Friday, December 24, 2010


Christmas in England: A the darkest moment of the year, when the days are shortest and the nights longest, comes the joyful festival of Christmas. And with it that quintessentially English carol:

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Twelve lords a-leaping
Eleven ladies dancing
Ten pipers piping
Nine drummers drumming
Eight maids a-milking
Seven swans a-swimming
Six geese a-laying
Five gold rings
Four calling birds
Three French hens
Two turtle doves
And a partridge in a pear tree.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are not included in the twelve days of Christmas, which start on Boxing Day, also called St Stephen’s Day (26 December), and finish on Twelfth Night, or Epiphany, when the Christ-child was shown to the Magi (6 January). Each day is said to represent the twelve months of the passing year.

In pagan times a festival of light – called Yule - was held in the depths of winter, to mark the winter solstice. There was also a Roman mid-winter festival called Saturnalia. In the mid 4th century the Christian church in Rome set the date of 25th December as the date of the celebration of the Christ child’s birth. A cheerful elf known as the Holly King played a major part in the pagan Yule festival. His Queen was represented by Ivy. In England the Christmas festivities – the main religious services, the feasting and the exchanging of gifts – usually take place on Christmas Day, in contrast to many European countries where Christmas Eve is the focus.

'Yule Log' - the edible version
Advent begins on 1 December. During Advent in England, Christmasses of earlier ages – medieval, Tudor, Victorian – are recreated in the country’s historic towns and cities, castles and manor houses, and seasonal fairs and nativity plays abound. The establishment of an efficient postal system in Victorian times encouraged the exchange of Christmas cards. The custom of bringing an evergreen fir tree indoors at midwinter stems from pagan times. The lavishly decorated tree that is now the centrepiece of English celebrations was introduced in the 19th century from Germany, by Prince Albert, Consort to Queen Victoria. The huge tree in London’s Trafalgar Square is donated each year by the City of Oslo as a token of thanks for Britain’s hospitality to the Norwegian Royal Family during WWII.

The Kissing Bough
Evergreen wreaths were made to celebrate midwinter long before the Christian festival. Like holly and ivy, Mistletoe – a strange, parasitic evergreen plant – is closely associated with Christmas in England. Traditionally, a bunch of mistletoe is hung in a doorway for kissing under – the ‘Kissing Bough’. The custom of burning a special ‘Yule’ log on Christmas Eve has its origins in midwinter celebrations. Fire is a symbol of hope, and burning the log, which was chosen with care and dragged home through the snow with great ceremony, we believed to bring good luck and protection to the household. A small portion of the log was kept as kindling for the following year. Today ‘bringing in the Yule’ is often represented by a cake, shaped and artistically decorated to resemble a log. Here's a recipe.

Symbols of English Christmasses include the Christmas Robin, its red breast a cheerful sight in against the snow; oranges, whose vibrant colour and spherical shape are reminders of the absent sun. Candlelight symbolises the birth of the ‘Light of the World’. Traditional pomanders are made from oranges stuck with cloves and left in a warm place to dry out, filing the household with the scent of Christmas.

A collection of English Christmas carols was published as long ago as 1521, but it was the Victorians who gave the English the carols they love and know today. Carol singers would brave the cold and entertain people in their homes and streets. One of the highlights of the season is the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols held on Christmas Eve at King’s College, Cambridge. The first of these was held in 1918, and since 1928 it has been broadcast live. The same Order of Service if followed in many churches and cathedrals.

In Victorian times, the ‘mincemeat’ filling in mince pies contained mince meat mixed with beef suet, dried and fresh fruits, citrus peel, almonds, sugar and spices, and plenty of alcohol such as sherry, brandy or port. Today, the minced meat has disappeared but the fruity pies remains traditional.

Here's something not many people know (I didn't until now): On 22 December 1657, Oliver Cromwell, the English Republic’s Lord Protector, abolished the English Christmas altogether by an act of parliament. It was re-instated by Charles II when he was restored to the throne in 1660.

In Victorian households, the family returned home after Christmas morning matins, and the opening of the presents came before the feasting. Father Christmas, or Santa Claus – derived from the benevolent 4th century Bishop of Myra, St Nicholas, who was said to have left present of food or money in the stockings of needy children – visits overnight, filling the children’s hung stockings with oranges, nuts and a coin. In the 17th century the ‘Spirit of Christmas’ was half-pagan, half-Christian, and was usually dressed more sombrely than the current Santa, in a brown or white robe. He was the personification of the Christmas feast, and was often pictured with a drink in his hand. The plump, jolly Santa in a red suit, flying over the rooftops, emerged only at the end of the 19th century.

