took this custom with them around the world and it was adapted by other denominations for their own use.
There is a legend attached to Christingle that involves three poor children who wanted to take a gift to church as a sign of their love for Jesus. They believed all they had of any value was an orange and decorated it with a ribbon and dried fruit. They had to cut away a green and mouldy bit at the top, so cut the skin away and put a candle in the hole. Other children mocked the gift – but not the priest. He displayed it as an understanding of the true meaning of Christmas.
The Christingle often seen today is an orange decorated with red ribbon or tape, a candle and dried fruits or sweets. The candle sits inside the orange, the ribbon wraps around the middle of the orange and four cocktail sticks with dried fruits or sweets on them are stuck into the ribbon. Foil is often put around the base of the candle before it is inserted in the orange to catch any dripping wax. The orange represents the world, the ribbon represents the love and blood of Jesus, the dried fruits or sweets on sticks represent the fruits of the earth, the four seasons and the four corners of the earth and the candle represents Jesus, the light of the world.
It was in 1968 that The Children’s Society’s John Pensom introduced Christingle services to England. Special Christingle songs were added. Now these beautiful candlelit events are held in schools and churches throughout the UK.
A Georgian Christmas was not complete without evergreens. Boughs were especially popular, with lots of rosemary and bay included in the festive mix of greenery. Mistletoe was also much in evidence, although some considered it pagan. Kissing boughs were hung in hallways and visitors were expected to embrace (not so much kiss) under them to symbolise peace and reconciliation. These are traditions embraced regardless of class. The Georgian era is considered to run from 1714 to 1830, although some scholars include the seven years to 1837 that King William IV reigned. We have more on Georgian Christmas festivities a little farther down this page.
A fearsome, threatening or devil-like creature to accompany St. Nicholas and hand out punishment to naughty children has been commonplace through the centuries. The Netherlands had Zwarte Piet; Germany had Belsnickel, Hans Muff, Klaubauf or Knecht Ruprecht; France had Pere Fouettard (the Whipping Father) or Rubbels; Scandinavia had the Yule Goat; Iceland had Gryla, Leppaludi and Jolakotturinn (the Christmas Cat); Switzerland had Schmutzli and Austria the Krampus. The meanest of them all is possibly Lapland’s Joulustaalo.
Imagine a sort of mutated goat straight from hell and you might have some idea of the demonic Krampus. In Austria and neighbouring regions, the Krampus was St. Nicholas’s evil helper who could dish out punishments to naughty children. Youngsters were told they must behave or the Krampus might eat them or bundle them into his sack and send them on one-way train journeys to lakes of fire. On Krampusnacht (Krampus Night) or St. Nicholas’s Eve (December 5th), the Krampus was free to roam the Alpine streets and lanes – wandering from door-to-door asking to be fed alcohol by adults. Groups of young men in towns and villages would often don fancy dress and roam in gangs of Krampusse. Although the evil side of this Christmas monster has been softened in the last century, he remains a fearsome character. Krampus festivities still exist today in Austria, parts of Germany, Croatia and Hungary.
Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) is St. Nicholas’s devilish sidekick – once a fearsome figure but now a gentler and kinder assistant to St. Nick in the Netherlands. Said to come from Spain, he has been depicted as a brutal Moorish slave and even as Satan himself. The Spanish connection comes from the 15th and 16th centuries when Spain ruled and Dutch bishops were, in fact, Spanish. He would carry out beatings or carry off children in his sack. He was usually a local man dressed in costume, including blackened face and hands. In the 19th century there was a change in his image. He wore an Afro wig, lipstick and garish costume and spoke Pidgin Dutch with a mock Surinamese accent. That accent has now gone, but the overall appearance is very much the same and that makes him a controversial figure outside the Netherlands. The Dutch claim they are not aiming to cause racial offence but are merely preserving traditions. Nonetheless, in 2011 the former Dutch colony of Suriname banned depictions of Zwarte Piet in public.
Zwarte Piet keeps a ledger of good and bad, like the elves do for Santa Claus. But, unlike elves, Zwarte Piet is known to climb down chimneys and fill clogs left by the fireplace – in his own right a festive gift-bringer. He arrives on a steamboat with St. Nicholas – or Sinterklaas – from Spain in early December before delivering presents on December 5th (St. Nicholas’ Eve). The evening of December 5th is when adults in the Netherlands also exchange gifts. Christmas Day in the Netherlands is a much quieter occasion. “Christmas Man” – who is like Santa Claus but crucially is not Sinterklaas – visits and may bring an extra gift.
