One thing you can say about this country is, we know how to celebrate Christmas. While the Christian celebration obviously marks the birth of Jesus, the day has many echoes of more ancient traditions of wassailing, holly and mistletoe, as well as a strong secular component, being a time of family, gift-giving and over-eating.
It is generally accepted that Christmas ‘absorbed’ elements of earlier pre-Christian festivals. The Roman tradition of Saturnalia featured feasting, gift-giving, role reversals and revelry. Sol Invictus was a Roman sun god festival, celebrated on December 25th – the day of the winter solstice in the Roman calendar. But perhaps the best known is Yule, a pagan festival marking the shortest day and longest night of the year which involved feasting and fires.
Those elements have appeared over the centuries as traditions associated with the time of year, some with ancient roots, and some, like carol-singing, are relatively modern. They form a rich tapestry of time-honoured Christmas traditions.
Holly, ivy and mistletoe
The use of winter foliage to adorn our homes over Christmas has ancient roots. Being evergreen, the nature of holly made it a symbol of life and resilience for pagans in harsh winter months. Later, Christians linked the prickly leaves to Jesus’ crown of thorns and the red berries to his shed blood. Ivy represented perseverance and immortality to Celts – and to modern day gardeners who’ve tried to eradicate it! Druids considered mistletoe sacred and believed it possessed healing powers. They used it in winter solstice rituals and hung it in doorways to ward off evil spirits.
Over time, these diverse cultural and religious influences intertwined to become what they are today. While their symbolic interpretations might differ, their evergreen nature and festive associations solidified their place as timeless emblems of the Christmas season.
The Christmas tree
Long before they became a Christmas staple, pagans revered evergreen trees like fir and spruce as symbols of life and resilience in the harsh winter months. Druids also associated them with their winter solstice celebrations, believing they housed the spirits of nature waiting to be reborn in spring. When Christianity spread, these traditions intertwined, the evergreen tree evolving into a symbol of Christ’s eternal life and the promise of spiritual renewal. By the 16th century, German Christians brought trees into their homes and decorated them and some believe protestant Martin Luther added the candles. Queen Victoria’s German consort, Prince Albert, brought the tradition to Britain, and was depicted in an 1848 sketch in the Illustrated London News.
Dating back to the medieval period, these are folk plays performed by amateurs, often masked to disguise themselves. They used to be commonplace and still survive in parts of East Anglia. There has long been a tradition of performing mummers’ plays during the Christmas season. They are short, sometimes improvised and often feature characters such Saint George and the dragon, intended to show the battle between good and evil. The plays are traditionally performed in pubs and other public spaces. Some suggest they are the precursor to the panto.
Thought to be a descendent of the mummers’ plays, pantomimes, have long been a staple of the British Christmas season that can trace their roots to, at least, the 17th century. The plays started out as mime and evolved to incorporate fairy-tale elements by the beginning of the 19th century, which in turn widened audiences to include children. Today, these productions feature exaggerated characters, slapstick humour, and audience participation, making them a fun and festive form of family entertainment that has become a solid fixture in the seasonal calendar.
The Yule log
The burning of Yule logs is believed to have begun as a winter solstice ritual associated with northern Europe. Pagans saw their flames as symbolic of banishing the darkness and welcoming returning light. The word is likely related to Old Norse, jól, which refers to a festival associated with the winter solstice. At one time, an entire tree trunk was used, with one end in the fire place, feeding the fire through the 12 days of Christmas. One tradition involves lighting the Christmas fire with the charred remains of the previous year’s yule log which would be carefully kept. Later, smaller logs, sometimes decorated with with holly and bound with willow, were used. Nowadays they generally make their Christmas appearance as cake.
Santa’s origins go back to Saint Nicholas, a 4th-century bishop from Myra in Turkey. He was famous for being generous and kind, particularly towards children. By the 16th century ‘Father Christmas’ had emerged as a distinct figure in England and was often depicted as a large, jovial man in a green fur-lined robe. In the early 19th, Santa gained the sleigh and reindeer in a poem. It was Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” that solidified the connection with gift-giving for children. Urban legend has it that Santa’s current form, switching to a red suit and hat and a long white beard, originated in a 1930s’ Coca Cola ad campaign. But this exact image had been used in an illustration, thirty years earlier at the turn of the 20th century.
While Santa’s evolution has lasted for centuries – some of it contested – it’s likely over now. Popular culture – his depiction in films and TV – has cemented the Father Christmas that’s so familiar to us, and it’s unlikely to change again any time soon.
This is the last Sunday before Advent when families get together to make the Christmas pudding, which will be enjoyed on Christmas Day. This year it was Sunday 26 November. Each member of the family gets a chance to stir the pudding and make a wish. Silver coins are sometimes added to the mix. On Christmas day, it’s adorned with a sprig of holly and warm brandy is poured over the pudding before being lit for a post-dinner spectacle.
Mince pies every day
In the Middle Ages, it was customary to eat one mince pie each day from Christmas Day to the Epiphany on 6 January. People believed this tradition promoted good health and warded off evil spirits. In the early days, the pies contained meat as well as fruit and eastern spices. The recipe is thought to have been brought back by the Crusaders. We now eat 800 million of them every year.
Crackers have long been a common part of Christmas celebrations in the UK. Precursors of the cracker were invented by Tom Smith in the mid-19th century and perfected by his sons. Smith based the initial design on the French bon-bon and added a riddle. He added the ‘bang’ later in a larger version designed to be pulled apart, revealing sweets and toys. When they inherited the business, it was his sons who added the paper crowns.
From around the year 600 CE, it became common practice for Anglo-Saxons, after the winter solstice, to gather outside the manor belonging to the local large landowner where he would raise a horn brimming with ale and shout: “Waes Hael!” Be well! Be in good health! And the assembled throng would shout back “Drink Hael!” and take it in turns to drink from a communal bowl. Some would gather in orchards and tap the trees with sticks to ‘wake them up’. It was an affirmation for the new year for life and hope and for bountiful harvests. The tradition evolved into going from house to house with the bowl and singing songs. It’s thought to be the precursor of carolling. Wassailing is still practised in parts of East Anglia.
Grantchester barrel roll
A fairly recent tradition from the 20th century is the Boxing Day whiskey barrel roll in this Cambridgeshire town. Teams from both the town and the nearby villages of Barton, Coton, Madingley, compete in relays over a course of 100 yards. Spectators wisely watch from behind a row of hay-bales as the shape of the barrels frequently causes them to veer off the course.
Cutty Wren ceremony
Dating back to the 1300s, an ancient Christmas tradition was catching and killing a wren on St Stephen’s Day (26 December) and parading it through the streets on a stick. While communities across the country have long-since ceased this custom, it has been revived in Middleton, near Leiston in east Suffolk. Nowadays though, the wren is made of carved wood. Dressed in Victorian clothing, molly dancers (something like morris dancing) sing songs as they parade through the main street to the Bell pub. ‘Characters’ include a sweeper carrying a broom, the wren-bearer and musicians.
Locals around East Anglia gather to plunge into the icy North Sea on Christmas, Boxing or New Year’s Day. Popular locations include Hunstanton and Cromer in Norfolk, and Lowestoft, Felixstowe, Aldeburgh and Southwold in Suffolk. While many who take part are seasoned ‘wild swimmers’, many others join in for fun or to raise money for charity.
While Christmas is a Christian festival, it blended with pagan rituals and uniquely British quirks to become the modern-day family event we all know and love. It stands as a testament to our enduring spirit of celebration and a reminder that its true magic doesn’t lie in the traditions themselves, but in the threads of joy, hope, and community they weave together.