THE ORIGINS OF THE CHRISTMAS TREE
– THE VICTORIAN WAY
For the Victorians, the ideal Christmas tree had to be six branches tall and it was placed on a table covered with a white damask tablecloth. The tree was then decorated with garlands, assorted candies and delicate paper flowers.
Plum pudding is a famous and almost typically English dessert.
It got its name of plum pudding in the 17th century because plum was one of the ingredients.
But quite why they settled on plum pudding as the plum was only one of more than two dozen of the finely chopped ingredients folded into the dough.
The finished steamed pudding adorned with a sprig of holly would be brought flaming to the table and served with great ceremony.
THE YULE LOG
The Yule log custom existed in most Europeans countries and dates back as far as the 12th century.
The custom happened on Christmas Eve when an enormous log of freshly cut wood predictably called the Yule log would be carried to the house amidst great ceremony.
It would be placed on the hearth On Christmas Eve, by the master of the house would make a traditional libation by sprinkling the trunk with a combination of oil, salt and mulled wine and say an appropriate prayer.
If possible the young girls of the household would light the log with splinters from the previous year’s log which would have been kept safely stored away. If no young girls were available the honor and privilege fell to the mother of the house.
Superstition says that the cinders of the burnt log should be kept to protect the house from a variety of mishaps including lightning strikes and even protect against the malevolent attentions of the devil.
The tradition had all but died out by the end of the 19th century mainly due to changes in the way houses were heated the magnificent hearths of the great house began to be replaced by boilers of stoves and then in the 20th century houses began to be built with no fireplace at all.
The great Yule log has now been replaced by a small log decorated with candles, holly and other Christmas embellishments to be placed in the center of the Christmas table as a festive decoration.
Also today we have the marvelous Yule log cake which is a firm favorite it our house made from a delicious Swiss roll cake covered in chocolate icing and sugared decorations.
THE CHRISTMAS CAKE
Christmas fruit cake is derived from the famous English Christmas or plum pudding.
The recipe was much simpler with fewer ingredients although it included large quantities of candied fruit, raisins, dates and nuts and is generally prepared long in advance of Christmas and is liberally laced with Brandy.
Like plum pudding it would originally have been flaming when served but in time this changed and soon the cakes were being decorated with marzipan and icing instead.
THE HUMBLE MINCE PIE
The mince pie was originally oblong in shape which was supposed to symbolize the cradle of Christ.
The pie was covered with a thick crusty pastry cover which had an indentation in the center in which a small doll also made from pastry supposed to be the Christ child was placed.
The original mince pie was filled with minced lamb's tongue and mutton.
It wasn’t until returning medieval Crusaders brought back spices from the East which replaced the meat filling.
It was also at this time the pies became the familiar round shape.
Even though few people are aware of their origins the mince pie remains one of the most popular Christmas treats.
CHRISTMAS CANDLES – A DIVINE LIGHT
The lighting of candles during religious festivals precedes Christianity by many centuries originally part of pagan ritual practiced by early sun worshippers. When Christianity was well established the church tried in vain to eradicate the ritual use of candles.
Then in the spirit of “if you can’t beat them join them” they gradually incorporated the lighting of candles into Christian services.
The candles were invested with a new meaning and they came to symbolize the divine light that illuminated the world, Christ.
CHRISTMAS CANDLES – A SIGN
There is a popular belief that candles are used at Christmas as a remembrance of people at the time of Jesus Christ's birth.
These people are said to have put lighted candles in their windows as a signal to Mary and Joseph that they would be welcome in their homes.
BRIGHT AND MORNING STAR
The star is eternally linked to Christmas and takes pride of place at the very top of the Christmas tree.
When we look at the star we should recall the star seen 'in the East' by the three wise men.
On Christmas Eve In ceremonies all over the world the Christmas celebration begins with the arrival of the first star.
In various traditional ceremonies from Poland to Alaska the Festival of the Star is celebrated in various forms.
The Christmas star is a powerful symbol to Christians in the Bible it is called "the bright and morning star."
AN IRISH BOXING DAY
St. Stephen's Day in Ireland is celebrated in a different way, but is similar to Boxing Day in other places in so much as it also has to do with the solicitation of money.
The Young men is extravagant dress with some of them wearing masks parade through the streets noisily in what is known as the Wren Boys' Procession.
The young men carry a long pole on top of which is attached a holly bush and the bush is supposed to contain a captured wren, and it’s for the wren sake the young men beg for money.
OLD YEARS NIGHT IN SCOTLAND
In Scotland Christmas has been celebrated with considerably less exuberance than elsewhere in the British Isles although that has changed latterly.
The Scots have always reserved their merriment for New Year's Eve, which they call Hogmanay.
