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Frances L Spiegel

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A Traditional British Christmas?
by Frances L Spiegel   

Last edited: Monday, June 04, 2001
Posted: Monday, June 04, 2001

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An examination of the origins of the "traditional British Christmas".

Just how have we arrived at our "traditional" British Christmas?

Prehistoric farmers observed the sun's journey across the sky and gave thanks for the warmth it provided and its crucial effect on crops. The winter solstice marked the point when the sun's power started to increase once more. The rebirth of the sun with its promise of new growth heralded great celebrations.
Early Romans honoured Saturn and Mithra, gods of agriculture and light. The Saturnalia lasted from 17th December until the Kalends1 of January, the Roman New Year. (Kalends gives us our modern word 'calendar'.) The Saturnalia was a time of feasting and goodwill: wars could not be declared and masters served their slaves. Romans decorated their homes with greenery, prepared special foods and exchanged presents.

By the late 300s Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire but Mithraism remained popular, as did the Saturnalia.

Faced with such strong competition the Christian Church adopted the winter festival, setting 25th December as its official date. It is no coincidence that this date is also Mithra's birthday.

The first known reference to Christ's birthday as 25th December occurred in an early Roman calendar in 336 AD. Setting a specific date had been fraught with difficulties since there was no universal calendar.
Much of the Christian world celebrated Christmas on 25th December but some branches of the Church, for example, the Armenian Church, believed 6th January, Epiphany, was the more important date. On this date Christ's Divinity was revealed to the Gentiles - that is, to the three Magi. In the west, since the fifth century, Epiphany has gained importance and is marked as Twelfth Night or the Festival of the Three Kings.

The Saturnalia was not a feature of Christianity but many aspects of the festival were easily assimilated into Christianity. However, many Church authorities rejected this popular indulgence in, what were in their view, pagan rituals. In the fourth century AD St Gregory Nazianzen cried out against feasting to excess. The festival should be celebrated in a spiritual manner, not in earthly excessive fashion.

Censure was carried a stage further when in the fifth century the Christian Church tried to ban all stage plays at Christmas. They particularly disliked the Saturnalian practice of men performing bawdy plays dressed in women's clothing, animal skins or nothing at all - perhaps the origin of our modern pantomime?
Anglo-Saxons also held major celebrations in mid-winter. In the seventh century Pope Gregory sent St. Augustine to Britain with instructions to convert the Anglo-Saxon population. He was to adapt Christian practices to fit in with existing traditions so that the people would not find the changes too upsetting.

St. Augustine allowed converts to continue to kill Oxen to eat at their mid-winter festival of Odin, celebrating the rebirth of the sun, but now they would honour God rather than pagan deities and the festival would be called Christmas.

According to legend Odin would gallop across the frozen countryside bringing presents to his people. The festival would last 12 days: homes were decorated with fir trees and decorative greenery. People burned Yule logs and ate Yule cakes. The logs survive today in form of the chocolate Yule Log cake.

Christmas was not just a religious festival. It had a social and political role in holding kingdoms together. Many European kings chose to be crowned at Christmas. Charlemagne, the king of the Franks, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day 800 AD and Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England was crowned on Christmas Day 1065.

By 1100 Christmas had become the most important religious festival in Europe. In 1213 King John held a lavish Christmas celebration to which he invited his earls and thanes in an attempt to end feudal quarrels and cement allegiances. Revellers consumed, amongst other things, 24 hogshead of wine, 200 head of pork, 1000 hens and 15,000 herrings.

These grand feasts remained a major feature of Christmas celebrations during the Tudor and Stuart periods, but by the 1580s were associated with the corruption and extravagance of the Catholic Church. Many believed Christmas had become an orgy of celebration with no basis in Christianity. By 1583 Scottish Presbyterians had actually banned Christmas.

The Reformation started as an attempt to reform the Roman Catholic Church. It resulted in the establishment of the Protestant Church. Following the Civil War of 1642 Christmas celebrations in England and some English colonies in America, were outlawed by Act of Parliament, and so was the eating of mince pies! Under this law people were to treat Christmas Day as any other working day. Christmas celebrations continued in a subdued form in the privacy of people's homes.

By the 18th and 19th centuries Christmas had become a season based on ideals of family, peace, charity, and nostalgia - a time for reinforcing family values. From 1834 Christmas Day was officially acknowledged as a holiday and the Bank Holiday Act of 1871 recognised the practice of extending the Christmas holiday to include St. Stephen's Day which had become known as Boxing Day.

Boxing Day became the day for presenting a Christmas box: a gratuity, to staff and tradesmen. By 1771 this had become such an expensive tradition that London grocers decided enough was enough. They stopped presenting boxes to customer's maids. This resulted in a protest by every female servant who refused to drink tea, and more importantly, refused to buy it at these shops. The Christmas box soon reappeared!

At the start of Queen Victoria's reign in 1837 Christmas was, for most, an ordinary day. Few gave presents, very few ate turkey, children did not hang stockings and the Christmas Tree was virtually unknown outside the royal household. But things began to change. In 1846 the Illustrated London News portrayed Queen Victoria and Prince Albert standing around the Christmas Tree with their family at Windsor Castle. Prince Albert imported the decorated Christmas Tree from his native Germany where it was a long-established popular tradition. The decorated Christmas tree soon became central to the Victorian family Christmas.

Regardless of how we have arrived at the "traditional British Christmas" it must be said that our forthcoming Christmas celebrations will reflect the many cultural ideologies that make up the population of Britain today.


J.M. Golby, A.W.Purdue "The Making of the Modern Christmas" Sutton Publishing Ltd, Second Edition
V. Janitch "Victorian Christmas" Brockhampton Press, 1995
World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia 1995, World Book Inc.
Microsoft (R) Encarta (R) Encyclopedia 98 Microsoft Corporation
Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. 1994-1998

Reader Reviews for "A Traditional British Christmas?"

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Reviewed by Lawrance Lux
It is an excellent review of the development of the Christmas festival; showing the input of many peoples from many periods.
Reviewed by Regina Pounds
Very informative. The title is a little misleading. I expected a description of how you observe the holiday, but was pleasantly surprised by the 'entire history' you present.

Thank you and happy holidays to you, Frances,
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