Christmas In BRITISH ISLES
Many of our current American ideals about the way Christmas ought to be derive from the English Victorian Christmas, such as that described in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The caroling, the gifts, the feast, and the wishing of good cheer to all – these ingredients came together to create that special Christmas atmosphere.
The custom of gift-giving on Christmas dates only to Victorian times. Before then it was more common to exchange gifts on New Year’s Day or Twelfth Night. Santa Claus is known by British children as Father Christmas. Father Christmas, these days, is quite similar to the American Santa, but his direct ancestor is a certain pagan spirit who regularly appeared in medieval mummer’s plays. The old-fashioned Father Christmas was depicted wearing long robes with sprigs of holly in his long white hair. Children write letters to Father Christmas detailing their requests, but instead of dropping them in the mailbox, the letters are tossed into the fireplace. The draft carries the letters up the chimney, and theoretically, Father Christmas reads the smoke. Gifts are opened Christmas afternoon.
From the English we get a story to explain the custom of hanging stockings from the mantelpiece. Father Christmas once dropped some gold coins while coming down the chimney. The coins would have fallen through the ash grate and been lost if they hadn’t landed in a stocking that had been hung out to dry. Since that time children have continued to hang out stockings in hopes of finding them filled with gifts.
The custom of singing carols at Christmas is also of English origin. During the middle ages, groups of serenades called “waits” would travel around from house to house singing ancient carols and spreading the holiday spirit. The word “carol” means “song of joy.” Most of the popular old carols we sing today were written in the nineteenth century.
The hanging of greens, such as holly and ivy, is a British winter tradition with origins far before the Christian era. Greenery was probably used to lift sagging winter spirits and remind the people that spring was not far away. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe is descended from ancient Druid rites. The decorating of Christmas trees, though primarily a German custom, has been widely popular in England since 1841 when Prince Albert had a Christmas tree set up in Windsor Castle for his wife Queen Victoria, and their children. To this day you see Christmas trees on display in parks, hotels in London and various other cities, and in homes.
The word “wassail” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon phrase waes hael, which means “good health.” Originally, wassail was a beverage made of mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, nuts, eggs, and spices. It was served for the purpose of enhancing the general merriment of the season. Like many of the ancient customs, “wassailing” has a legend to explain its origin. It seems that a beautiful Saxon maiden named Rowena presented Prince Vortigen with a bowl of wine while toasting him with the words “Waes hael.” Over the centuries a great deal of ceremony had developed around the custom of drinking wassail. The bowl is carried into a room with great fanfare, a traditional carol about the drink is sung,
For many years in England, a roasted boar’s head has been associated with Holiday feasting. The custom probably goes back to the Norse practice of sacrificing a boar at Yuletide in honor of the god Freyr. One story tells of a student at Oxford’s Queen College who was attacked on Christmas Day by a wild boar. All he had in his hand to use as a weapon was his copy of Aristotle, so he shoved the book down the boar’s throat. Wanting to retrieve his book, the student cut off the animal’s head and brought it back to the college where it was served for Christmas dinner with much pomp and ceremony.
The celebration of Boxing Day, which takes place on December 26 – the feast of St. Stephen, is a part of the holiday season unique to Great Britain. Traditionally, it is on this day that the alms box at every English church is opened and the contents are distributed to the poor. Also, this is the day that servants traditionally got the day off to celebrate with their families. It became traditional for working people to break open their tip boxes on this day. Boxing Day began in the mid-nineteenth century when the custom of tipping by rich persons to persons in service positions had apparently gotten out of hand. Children and others pretended to be in the trades and solicited tips. The custom was expanded to giving to anyone and everyone who had less money than you did, and soon the streets at Christmastime were full of aggressive soliciting of tips. To contain the nuisance “Boxing Day” was designated as the one day for giving to the less fortunate.