The Origins of Modern Christmas Traditions
Credit must also be given to the industrial revolution. The growth of the railway paved the way for faster postage and easy mobility. Mobility was important for those who wished to visit relatives during the holidays.
In early America, colonial settlers brought a strong Puritan influence with them. English Puritans set a definite code for work on Christmas day, banning the keeping of Christmas. Even after Charles II demanded that Massachusetts rescind its anti-Christmas law, Puritan militants protested. In the end with immigrants from other religions and the need for social harmony, celebrating Christmas was encouraged. Still, not until 1856 did Massachusetts proclaim Christmas Day a legal holiday.
The Dutch settlers, however, were different. They had always held a festive Christmas.
The Southern Colonies were unhampered by Quakers and Puritans. They mimicked England in models of dress, manner and social behavior. Their Christmases were a time of leisure rather than a set of rituals. During the season, Virginians, Carolinians and Marylanders enjoyed dancing, card games, cock fighting, nine-pins and horse racing. Anglicanism was the established religion in most of the planting colonies, and it did not pressure its members into observing sacred rituals.
While Southerners aspired to recreate the English Christmas, they fell short of authenticity. This was partly due to the boar’s heads, wassail bowls, mummers etc. being on the wane since Cromwell’s Parliament in England. Many Southern families did, however, incorporate the Yule Log into their celebrations. There was good wine, dancing and entertainments but that’s as close as they came to the English Christmas.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, tales of the Virginia Christmas had spread back to England. The South became known for its hospitality, and the Southern states were among the first to legalize the holiday in the 1830s.
The information that follows may at times seem to contradict itself. There are two reasons for this. First, like/similar customs developed in many countries at about the same time in history, and each locale attached its own symbolic meanings to those customs. Second, there are endless speculations and as many researchers to draw conclusions. This brief history cannot convey “all” of the meanings behind the traditions but I’ve done my best to convey generally accepted ideas.
The Yule Log
The re-birth of the sun’s light was symbolized through the burning of the Yule Log. (Remember the sun was worshiped in ancient times) It is believed the Vikings brought the Yule Log to England. The Norse celebrated Yule from December 21 through January (the winter solstice). In recognition of the return of the sun, fathers and sons would bring home large logs. The logs were set afire and the people would feast until the log burned out which could take as long as 12 days. They believed that each spark of fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born during the coming year.
Other countries developed a similar custom involving the Yule Log. Some believe the custom spread from the Mediterranean north. But no matter where it first developed the custom became popular in many countries, each giving the custom its own symbolic meaning.
In the north it represented the need for the sun, in the south, the need for water. For the Church, it represented the baptism of Christ. The Yule Log was a means of offering a warm welcome but also possessed occult and magical properties. In some countries the fire symbolizes the center of family life and the dwelling place of ancestors.
Although primarily associated with the English holidays, the American Colonials of the South kept the tradition of Yule Log well into the Victorian era.
The old Druid religion made use of the Evergreen, Holly, Ivy, Bay, Rosemaryand Mistletoe in their worship. Mistletoe was thought to be connected to the skies and with lightning and was thus given holy importance. Mistletoe was called “all-healer” and it was believed to be a remedy against poison and to make barren animals fruitful. The name “all-healer” is still given to the mistletoe in Celtic speech.
The plant has the mysterious quality of growing green in dead winter bushes and appears to writhe within itself like a snake, forming a ball. This, and the Christian myth that said the Cross was made from Mistletoe wood which afterward as a plant shrank with shame to its present size, may be the reason churches banned mistletoe, while allowing evergreen, holly, etc..
The origin of the English custom of “kissing under the mistletoe” is not exactly known. The practice appears related to the idea of a relationship between the sexes and the spirit of fertility. Remember the Druids thought it would make their cattle fruitful. It may be a vestige of the free license permitted at folk festivals. (See Kissing Bunch for another possible explanation)
According to one custom, the young men plucked a berry each time they kissed a girl and when the berries were gone, the privilege ceased.
Before the Christmas tree, the kissing bunch was the notable decoration particularly in English and early Anglo-American households.
Kissing under the Kissing Bunch is thought to be a legacy of human sacrifice, or some form of sacred prostitution or of a sacred gesture of peace. The kissing bunch was constructed of two hoops tied to make a round frame. It was decorated with holly and ribbons, apples, oranges and other bright fruits. In the center figures of the infant Christ, Mary and Joseph were hung like a pendant. (A nativity scene) Beneath this, hung a sprig of mistletoe.