The word Hogmanay is believed to derive from a kind of oatcake that was given to children on New Year's Eve as part of the tradition.
The “first footer” is the first person to set foot across the threshold in a house after midnight on New Year’s Eve.
The superstition is thought to profoundly affect the fortunes of the inhabitants it should if possible be a stranger preferably dark-haired but fair-haired is ok if that’s all you can get.
This tradition is generally known as "first footing."
Over the Christmas season alms boxes are placed in churches to collect for the poor and these are what are opened on Boxing Day the day after Christmas day.
The contents of the boxes are then handed out to the poor of the parish on December 26th, Boxing Day, also known as the Feast of St Stephen.
Stephen was a Christian martyr who was stoned to death for being a follower of Christ's shortly after his crucifixion.
Boxing Day is celebrated in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada and it has become a public holiday in the last century.
This has been a godsend to many families by having Christmas Day and Boxing Day as holidays this allowed them the time to travel to visit family members and celebrate with them.
It made it much easier for people to get together with those who were important to them.
It is perhaps better known today as a day of outdoor sports and horse racing and hunting rather than for any religious significance.
The Legend of the Christmas Rose links this winter blooming flower with the birth of the Christ Child.
The legend says that the three wise men accompanied by the shepherds were traveling to the east when they met with a shepherdess named Madelon who was tending to her sheep.
She began to weep when she saw the gifts for the Christ child because she had had nothing to give.
An angel saw her crying and brushed the snow away where her tears had fallen and revealed a beautiful white flower tipped with pink, the Christmas Rose.
A NOBLE BOXING DAY
There has long been a rather fanciful notion that Boxing Day dates from the middle Ages with the noble lords and ladies of England presenting Christmas gifts in boxes to their servants on December 26th there is no evidence to support this but it is a nice idea though unlikely.
CAROLING IN WALES
The welsh are a very musical nation so Caroling is particularly popular in Wales where it is called eisteddfodde and is amongst other things often accompanied by a harp.
One custom in some rural areas a person is chosen to travel around the town draped in white and carrying a horse's skull on a long pole.
If anyone is given a "bite" by the horse's jaws they must pay a fine.
FESTIVE FACT # 10
The first postage stamp to commemorate Christmas was issued in Austria in 1937.
The Baubles we use to decorate our Christmas trees are representative of the Apples found on the Tree of Life in Paradise.
This is the popular belief even though the Bible doesn’t actually state that the tree of life was an apple tree.
To most people modern Baubles are not replicas of the fruit but are just colorful ornaments which reflect the light of candles and fairy lights and contribute to the festive spirit.
The early Christians in Ancient Rome were the first to decorate their homes with laurel.
They adopted the idea from the Pagan Romans who used laurel during the Saturnalia festival and who believed laurel was sacred to the sun god Apollo.
When the Romans Empire became Christian laurel became a great symbol of Christmas.
THE TINSEL SYMBOL
Tinsel like many things about Christmas is symbolic and what glittering tinsel symbolizes is light and light in all forms was held to have magic qualities in both the pagan and Christian faiths.
Light was the magic against the darkness of winter and was the power of Christ against the forces of darkness.
I have always hated the use of Xmas instead of Christmas and in fact I always believed it to be a vulgar Americanism.
Well I was wrong The Xmas abbreviation for Christmas is in fact of Greek origin as The Greek word for Christ is Xristos.
It was sometime during the 16th century that Europeans began abbreviating Christ’s name with and "X" in Christmas as a form of shorthand for the word.
The 16th century Christians at that time would have understood that X stood for Christ's name.
Unlike 21st century Christians who don’t understand Greek and think using the word "Xmas" is disrespectful or just one more vulgar Americanism.
THE COLOR OF CHRISTMAS
We automatically associate colors with Christmas festivities such as the red of the berries on the holly bush or in Santa’s outfit.
Red in its many uses is definitely the color of December and as a religious symbol it stands for fire, blood and charity.
We also have the green of Christmas trees and holly and Green is the universal symbol for nature and for youth.
Christmas is a feast of hope, with a newborn child as its central symbol.
It is for this reason that green is the color of new beginnings and the hope of eternal life.
Symbolically, white stands for light and purity as seen in the white robes of the Christmas angels and in the white snowy Christmas landscapes.
Gold is the color of the Christmas stars and candles and stands for sunlight and radiance.
The Golden radiance is Christ’s love for the world.
The Stollen is a type of German Christmas cake which is a kind of sweet bread, enriched with a various dried fruits and nuts and covered with icing sugar.
German Families and bakeries alike treasured the own secret recipes for the Stollen and all claimed to have a secret ingredient, details of which would be handed down through the generations.
