Christmas Traditions

Christmastime and traditions go hand in hand. This is despite us not always knowing where these traditions come from or why we follow them. Have a read and find out about which traditions can trace their origins to pre-Christian times and how a Christmas card could be scandalous.

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree!

Long before Christmas was a holiday, plants and trees that remain green all year round had a special meaning for people during the dark days of winter. For example, the Romans brought trees inside to celebrate the winter festival of Saturnalia, decorating them with small pieces of metal.

But it is Germany which is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we know it. In the 1500s, they started to decorate evergreen trees with apples, nuts and ribbons. It is probably from these apples that we get our baubles today.

The person who made it really fashionable to have a Christmas tree was Queen Victoria. Victoria was part German and her husband, Prince Albert, was from Germany, so it is understandable that they had German Christmas traditions. In 1848, a picture of the Queen and Prince was on the front cover of the Illustrated London News, showing them with their children around a Christmas tree. This made it really popular to have a tree at Christmastime in the UK. And from there it spread to many countries across the world.

Christmas Cards

If you hear the word coal in association with Christmas, you might think of those who end up on Santy’s naughty list. (Obviously, that would never happen to any of you good people who are reading this.) You might also think of Cole as in Nat King Cole, the singer of many great Christmas songs including the appropriately titled The Christmas Song. However, another Cole who you might not have heard about is Sir Henry Cole, who started the tradition

In 1843, Sir Henry Cole (1808-1882), who helped to introduce the penny post in the UK, was looking for an easier way to send Christmas wishes to his friends and family. His solution was to ask a painter called J.C. Horsley to make the first Christmas cards. Horsley printed 1,000 Christmas cards, hand painting them afterwards. As you can see they were not shaped like our typical cards, but instead more like a postcard. The card was quite controversial at the time. The strong moral and temperance movements of the nineteenth century were not happy that it showed people embracing and drinking (including a child!).

This criticism discouraged more cards being made in following years. However, with the development of commercialised printing, Christmas cards became popular in the later decades of the nineteenth century, spreading to many other countries, including America.

In 1916, the Hall Brothers Company was founded and they began producing Christmas cards in Kansas City, Missouri. They decided not to use the traditional postcard format, but came up with a new design – a card folded once and placed in an envelope. The type of card we are familiar with today. The Hall Brothers later changed their name to Hallmark.

Today, billions of cards are sent across the world. The world’s most expensive card was auctioned in 2001. It was one of the original cards sent by Sir Henry Cole to his grandmother and aunt. It was bought for £22,500 (sterling). Quite an increase from the original price of a schilling. And if you are interested, another one of Cole’s cards is up for sale at the moment with a sale price of $25,000. Bargain!

What’s for dinner? Peacock or Turkey?

Turkey is so ubiquitous as the centrepiece for Christmas dinner it is easy to forget that the bird is not native to Ireland or even Europe. Native to the Americas, when Europeans encountered the bird for the first time, they still believed that they had landed in India. Consequently, they called them some variation of Indian Peacock or Indian hen. The French for turkey today is dinde.

The early imports of turkeys into England came indirectly through traders from the Ottoman Turkish empire. This is how it is thought that they gained the name turkey. Not long after the first turkeys came to England in 1526, it is said that Henry VIII ate it for his Christmas dinner. This, however, did not start a widespread trend, and most people who could afford a special meal for Christmas typically had goose, boar’s head or peacock.

Even Queen Victoria (1819-1901), the instigator of many traditions, generally ate beef for her Christmas dinner. Although when she did have turkey, she had what sounds like a nineteenth century turducken. Not only was the turkey wrapped in pastry, it was stuffed with a chicken, which was stuffed with a pheasant, which was finally stuffed with a woodcock. Try to think of a portmanteau for that!

Christmas Carols

Although carols are now only sung at Christmas, they were originally pagan songs and were part of festivals held throughout the year. Back in the 1500s a lot of the carols sung at Christmastime included bold words and funny phrases rather than focusing on religious ideas. The Reformation had an impact on how festive songs were viewed. While Martin Luther was very interested in bringing music and songs into the church, Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans were not, and the carols from this time are now forgotten. As a result, many of the carols we know today, such as ‘Away in a Manger’, ‘Silent Night’ and ‘O Holy Night’, were written in the 1800s.

Many of these carols have interesting stories behind them. For instance, when the tune of today’s ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ was originally written, it had nothing at all to do with Christmas. Felix Mendelssohn composed it in 1840 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s printing press. Although Mendelssohn declared that the “soldier-like” tune would never be suited to a sacred text, that did not stop the English composer, William Cummings, from having a go. In 1855, Cummings put the lyrics of Charles Wesley’s 1739 hymn ‘A Hymn for Christmas-day’ to Mendelssohn’s music. This would also have upset Wesley, as he thought his hymn should be sung to a slow and solemn melody. So next time you hear ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ know that neither the yricist nor the composer are happy. Another random Christmas fact is that ‘O Holy Night’ was the second piece of music to be ever broadcast on radio when it was played in 1906.

You’ll now be a font of knowledge for all things Christmas. Ready for any Christmas quiz that might be happening. And it wouldn’t be Christmas if there wasn’t an awful joke to finish:

What did the stamp say to the Christmas card? Stick with me and we’ll go places!

From all at Rathfarnham Castle hope you and your family have a very Happy Christmas and we hope to see you in 2021.