In England, Nathaniel Hawthorne commented on seeing mistletoe hung about his rooming house. The maids tried to trap gentlemen boarders beneath it in order to kiss them. Afterwards, the gentlemen were obliged to pay a shilling.
Rosemary was the most prized Christmas decoration until the mid-nineteenth century. It was also used to flavor the traditional boar’s head. Known for its pine-like scent and its pretty color, rosemary stood for remembrance. Ironically, except as a seasoning for food, it is seldom scene during our modern Christmas season. Most likely it is a casualty of the bright colors of the Christmas tree.
Holly and Ivy
Holly with its thorns and red berries was associated with Christ’s Passion. In Denmark it is known as Kristdorn, or Christ Thorn. The Druids used it as a protection against witches, who supposedly hated it. It also symbolized life, because it remains glossy green throughout winter.
Holly has always been known as the man’s plant, (It is very sturdy when it takes root.), and ivy as the female plant (It is a clinger). It also symbolized constancy. Ivy is no longer associated with Christmas as it once was. Holly has remained in use probably because of its festive color.
During medieval times, the wren was hunted and killed on St. Stephen’s Day, the day after Christmas. Traditionally a sacred bird, the wren could not be killed on any other day of the year. After the hunt the body was paraded in some places on a decorated miniature bier. It is believed that this ancient Druid custom substituted for human sacrifice, for the death of the old priest-king.
So what does the wren have to do with the robin? Nothing, except that over the years, the robin became confused with the wren. By the Victorian era, the dead bird lying on its back was sometimes displayed on Christmas cards as the sole illustration. Sometimes a live robin is still depicted on a modern-day Christmas card.
Twelve Days of Christmas
In old agricultural England and elsewhere in Europe, the twelve days of Christmas began after Christmas day and continued to Epiphany. (Epiphany – Jan. 6th – a church festival in commemoration of the magi as the first commemoration of Christ to the gentiles.) It appears to be an invention of the church to link Christmas and Epiphany.
The twelve days may also relate to the pagan winter festivals, which lasted for many days. Saturnalia, the worship of Saturn, brought to England by Romans, held a seven-day festival.
The Twelve Days of Christmas was first mentioned in the fourth century and the Council of Tours declared the Twelve Days from Christmas to Epiphany a festal tide in 567.
Many supernatural superstitions, especially in Germany and England (having to do with unhappy spirits) have hung around this season. Today the most vivid of these Christmas visitors are the Greek Kallikantzaroi or Karkantzaroi. They are the terror of the Greek peasant. In General they are half-animal, half-human monsters, black and hairy with huge heads, glaring red eyes, goats’ or asses’ ears, blood-red tongues hanging out, ferocious tusks, monkeys’ arms and long curved nails and commonly they have the feet of some beast. They come out of hiding at night and destroy all in their path. They are a danger until the Epiphany when the “Blessing of the Waters” takes place. Hallowed water is put into vessels with incense and the priests go through the villages, sprinkling the people and their houses.
With the advent of the industrial era the lengthy holiday was shortened as no employer wanted to lose twelve whole workdays.
A hundred years ago in England, Father Christmas wore a wreath of holly, giving him a look that was a cross between the Bacchic (Bacchus-a god of fruits in Roman times) and a Druid. He also possessed elements of the medieval Lord of Misrule. His presence goes as far back as the Roman Saturnalia or Saturn himself. Saturn ate his own children, the children themselves being the gifts as opposed to the modern evolution when they became recipients of gifts. Then there is the Christian belief that Jesus was God’s gift to his children so they might attain salvation.
The history of Santa Claus and the other magical gift-bringers is very interesting.
In Europe the principal gift-bringer is St. Nicholas on his saint’s day, the sixth of December.
His Anglo – American descendant is Santa Claus.
Others are the dwarfs and goats in parts of Scandinavia; the Christ Child of the Teuton (Germanic) on Christmas Eve; the white-robed girl, Kolyada, in Russia; the Epiphany gift-bearers associated with the Magi – like the Befana of Italy; old Babouschka again of old Russia and the Tres Reyes Magos of Spain – Three Kings.
The persona of Santa Claus is fused from St. Nicholas and the ancient Yule god. St. Nick was a bishop of Myra in Asia Minor in the fourth century. He became a patron Saint of Sailors after miraculously creating and calming several storms on Mediterranean voyages. His relic is housed in his church at Bari on the Italian Adriatic Coast, where his day is kept.
However, the bishop also became the patron saint of maidens. Legend says that he saved the three daughters of an impoverished father from probable prostitution by giving each a quantity of gold for dowries. He is supposed to have thrown the money in bags through the windows – and is often pictured holding balls of gold in his hand. Often see three balls are seen outside a pawnbroker’s shop, as he is a patron to pawnbrokers and bankers too.
His association with children comes from the legend of an innkeeper who cut up three boys and preserved them in barrels of vinegar. St. Nicholas found these results, fitted them together with a prayer and brought them back to life.
St. Nick is also known to have brought rods to punish naughty children.
To further complicate who Santa is and where he came from is the fact that there has always been a varying male Yule-figure at Christmastide or mid-winter festival, sometimes like Silenus, sometimes a hoary old man, his head often wreathed with mistletoe or holly, his gown varying in color, white, red, green or fustian brown. He may have evolved from the Saturnalian feast king or the Druidical priest-kings.
In Germany during the Reformation, St. Nick was replaced with the Christ Child, a figure that’s supposed to be a female messenger appearing on behalf of the newly-to-be born Jesus. Even today, in some homes, a female member of the family dresses up in white or gray with golden wings and a pale veil over her face. She enters the room containing the Christmas tree through a window. When the children are ushered into the room, they feel the cold air coming through the open window and see this pale faceless figure. Now days the custom of dressing up is dying out, but the window is left open as if the Christ Child has just left. This Christkindl has verbally evolved in the US into Kriss Kringle, and has also changed into a Father Christmas figure.
In parts of Switzerland, the Christ Child passes through the streets in a sleigh drawn by small deer. Since this could not be the true Christ Child, it was said this representative was originally a wood spirit connected to the great German fir forest, a spirit that is represented today by the fairy or angel on the treetop.
Santa Claus As We Now Know Him In America
Today’s American Santa Claus derives from the mid-nineteenth-century Dutch influence in America. The Dutch first brought their old benevolent bishop, Santa Klass to New Amsterdam. A jollier culture, then the English puritans, they established their own tradition of the Catholic saint in his bishop’s mitre (headdress).
Washington Irving’s History of New York (1809) made reference to St. Nicholas as the patron of New York.
However, it was one poem and one artist’s drawings that popularized a new mixture of the old saint and the ancient elf-figure derived from northern Europe. In 1822 on the 23rd of December, Dr. Clement Clark Moore, a professor of divinity, wrote a poem for his children as a Christmas treat. He called it The Visit of St. Nicholas, and it was published anonymously a year later in The Troy Sentinel. Americans welcomed this version of Santa into their homes and hearts.
The “eight tiny reindeer” pulling the sleigh was not entirely a new idea. Reindeer had been part of St. Nicholas’s European background.
Robert Weir painted the first American portrait of Santa in 1837. Santa was depicted as short and beardless, wearing high boots, a short coat and a stocking cap. He bore a frightening sneer for naughty children and was posed ready to ascend the chimney.
Then in 1863, Thomas Nast, in Harper’s Illustrated Weekly, began drawing his conception of the Santa invented by Dr. Moore. He named his version, Santa Claus. Still very different from today’s Santa, he was clad in what looked like a suit made of wool-like fur and a short round hat, possibly of mink fur. In the hat, was a sprig of holly and mistletoe – a remnant of the ancient wreath. He appeared as a small elf or gnome, rotund, red-faced and grotesque. (Nast was the son of a Bavarian and his Santa Claus had upturned Kaiser-like whiskers.) This version of Santa brought our present-day ideas of white whiskers and beard, the sleigh and reindeer team.
On the American frontier Santa sometimes was pictured in a buffalo coat or buckskins but almost always wore some item in bright red such as a vest or cloak.
Previously the gift-bringer in Europe had come by horse or by various other means, from camel to goat-team. Washington Irving had put him up in the skies in a wagon in 1809, and there had also been one magazine article mentioning reindeer.
But for the most part, Moore’s poem and Nast’s drawings mirrored the beginning of today’s Santa Claus.
Santa Claus Going Down the Chimney
In times when the old religions like the Druids were outlawed and had to go underground, witches or those who persisted with the old religion, used open chimneys to secretly leave their houses and attend the forbidden sabot. (There were no windows at the time and doors might be watched.) It is thought that Santa’s arrival down the chimney may have derived from this old religious custom as so many other Christian customs did.
As early as 1893, father’s were playing Santa. A Newcastle, Pennsylvania father scaled his rooftop and tried to slide down the chimney. He got stuck and the neighbors rescued him by tearing down the chimney to the roofline and lowering a rope.
The North Pole
In the 1840’s John Franklin, an English navigator and naturalist set out to locate the Northwest Passage and failed to return. The mystery of what lay north became a huge curiosity. Throughout the 1850’s articles on the North Pole sustained that interest. Then in 1866, the artist, Nast, depicted Santa housed in an ice palace and later named the North Pole as Santa’s home. The mysterious area seemed logical place for Santa to hide out and make his toys.
Santa had no wife until 1899, when Katherine Lee Bates created a Mrs. Claus in her story, Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride.
Thomas Nast depicted elves with Santa but he did not invent them. They first appeared around 1856 when Louisa May Alcott completed, but never published a book titled Christmas Elves.
The Three kings and Their Gifts
- Gold — The sun mystery (remember, the old religion celebrated the sun in the winter festivals).
- Frankincense — The smoke maker with sacrificial associations.
- Myrrh — A substance of medical magic; (according to the Bible both David and Solomon sang the praises of the herb. Moses also used it in Jewish ceremonial rites. Highly regarded, it is little wonder that it was presented to the Christ Child.
The Wise Men
The Bible doesn’t specifically mention “three” visitors to the manager and the visitors were not called kings, but Wise Men or Magi. The assumption of three seems to have evolved from the mention of three kinds of gifts.
The Magi came from Persia, where Mithra came from: and where priest-astrologers were men of great authority and traveled with the rights granted rulers of that time. (One early Asian source numbers the Magi as twelve, a familiar magical number.) From the word Magi we get the word magic: but nobody says exactly where these particular magicians came from. It is an assumption that one of them was black, another young, another old and that their names were called Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior. Some sources give their names as Galgalath, Magalath and Tharath.
What we know as a star in the east might have been a star in the west or northwest as seen from the east. Or, it might be a generalization of Venus, the Morning Star, heralding a new day and thus a new hope. The interest of the Magi in the star suggests they were priests rather than royalty. It was customary for the birth of a god or even a hero to be associated with a sign from the heavens and the seat of the mystical zodiac. Thus the star.
The Christmas Tree
Although decorated trees were found in homes Strasbourg in 1605, many European homes still displayed pyramid-like erections of wood, decorated like a tree with candles and fruit. Sometimes, these were carried from house to house with a request for money, much like the Welsh tripod calenning at New Year. It is possible that these pyramids were a substitute for trees, since they could be used year after year.
Before the arrival of the Christmas tree, it was customary to bring small potted cherry or hawthorn trees, or water-potted branches into the house so that they might bud at New Year or Christmas. This echoes the legend of the Glastonbury Thorn, supposedly planted by Joseph of Arimathaea and supposed to flower on Christmas Day. It is a biflora, which does sometimes flower on Old Christmas Day – the 6th of January. And it is in line also with the wide lore that all nature is transformed on the eve of Christ’s birth. (It was believed animals could talk like humans on this one special night.)
Many ancient peoples believed winter came because the sun god had become sick and weak. Celebrating winter solstice was the celebration of the return of the sun’s strength. Evergreen boughs reminded people of the green plants that would grow again with the return of summer.
Likewise, the Romans who celebrated Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, decorated homes and temples with evergreen boughs. Romans also decked the house with branches for the Kalendae of January.
In Northern Europe, Druids and priests of the ancient Celts festooned their temples with evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life, as well as the mystery of the woods and the gods.
The Vikings of Scandinavia believed evergreens were their sun god’s (Balder) special plant.
The first decorated Christmas trees are recorded as originating in Strasbourg in Alsace in 1605. (Alsace being a frontier region between Germany and France and Belgium and Switzerland—the Alsace-Lorraine.) Most have heard the story.
It’s told that Martin Luther (about the mid-1500s) was so moved by the brightness of the stars on a winter’s night that he brought a little tree inside the house and set candles on it to simulate the effect of the bright stars. It’s a great tale that cannot be substantiated.
This seems like an early date, but it took the Napoleonic Wars, and the Prussian officers who noticed the Christmas tree on campaign to spread the idea and to make it a universal German custom by 1841. It was called the Weihnachtsbaum.
The evergreen Christmas tree was not recorded in England until the very end of the 18th century, and did not become popular until after the 1840s when the Prince Consort, Albert, introduced it into the Royal Family.
America had the Christmas tree in the mid-eighteenth century from Hessian soldiers during the Revolution.
The first record of a Christmas tree in America was in the 1830s when German settlers of Pennsylvania put them on display. (As mentioned, Christmas trees were a German tradition much earlier.) The Pennsylvania German settlements had community trees as early as 1747. But until the late 1840s many Americans saw the trees as a pagan symbol and did not accept them.
In Victorian times, in Europe and America, candles decorated the trees. Wide flowing dresses and long hair made this a dangerous practice. Edward Johnson, a New Yorker and vice president of the newly formed Edison Electric, claimed to be the first to add electric lights to his tree in 1882. He used small hand-blown bulbs that were hand-wired in the laboratory. By 1895 electric lights had replaced the candles on President Cleveland’s White House tree. General usage didn’t come about until the 1920’s.
Glass ornaments and icicles were introduced to the nation by the Germans around the mid-1860s. A Godey’s magazine displayed Christmas articles in its 1874 December issue. Customarily, Americans liked their trees to reach the ceiling while Europeans preferred smaller trees around four feet tall. (
See more on tree decorations in the Part 3, The American Christmas, Victorian Style
The Christmas Card
New Year cards had been printed for many years before the Christmas card came along.
The advent of an efficient postal system helped spread Christmas greetings from town to town and in the 1840s, the Christmas card came into being.
Before the advent of Christmas Cards sheets of writing paper were decorated with Christmas themes. But these necessitated a personally written message, as did the specially engraved sheets of paper used for ‘Christmas pieces’, examples of handwriting required of children returning from school for the holidays. There were also printed, all-purpose anniversary cards on which the word ’Christmas’ could be written. This was the nearest thing to a Christmas Card before the generally accepted first card came to be designed by John Calcott Horsley in 1843.
The Horsley card was drawn at the request of Sir Henry Cole, who had the card printed to save time on his personal Christmas letters. He was also prompted by his interest in furthering the expansion of the postal system itself. Horsley’s first cards were about the size of a lady’s calling card and featured a happy family with smaller pictures of the poor and hungry on both sides. The sentiment was “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.”
George Buday, in his writing, The History of the Christmas Card, wrote that not more than a thousand copies of this card were sold at one shilling a copy. He mentions the runners-up for the honor of being first, such as W. M. Egley. His design was similar to Horsley’s, but Egley’s own records state that his was the second card, designed in 1848. Both cards depicted homey scenes set within rustic, ivy-leafed borders, with smaller pictures of charitable gifts for the poor. Only Egley’s showed holly.
Published Victorian Christmas cards didn’t immediately catch on. People continued to decorate their own visiting cards. The commercial production of cards in England didn’t get catch hold until the 1860s. Later, advances in printing techniques, a better postal service and commercial interests spurred card distribution into the millions.
R.H. Pease is described as the first manufacturer and distributor of Christmas Cards in America in the early 1850’s. These cards depicted a Santa and reindeer. And instead of a sentiment, they advertised his business. Cards in the US didn’t become popular until the lithographer, Louis Prang, began producing them in 1875. Later, cheaper cards were imported from Germany and other European countries.
The variety of Victorian Christmas cards was enormous. The printed cards were dressed with satin, fringed silk and plush; gilded and frosted; made in the form of fans, stars, crescents and other shapes; embossed and jeweled; made to stand up and some even squeaked. They illustrated anything seasonable from a fireside scene to a giant snowball, a skating session to a frosted church, from comic animals to the well-known stagecoach. Holly and robins and snowflakes, mistletoe and trees and puddings, bicycles and balloons and railway engines and pretty girls were mixed up in every manner to celebrate the season. There were even trick cards, like personal silhouettes cards, cards you turned sideways or upside down to find a concealed meaning, cards made to resemble treasury notes etc.
Native to Central America, the poinsettia flourished in an area of Southern Mexico known as Taxco del Alarcon. It bloomed in the tropical highlands during the winter and the Aztecs used its sap to treat fevers.
Roberts Poinsett, the first US ambassador to Mexico (1825-1829) was fascinated with botany. He brought the plant back to his hothouses at his plantation in South Carolina in 1828. He gave some away as gifts and among the recipients was John Bartram of Philadelphia who in turn gave the plant to Rogert Buist, a Pennsylvania nurseryman. Buist is thought to be the first person to have sold the plant under its botanical name Euphorbia pulcherrima. It became known by its more popular name, Poinsettia, by 1836.
Poinsettias could be found in select greenhouses in America as early as the 1830’s. By 1870, New York shops sold them at Christmas and by the turn of the century they became associated with the holidays.
Christmas carols first developed in the form of popular Nativity songs much like church hymns, which were usually sung in Latin. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Reformation and the Puritans discouraged such thoughtless revelry, and in the following couple of hundred years they almost disappeared from England.
Following the general renewed interest in Christmas traditions, Davies Gilber published a small Collection of Christmas Carols in 1822. These were successfully reprinted.
During the 1890’s and 1900’s Americans revived the old English custom of caroling.
See the Christmas Time Line in Part 4 for dates and composers of Christmas Carols and songs.
Most of the early dishes held a symbolic significance dating back to the pagan religions. As Christianity became prevalent, the symbolism was adjusted to have meaning for the Christians.
After Rome made Britain part of its empire, many of the autumn feasting holidays of the old religions moved to the month of December. The Brits easily took to the feasting.
In London in 1900 The Royal Magazine estimated that the number of turkeys and geese cooked for Christmas dinner would form an army marching ten abreast, which would reach from London to Brighton. (Approximately 30 miles)
The head of the wild boar, a beast extinct in England by the 16th century, was the great historical dish for the nobleman’s table. His cousin, the pig was a near substitute. The boar was probably chosen because it trampled the crops and was therefore an enemy to the corn spirit. (In ancient times the swine was a favorite sacrificial animal)
The boar’s head decked out in rosemary with a round solar fruit like an apple or an orange placed in its mouth, was the main dish of medieval Christmas feasting. The round solar fruit referred to the ancient religions celebration of the sun. The eating of the boar represented the act of regaining the good will of the corn spirit.
Later on, the peacock became a specially prized dish, and was brought into the eating hall with much ceremony. The skin was first stripped off with feathers still attached. The bird was then roasted, half-cooled, and sewn up again in the feathered skin. The beak was gilded in gold. In fact, sometimes the whole bird was gilded with leaf-gold. Stuffed with spices and herbs, and a cotton-wick saturated in spirits was placed in its beak and lit.
In Germany and elsewhere the goose was the recognized dish. And later in England, it took its place for a long time as the most popular Christmas dish. The sausages that went with it were once served in string form, and represented the boar’s old garland.
The turkey was a gift from the New World. Spanish ships first brought it back from the Aztecs of Mexico to Spain in 1519. From there it arrived in the Spanish Netherlands. It finally came to prosper in England’s Holland of East Anglia where great turkey farms were started. It’s said that the turkey was eaten in England in the third decade of that century, but it is possible the bird was confused with the guinea-fowl.
It wasn’t until Victorian times that the turkey replaced the goose, or in the north roast beef as the leading Christmas meal in England. In America of course, the indigenous turkey was a general festive dish much earlier.
In America, turkeys ran in wild flocks and were hunted. In England, George II kept thousands in Richmond Park for hunting. It was an easy sport as the birds often attained a weight of 50 or 60 pounds. By the 18th century great droves of turkeys proceeding on foot all the way from Norfolk to London.
Before Cromwell’s government ban on Christmas celebration, the mince-pie was meatier and was called ‘shrid pye’ (shredded). It contained mutton and ox-tongue. Baked in an oblong form, it’s top crust sank into a concave manger-shape. A doll or Christ figure of dough was placed in the indentation. The custom never returned after Cromwell’s ban was lifted. Instead, pies were round and later, cheaper preserved fruits replaced the meat. The pies also became sweeter.
Cakes and Biscuits
In Europe, cakes and biscuits were an odd mix of the usual sacrificial, Christian and sun symbols. All were based on reverence of the wheat grain or oat, retained from the harvest of the year, and baked in hope of a good year to come.