Babushka has been presented as the central figure in a Russian folktale, but in fact it is not clear from where her story originated. The folktale in brief sees three wise men knock on Babushka’s door. They are invited in and over a meal tell how they are on their way to witness the birth of a king, guided by a star. Babushka is asked to join them but insists she has to finish cleaning first. Once done, she sets out to follow them – but the star and three wise men are nowhere to be seen. Babushka is said to wander Russia handing out gifts to children, hoping any one of them might be the special baby king.
Twelfth Night Misrule
Twelfth Night traditionally marks the end of Christmas. Throughout the centuries, Twelfth Night parties were held to see off Christmas in style. In the Middle Ages, one tradition was to bake a fruitcake with a pea and a bean inside. Whoever found them would be ‘Bean King’ and ‘Pea Queen’ and rule the household on party night. Servants might win the chance to order their masters around – at least for one night. In a similar vein, English Christmas celebrations of the Middle Ages saw the Lord of Misrule: a person from the peasant classes suddenly given power to direct festivities. If Christmas Day marks the first day of Christmas, we consider Twelfth Night to be January 5th. There are other places you will see it as January 6th, although that to us is Epiphany alone.
In medieval times, the church across Western Europe had its own ritual to change social hierarchy. Cathedrals would elect a boy bishop who, dressed in full robes, would act as the head of the establishment from December 6th to 28th. He would preside over all services, except for mass. The boy bishop was often associated with the Feast of Fools – a church celebration of which medieval priests might partake. If a boy bishop died while in office, he was buried with the full ceremonial honour of the real bishop. You will find the tomb of one such youngster at Salisbury Cathedral. Henry VIII put an end to the custom in 1541, amid a period of religious upheaval. It has recently been reintroduced in England and other regions of Europe, although with different rules of practice in place. Girls are now eligible.
The Georgian Era ran from 1714 to 1830-37 and covered the reigns of the first four Hanoverian kings of Britain, all of whom were named George. The Regency Period (1811-1820) is defined by the regency of George IV as Prince of Wales during the illness of his father George III. When George IV died in 1830, his younger brother, the Duke of Clarence, became King William IV and reigned for almost seven years. Some scholars include William’s reign in the Georgian Era. The Victorian Era began in June 1837 as Queen Victoria ascended to the throne.
We have a section all about celebrations and traditions of a Victorian Christmas (click here to access that page), but what about a Georgian Christmas? Thanks to the work and letters of author Jane Austen, and her family and friends, we have an insight into middle class traditions of the day. Some, like the bringing of evergreens into the house and burning of the Yule log, were classless traditions. Others were for royals only.
It is thanks to the Georgian era that the Christmas tree arrived in Britain. King George I, who reigned from 1714 to 1727, brought the tradition from his native Germany. His great-great-granddaughter Victoria was just 13 when she wrote in her diary of seeing two tabletop Christmas trees in her uncle’s royal drawing room, so King George I’s tradition had clearly continued in royal circles. However, Christmas trees were not yet a decoration for the masses. Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children helped popularise the Christmas tree in Britain in the 19th century.
Georgians would bring other kinds of greenery into the house, like holly, yew and ivy. Indeed, Georgian Christmas was not complete without evergreens. Boughs were especially popular, with lots of rosemary and bay included in the festive mix of greenery. Mistletoe would make an appearance but was considered by some to be pagan. Kissing boughs were hung in hallways and visitors were expected to embrace (not so much kiss) under them to symbolise peace and reconciliation.
Georgian Christmas pretty much ran from early December to January 6th, with the upper classes engaging in heaps of entertaining. The celebrations would be rounded off by Twelfth Night parties. A tradition handed down from the Middle Ages was to bake a fruitcake with a pea and a bean inside. Whoever found them would be ‘Bean King’ and ‘Pea Queen’ and rule the household on party night. Balls held to mark Twelfth Night might be called the Grand Christmas Ball, the Children’s Ball or Family Ball and included invitations to children.
The custom of giving a gift on December 6th in honour of St. Nicholas, as well as Christmas Day and Twelfth Night, was widespread. The gift-giving would eventually merge into just one day of presents in Britain: Christmas Day.
Christmas games included Bullet Pudding (a messy game involving a mound of flour), Snap-dragon (taking raisins from a bowl of flaming brandy), Hoodman Blind (a kind of Blind Man’s Bluff), Shoe the Wild Mare (hitting a beam while dangling from it on a wooden slat known as the ‘mare’), Hot Cockles (another blindfolding/hitting game), charades, cards and apple-bobbing, while parlour plays might also be staged to entertain guests. There was also dancing – lots and lots of dancing. Festive food and drink included plum cakes, soup fortified with negus (a mixture of hot water, sweet wine and lemon), mince pies (although not quite as we know them today), boar’s head crested with bay and rosemary, tongue, beef, ham, goose, plum porridge wassail, ale and wine. Christmas candles were lit and Yule logs burnt.