The shape of the Stollen is like a loaf of bread and is supposed to symbolize the baby Jesus Christ wrapped in swaddling clothes.
FESTIVE FACT # 13
Franklin Pierce was the fourteenth President of the United States (1853-1857) and in 1856 he was the first President to decorate the first White House Christmas tree.
GOOD KING WENCESLAS
According to the legend the first of the Premysl was a plowman who married a Bohemian princess named Libussa during the 8th century and it was their descendants who in time united the warring tribes of Bohemia into one duchy.
Duke Borivoy I married a Slav princess named Ludmila and they both became Christians and they tried their hardest to convert all of Bohemia to
Christianity, but were unable to do so.
Upon the death of Borivoy his sons, Ratislav and Spythinev succeeded him it was Ratislav who was the father of Wenceslas.
Wenceslas was born around 907 in a castle near Prague and when he was only thirteen years old his father died Wenceslas succeeded him as duke.
Because of his age he was too young to rule so his mother, Drahomira, became the regent she was vehemently opposed to Christianity and used her new found power to persecute Christians.
She also refused to let Wenceslas see his grandmother Ludmila because she was afraid that they would plot to overthrow her but it wasn’t long before Drahomira had her murdered.
After Ludmila’s death she was revered by Christians as a saint.
At the age of 18 Wenceslas overthrew his mother's regency and he began to rule for himself.
He was a stern but fair monarch, he stopped the persecution of Christians and he managed to tame the rebellious nobility.
He was known across bohemia for his kindness to the poor and he was especially charitable to children.
However Many of the Bohemian nobles resented Wenceslas's attempts to spread Christianity and when he swore allegiance to the king of Germany, Henry I they were greatly displeased.
But in the end his greatest enemy proved to be his own brother, Boleslav, who joined the nobles to plot his brother's assassination.
Boleslav invited Wenceslas to a religious festival and then attacked and killed him on his way to mass.
"Good King" Wenceslas died on September 20, 929. He was still in his early twenties and had ruled Bohemia for only five years.
Today he is remembered as the patron saint of the Czech Republic.
Rosemary has long been associated with Christmas and was often used during the middle Ages by the women folk who spread it on the floor and as people walked on it crushing it under foot a pleasant aroma was released.
Tradition tells us that Rosemary is so fragrant because Mary laid on its branches the garments of the Christ Child on the night he was born.
The legend also says that suddenly flowers blossomed on the trees and they bore abundant fruit even though they were out of season.
THE HANGING OF GREENS - MISTLETOE
The hanging of greens, such as Holly, Ivy and Mistletoe is a British winter tradition with origins far before the Christian era.
Greenery was used to lift people’s spirits during the long winter and remind them that spring was not far away.
For hundreds of years before the birth of Christ the ancient Druids used mistletoe to celebrate the winter solstice.
The Druids gathered the parasitic evergreen plant and used it to decorate their homes.
They had an affinity with nature and believed the plant to have special healing powers for a variety of ills from female infertility to poison ingestion.
The Scandinavians thought of mistletoe as a plant of peace and harmony and associated it with their goddess of love, Frigga which is why the Norse folk believe the custom of kissing under the mistletoe is believed to have derived from this belief.
The druids regarded the mistletoe as sacred and they made certain that it never touched the ground and it was dedicated to the Goddess of Love which is the Druid explanation of kissing under it.
Originally, when a boy kissed a girl, he plucked a berry from the cluster and presented it to her. When there were no more berries, there were no more kisses.
The custom of kissing under the mistletoe originally was a belief that the evergreen plant increases your sexual power or promotes fertility.
In a small number of places in the world its potency was so highly regarded that it could improve the productivity of the soil, it could make cattle more fertile and curer impotence in men and any girl who had not been kissed under the mistletoe would be barren.
The Druids believed mistletoe's magic extended far beyond fertility and they thought it could cure almost any disease and was therefore known as 'all healer'.
A Sprigs fixed above your doorway would protect from lightning and ward of evil from your home.
As the plant was a parasite and grey on other trees it had no roots and so it was believed that it grew from heaven.
Even the gathering of the mistletoe is steeped in ritual.
A Druid priest using a sacred sickle had to cut the mistletoe from an oak tree
On the sixth day of the new moon when he had done so a virgin girl had to catch the falling plant before it touched the ground.
If it touched the ground it was spoiled.
The early Christian church banned the use of mistletoe in Christmas celebrations because of its pagan origins and they favored the use of Holly as an appropriate substitute for the Christmas greenery conveniently forgetting pagan origins of Holly.
Nowadays mistletoe is used merely as an excuse for taking liberties at the office Christmas party.
According to Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem the names of Santa's Reindeers are Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen.