Ever wondered how all the little Christmas traditions we love got started? PHS Columnist, Virginia Heath, tells us all about the history of Christmas, its rituals and favourite stories, resurrecting the Ghosts of Christmas Past...
Who doesn’t love a Christmas story, especially if there is some romance involved? Yet the tradition of the Christmas story as we know it is relatively new by literary standards because Christmas of the past wasn’t-well to be frank- Christmassy enough.
The entire blame for Christmas as we know it rests on the shoulders of the Victorians and is epitomised in the Dicken’s classic A Christmas Carol- but more of that later. First, the nerdy former history teacher in me needs to give you some background.
For the best part of two thousand years it had been a solely religious festival and was celebrated in a respectful and controlled fashion. It might surprise you to learn that there is absolutely no mention of Christmas in the Bible. For centuries there was much debate as to when Jesus was born so they didn’t have a date to celebrate, so as there was already an established Pagan festival in December- the Winter Solstice - the church decided to put Christmas there. That’s when the problems began, because those Pagans were an earthy bunch and the Winter Solstice was a raucous time to celebrate the death of winter and the onset of the season of new life, which meant feasts, wine and sex. Lots and lots of sex!
By the Middle Ages things had gotten quite out of hand. Peasants were using the Pagan tradition of kissing under the mistletoe alongside alcohol during wild parties spanning several days. The church did it’s best to calm things down, reminding people of the fiery pits of Hell and the need to knuckle down to some serious religious contemplation during the festive season but the parties went on regardless. Things came to a head in the 1600s, when the Puritans decided enough was enough. In 1645 the new republican leader of England, Oliver Cromwell, banned all Christmas celebrations and made the day all about the birth of Christ. You could go to church and sing a few hymns but the fun stopped there. The pilgrims in New England followed suit soon after and fined anyone caught being festive. In Boston, that fine was a hefty five shillings (which was a King’s ransom in those days!) and the threat of the fine made people toe the line.
The ban didn’t last long but much of the joy of the season had been sucked out of the event and what emerged was a more sedate affair steeped in religious observance. A few Pagan rituals crept back in- decorating the house with winter greenery, burning yule logs and stealing kisses under the mistletoe- but
it was definitely not a time for romance.
Or was it?
The wonderful novels of Jane Austen give us a peek into the Regency Christmas celebrations. There are boisterous parlour games, many involving kissing, and family gatherings galore in a season which stretched a whole month until Twelfth Night on the 5th January. That is a lot of socialising and a lot of romantic possibilities.
In Sense and Sensibility, the Dashwood ladies attend Sir John Middleton’s Christmas ball where a certain Mr Willoughby danced from "eight o'clock till four, without once sitting down". However, one of my favourite festive romance tropes, being snowed in at Christmas began with Austen’s Emma when the heroine and Mr Knightly accidentally become incarcerated at the Randall’s because of the weather. Thrust in each other’s company so that love can blossom…
But it was the Victorians who really put their stamp on Christmas, and largely as a result of a well-publicised love affair. The besotted young Queen Victoria and her handsome husband Albert became public symbols of romantic love and whatever that golden couple did, the people soon emulated. When Albert introduced the German tradition of Christmas trees to the royal household everyone had to have one. In1848, after the Illustrated London News published a picture of the royal family gathered around the tree at Windsor, the image sparked copies to be sent out across the country to family further
afield and thus the first Christmas cards were born.
The timing was perfect. The Industrial Revolution made mass production possible and canny new entrepreneurs were always on the look-out for yet another way to make money. Christmas became commercial and a whole new industry grew up around it. Tree decorations, colourful Christmas cards, sweets and toys boomed. In fact, the tradition of Christmas crackers stemmed from an advertising campaign by a confectioner called Tom Smith. To sell more of his sweets than his rivals one December he introduced a special Christmas packaging which could be pulled apart with an exciting snap and causing an explosion of sweets to fly out. Even farming changed to pander to the Victorian desire for yuletide indulgence and keeping up with the Joneses, breeding the more expensive and meaty turkey to replace the traditional bony goose for Christmas dinner. Anyone who was anyone had turkey instead, even if that meant saving up at the butchers all year for one of the coveted birds.
This new and improved version of Christmas is celebrated to the full in Charles Dickens’ seminal Crimbo story- A Christmas Carol. Although not an out and out romance by any stretch of the imagination, readers soon learn that Ebenezer Scrooge lost his big chance at love because of his desire for money. The Victorians was all hopeless romantics so the whole book explores human relationships and the need to love something worthwhile. Fortunately, thanks to the goodwill of the season Scrooge is reprieved before it is too late, but the symbolism Dicken’s created has endured. Many a Christmas romance movie uses the miserable-curmudgeon-made-happy-through-love trope and I have to confess it is another of my favourites.
It goes without saying I can’t write a piece about the origins of a romantic Christmas without mentioning Santa. I mean, you can’t have Christmas without him, can you? Well actually, he didn’t turn up till late either. He existed as a saint.
St Nicholas was known for bestowing gifts to the needy in his homeland of Turkey (oh the irony!) and had been sort of celebrated in England until Cromwell banned him with the rest of Christmas, but he really only thrived in the Netherlands where Sinterklaas delivered gifts on St Nicholas’ Eve on 5th December. The idea of Father Christmas delivering gifts to children on Christmas Eve was another Victorian invention which quickly caught on, although he didn’t get his iconic sleigh and team of reindeer until the bishop of New York (the man who inaugurated George Washington) made him up in his poem The Night Before Christmas towards the end of the 1800s.
Thanks to the Dutch settlers in America, Santa Claus and Father Christmas soon merged into one. He was a jolly fellow with an eclectic wardrobe until the 20th century when an adverting campaign by Coca Cola put him in firmly red. Yes, he had been put in red before, but all that white fur trim and shiny black boots is pure Coke branding.
So next time you read a romance with festive-feast, gift-giving, mistletoe-kissing, tree-decorating, cracker-pulling, card-posting, Christmas-hating, scarlet-clad-secret-Santas who may or may not be stranded in a snow-storm together, you’ll know where they all came from!
His Mistletoe Wager by Virginia Heath, featuring unpassable snow, a Christmas curmudgeon and a saucy sprig of Pagan mistletoe, is out now! You can get in touch with Virginia on her website, or on social media via Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.
What is your most loved Christmas tradition? Your favourite Christmas story? Comment here or on #PHS social media. We'd love to hear from you!