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24 Dec 2015
Christmas in Britain… through the ages

Christmas in Britain… through the ages

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Most people have Christmas traditions that they enjoy each year, even if that tradition is to escape the festive period altogether (Christmas holiday anyone?). There is something rather comforting about Christmas traditions, but do you know how far back in time your favourites stretch?

The dark days of the Winter Solstice were traditionally lightened up by fireside celebrations - but did you know that early pagans would also decorate their homes with native evergreens. They were thought to symbolise everlasting life, and holly and ivy were the most commonly used. Long before mistletoe made an appearance, kissing-bough were often hung from Medieval ceilings. They were made up of balled twigs, greenery and seasonal fruit. Finally, no Medieval home was complete without a Yule log. Far from the chocolate treats we enjoy today, they were an item of great ceremony. On Christmas Eve, they would be carried into the house and placed on the fireplace, and then lit with the end of the previous year's log. The Yule Log would then be burnt continuously for the Twelve Days of Christmas, bringing much needed light and warmth to the cold, dark nights.

The idea of 'eat, drink and be merry' really came to life in Elizabethan England. Well-to-do households would put on elaborate banquets - which far from promoting good-will to all men, were designed to highlight their wealth, status and the culinary expertise of the lady of the house. Far from the view we hold today, sugar was seen as a medicinal marvel and featured in most dishes. You could enjoy everything from 'collops of bacon’ (made from ground almonds and sugar) to colourful crystallised fruits and gilded lemons. This could all be washed down with spiced wine and syllabub or if you were particularly lucky, a boozy ‘lambswool’ so named because of the fluffy froth that would top your cup.

The Victorian Era is the time when Christmas really kicked off in Britain. So many of its most enduring symbols arrived under the reign of Queen V. The Christmas tree is a favourite of many households. It originated in Germany, and although Prince Albert is generally given credit for introducing the Christmas tree to England, he simply popularised an already existing custom that arrived here during the Georgian period. Queen Charlotte, the German wife of George III, appears to have spread the custom to British soil - enjoying a decorated tree from the 1790s onwards. Trees were displayed on tables in pots and decorated with candles, flags and small ornaments.

You can thank a Victorian confectioner's apprentice for a rather explosive Christmas treats - crackers! Tom Smith was on a trip to Paris in 1840, when he stopped to admire some sweets wrapped in coloured tissue paper. He decided to introduce them to London, but was dismayed when they didn’t prove particularly popular with British palates. He spent the next seven years developing the initial wrapped bon-bon into something more exciting. As the story goes, one evening, whilst perched in front of his fireplace, the logs crackling before him, he decided to make a bon-bon that would pop. He made a paper wrapper, attached to a special strip of paper treated with chemicals which produced a loud bang when rubbed or pulled. A joke would also be placed inside… and if any other crackers I’ve pulled recently are anything to go by, manufacturers are still using the same jokes.

During World War Two a ‘making do’ mentality came into effect. People were encouraged to put any spare money into National Savings Certificates or War Bonds to support the war effort. Still, the spirit of the season stayed strong. The Blitz disrupted many Christmas celebrations and family gatherings, and rationing and the general lack of luxury goods and typical food meant imagination was the main ingredient of many a meal. Cakes and sweet were made using grated carrot, and home-made paper-chains and artificial trees decorated many homes.

Post-War Britain became the party-era. The image of a perfect 50’s housewife (as popularised by magazines such as Ideal Home and good housekeeping) was one who was an unflappable hostess, who was always waiting with a gracious smile and a plate of canapés… should a party arise. At no time was she under more pressure than at Christmas. The perfect Christmas dinner would be preceded and followed by all manner of festive meals and cocktail parties. Whilst the woman of the house was expected to plan, organise and prepare all the food for these 'sophisticated' soirees (whilst remaining perfectly dressed) the man of the house had just one important job - to keep the bar stocked. I know where I'd rather be...