When Good King Wenceslas trudged through the freezing snow on the Feast of St Stephen to take food, wine and logs to a poor man, he set the scene for the English customs of Boxing Day. The name comes from the distribution of food and money to the poor in Christmas boxes.

Stirring the Christmas pudding mixture is considered good luck; and the person who finds a coin in his or her pudding on Christmas Day is considered especially fortunate. English Christmas fare is warming and filling, perfect for midwinter. Roasted meats have long been the centrepiece – in the 15th century a boars’ head was usually featured, and the Boar’s Head Carol commemorates this. Poor Victorian revellers saved all year for their Christmas goose, which was usually taken to the local baker to be roasted in the bread ovens. Christmas crackers were invented by a London confectioner, Tom Smith, in the mid 19th century. The original cracker contained a sweetmeat, a sentimental verse, and the ‘snap’ that creates the bang. The paper hat came much later.

The traditional steamed Christmas pudding, once known as ‘plum’ or ‘figgy’ pudding – is English through and through, as is the sweet rich Christmas cake. A pagan form of Christmas pudding consisted of ingredients thrown into a pot over a fire, to honour the harvest god. Today, the pudding is traditionally served in a blaze of flaming brandy.

The Queen’s Speech has its roots firmly in the 20th century. King George V was the first monarch to make a radio broadcast on Christmas Day, in 1932, and Queen Elizabeth II made her first Christmas Day speech in 1952, the year of her accession. It was first broadcast live in 1957, although now it is usually pre-recorded. It is the focus of many English Christmas afternoons.The Christmas season closes on Twelfth Night, when decorations are taken down. To do this before or after this date is considered unlucky.

Christmas in Australia: All of the above, except in midsummer! How nuts is that? But in Australia Christmas doesn't seem right without hot weather and fresh seafood - the Sydney Fish market traditionally opens for a 36 hour marathon on 23rd and 24th December, when 'going for the prawns' replaces hauling in the Yule log. Long, light evenings, chilled white wine, lobster and mangoes...all that would be sensible, but most people still roast a turkey and steam a Christmas pudding. 

On Boxing Day the excitement of the beginning of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race takes over, as the fleet sails out of Sydney Harbour on a race south to Hobart - one of the most dangerous ocean-going races. This year, with gales predicted, things will be tense. And the cricket - the thunk of leather on willow in the long, hot afternoon, and the Boxing Day test begins: this year, the traditional England-v-Australia battle is neck-and-neck. The other great sporting event of Boxing Day, and possibly the most dangerous and hard-fought: The Sales, as the big department stores slash their prices and veteran shoppers surge in their hordes to grab the bargains.

Start of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race

Hungarian Christmas Ornament
Christmas in Hungary: This evening, Christmas Eve, I am invited to celebrate with my new Hungarian almost-in-law family. Like many European traditions, Christmas Eve is the principal focus of the celebration for Hungarians. I am exhorted to be there before seven o'clock, as that is the moment for the Lighting of the Tree. To make sure that I am prepared, I have checked on Hungarian Christmas traditions, and I have learnt that in Hungary, St. Nicholas is known as Mikulas, and visits children accompanied by the Devil. Mikulas wears the robes of a bishop, a red mitre on his head and has a staff in one hand and a sack full of small gifts and toys for good children in the other hand. 'Devil' is dressed up in a black costume with horns on his head and a long tail. He has a switch made of dry twigs in his hands to hit 'naughty' or bad children. The highlight of Christmas celebrations in Hungary takes place on Christmas Eve, known as 'Szent-este' or 'Holy Evening'. 

Hungarian families gather around a Christmas Tree, sing carols, open gifts and presents left for them by Baby Jesus and angels, and then head off to attend Midnight Mass. Nativity plays constitute an important Hungarian Christmas tradition & custom. Groups of children or adults perform these plays, which are often enhanced by puppetry, songs, use of musical instruments and even dancing. I am not sure if the family will run to a nativity play this evening, but I wouldn't be surprised if some dancing broke out.

Merry Christmas!

Of course, you have got the Christmas ham...?

Information from 'The English Christmas' - The Pitkin Guide.
Some images from:

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