There is no question the Georgians anticipated the season with excitement and enjoyed the festivities, as illustrated in the poetic memoirs of John Clare. His description of a country Christmas in Maria Hubert’s splendid book “Jane Austen’s Christmas: The Festive Season in Georgian England” beautifully captures the mood.
Eight reindeer pull Father Christmas’ sleigh, with the occasional help from a ninth when Christmas Eve visibility is poor. At least that’s how we have come to understand the deer situation over the years. The first eight are Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. The ninth is Rudolph, with his shiny red nose to guide Santa’s sleigh as required. The first eight names come from the famous 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, otherwise known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”. The first six names have remained the same. But Donner was originally Dunder (Dutch for thunder) and, in a later version of the poem, Donder. Blitzen was originally Blixem (Dutch for lightning) and later Blixen. Somewhere along the way they became established as Donner and Blitzen. Rudolph came along in the next century. In 1939, American retailers Montgomery Ward took a story created by advertising copywriter Robert L. May (1905-1976) and made a booklet for the store to give away at Christmas in a money-saving ploy. Ward had cleverly crafted a poem about a misfit reindeer that rescues Christmas (according to some sources it was a Christmas gift for his daughter Barbara in 1938, the year her mother and his wife Evelyn died from cancer). Around 2.4 million copies were distributed in its first year of publication. By 1946, that number had risen to nearer six million. Johnny Marks, May’s brother-in-law, adapted the story into a song and singing cowboy Gene Autry (1907-1998) had a US No. 1 hit single with it in 1949. It is one of the biggest-selling singles of all-time. Rudolph has appeared in his own cartoon short, animated feature length movie and stop-motion television special.
Flying Reindeer: the Fungal Effect
Nineteenth century poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” contains what we believe is the first printed reference connecting Santa Claus to his reindeer. The poem, also known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” by Clement C. Moore, reads: “When, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer.” Moreover, they are named: “Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!” But where did the thought come from to have St. Nick dragged on his sleigh through the sky by reindeer? Could it possibly have something to do with fungus?
Let’s explain. Reindeer live predominantly in the cold northern regions of Europe and North America. The Sami tribes dwell in such cold European regions near the Arctic Circle: Finland (where Santa’s Lapland can be found), Norway, Sweden and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. The Sami people herd reindeer and are known to feed them Fly Agaric Fungus. Once this fungus has passed through the reindeer, their urine can supposedly have hallucinogenic effects if drunk by the Sami. Can you think what might be one of the most common hallucinations? Allegedly, it is reindeer flying through the sky. The first missionaries to the Arctic Circle would have heard such stories and that’s how they could have been woven into the fabric of Santa Claus’s life. There was also said to be a link between Shamans – people regarded as having influence in the world of benevolent and malevolent spirits – and Fly Agaric. However, these are all simply theories forwarded by certain historians. Others have studied Sami culture and claimed the fungus had no link to hallucinations and flying reindeer. It’s a pity there is no common ground and a neatly sewn up tale. But if the experts can’t agree on the facts, can we all at least agree to the notion that Clement C. Moore may have heard of the Sami legend? If he didn’t, it begs the question: what made his mind work in such a way to imagine eight tiny reindeer pulling a jolly old elf through the sky to deliver gifts throughout the world?
Sheffield Song & Dance
The Yorkshire city of Sheffield boasts the unusual Christmas tradition of sword dancing. Dressed in leather riding boots, white trousers and tunics (like those worn by Hussars), the eight-man team of Handsworth Sword Dancers performs with long steel swords at the Market Cross in Woodhouse and the church in Handsworth on Boxing Day. They are accompanied by musicians playing such instruments as fiddles, concertinas and melodeons. You will find a similar sword dancing team at Grenoside performing on Boxing Day outside the Old Harrow pub. Wooden sword dancers from Flamborough also keep the tradition going on the Yorkshire coast. There is no accurate date of when this tradition first began, but there is a theory it could have something to do with demobbed soldiers returning from the Napoleonic wars.
Sheffield is also a still a stronghold of the festive tradition of singing Christmas carols en mass in local pubs – something that grew in Victorian times when the Church of England wanted less raucous carolling events. There can be many melodies for just one set of lyrics. Tunes vary from village to village. Among the best-known carolling pubs are the Royal at Dungworth and Blue Ball at Worrall.
Poor Old Hoss
The North Yorkshire town of Richmond plays host to one of the oldest Christmas Eve traditions in the UK – the Poor Old Hoss. One man wears a long black cloak. Attached is a decorated horse’s head skull. He’s then paraded through the streets, followed by ‘huntsmen’ in red coats singing “Poor Old Hoss”. This is believed to be an ancient pagan fertility ritual. Nowadays, it serves purely to bring fun and mirth.