Biscuits and cakes were baked in the shape of oxen or pigs or in the shape of the horns of oxen, or of the Christ figure, or as wheels into which a candle was placed.
In France various cakes are made. In Berry on Christmas morning, loaves called cornaboeux were made in the shape of horns or crescents and distributed to the poor. In some other parts of France, this cake was known as holais, and for each horse or ox he owned a ploughmen gave a cake to the poor.
The most remarkable of Christmas cakes is the Swedish and Danish Yule Boar, a loaf in the form of a boar or pig, which stood on the table throughout the season. It was made from corn.
In Germany, besides stolen, a plum loaf, biscuits in animal or human shape were numerous on Christmas Eve. There was also a variety of lebkuchen, feffernűsse, printen, speckulatius biscuits etc.
Christmas Pudding or Frumenty or Furmety
Christmas pudding began as frumenty (Latin – Frumentum = corn), or hulled wheat boiled in milk and seasoned with cinnamon, sugar and other spices. This cereal is believed to have had a sacred purpose. Sometimes used as a fasting dish on Christmas Eve, it also occasionally served as an accompaniment to a meat course. (In Yorkshire it was the first food eaten on Christmas morning, just as ale posset was the last thing drunk on Christmas Eve. (Ale posset was a mixture of beer and milk.)
In time, eggs or mace, dried prunes, and later lumps of meat were added. It was then served in a tureen as porridge. Later it was stiffened into the meatless plum pudding we know today.
At some point this seems to have either merged or competed with the hackin, or large boiled sausage, a once popular dish possibly surviving in Scotland as the haggis. Hackin (hacked meat or mince) was traditionally boiled by daybreak. Otherwise the girls of the house were heavily penalized, by having to run round the market place while being ostracized for the rest of the day.
The eating of hackin at Christmas disappeared after the eighteenth century or may have become one with the pudding, which as it became more solid had to be boiled in a sausage-skin-like cloth.
Later the pudding became a dish rich with dark fruit. It had to be stirred from East to West in honor of the Three Kings, and by everyone of the family, or on a board ship in the navy.
In the American Victorian home, the pudding was steamed for at least four hours on Christmas morning, its heavenly aroma permeating the house. Plum pudding recipes were legion, and each household had its favorite, but the essential ingredients were bread crumbs, beef suet and raisins wrapped in muslin and steeped in liqueur for six weeks. Doused with brandy, the pudding was lit and carried to the head of the table. While blue flames flared on the silver tray, it was toasted with blessings.
Washing The Feast Down
For centuries mead (cider and fermented honey), wine, and ale were drunk at any feast. The two Christmas specialties were church ale and the wassail drink of lambswool. Lambswool was a hot concoction of beer mulled with toasted apples bobbing on the foaming surface. Church ale was a strong brew tapped at Christmastide and sold in the churchyard, even in the church itself. This resulted in dancing and celebrating after prayers to the cry of ‘Yole, yole, yole.
The wassail bowl was served in households either as a convivial drink or according to old tradition, passed from lip to lip in the ancient manner of communication with the vegetable spirit. Originally pieces of toast floated in it – hence our phrase ‘to toast’ someone. The wassail bowl was a formal affirmation of friendship.
An empty wassail bowl or beaker was also carried round by carolers and a drink extorted from door to door. This was part of the approved begging at Christmas, performed by star-singers and mummers of various kinds. It was based on mixed traditions of sacred feasting and Christian charity, and was necessary as mid-winter was a difficult time of year for the poor.
Eggnog is a descendant of the English syllabub, a spiced mixture of wine and creamed milk and is generally associated with the 15th and 16th centuries.
In the last century, American eggnog was served with free restaurant lunches during Christmas week. The Yank version substituted the wine with hard liquor and with it beaten eggs. “A recipe might be: beat up the yolks of a dozen eggs, beat in a pint of brandy (or rum and brandy) add a quart of cream and milk and sugar and spices, before adding whipped up whites as a crown.”
It was standard for gentleman to stagger from house to house in what was called ‘egg-nogging’.
I apologize for the length of this blog but I hope you enjoyed reading about how our holiday traditions originated. Part Three will address The American Christmas Victorian Style and I promise it’s shorter but just as interesting.
Okay, anybody know when the Christmas stocking was first used and who used them first?