Christmas – viewed by many as the happiest time of year – has changed throughout the centuries, with traditions everchanging – some lost to time, and some still present in the modern day.
Starting way back in the neolithic era, through to the Roman times, medieval times, Tudor times, Victorian times, and finally to the present day, Christmas has seen various iterations, with the traditions adapting to the times, be it due to cultural changes, religious changes, or even due to rulers making laws pertaining to the holiday itself.
Let’s have a deep dive into how Christmas (or its comparative counterpart) has changed throughout the eras, focusing on the traditions that were upheld through the years!
During the neolithic era, some of our ancient ancestors would have celebrated the winter solstice on the 21st of December – the closest thing to Christmas at the time – at sites such as Stonehenge or Newgrange. The reason this tradition is worth mentioning is down to what took place on the day; great meals would be had (consisting of beef, pork, dairy products, beer, and mead), and gifts would be given, much like the Christmas of today.
Along with these fundamentals that are still ever so present in the modern-day celebration, mistletoe also found its origins in the festivities during this era. A belief of the ancient druids was that the plant could ward off and protect against evil spirits, whilst also bringing good luck – it would therefore be hung over doorways and windows.
It is also believed that participants of the festivities would play instruments, sing songs, and jump over bonfires to honour the sun.
Much like during the neolithic era, throughout the era of the Romans, the winter solstice was celebrated with grand public feasts – often being followed by private celebrations at home. These periods of feasting were known as the Saturnalia, and began on the 17th of December, and usually lasted until the 23rd of December.
In honour of the Roman god Saturn, the festivities involved the standard rules of etiquette and social rank being flipped on their head. Slaves would be served food by their masters – and they could even criticise them without consequence!
Just like during the neolithic era, gifts were also given during this time – especially small satirical gifts. It wasn’t infrequent that ‘sigillaria’ (wax or pottery figurines) were given as presents.
The medieval period – this is where we start to see the celebrations being named something a little bit more familiar to us – Christ’s Mass. During this period, twelve days would be celebrated, right up until the final day of the 6th of January, where what was known as the ‘Twelfth Night’ took place – on which gifts were exchanged.
In a similar fashion to the Roman traditions of Saturnalia, the rules of hierarchy were also reversed during the medieval Christ’s Mass holiday period. A ‘Lord of Misrule’ was chosen – who was frequently a peasant or commoner. They would be tasked with managing what was to happen during the Christmas festivities, ensuring that it was entertaining for all involved!
The medieval period also saw the introduction of the burning of a Yule Log, a tradition borrowed from the ancient Norse – who would do the same, in celebration of the return of the sun. Just like the previous eras, but with its own unique twists, a medieval Christ’s Mass would involve grand feasts, with heavy amounts of meat being consumed, often with a boar head as the centrepiece of the meal.
Carol singers who originally sung in churches were banned from doing so during the medieval times, as they were causing too much of a commotion during the more serious Christmas masses of the time – which led them to go from door to door singing their songs instead, in a very similar fashion to the modern-day carol singers.
A Tudor Christmas was very similar to that of a medieval one. The day itself was highly orientated around Christianity, often with masses taking place and religious songs being sung. After this, families would enjoy meals much the same as during a medieval Christmas meal – with a boar’s head being the centrepiece during the early-mid Tudor period.
During this period, mince pies began to be associated with Christmas – with the thirteen ingredients being representative of Christ and his disciples. Along with this, during the 16th century, it is believed that King Henry VIII was the first English monarch to enjoy a Christmas turkey (after they were introduced to England from America) – with them becoming the centrepiece of a rich family’s Christmas dinner by 1573!
With the rapidly growing popularity of sugar in Tudor England, the rich and royal would often have elaborate sugar models made specifically for the occasion. Sugar banquets were a common occurrence particularly during the time around Christmas, with the rich and wealthy often enjoying sugary treats after the main course.
The tradition of the Twelve Nights also continued throughout the Tudor period, with a special ‘Twelfth cake’ being eaten on the Twelfth night itself. The Lord of Misrule tradition also sustained through to the Tudor period, right up until 1553, during which the English court abolished the activity. To appoint the Lord of Misrule and his Queen for the evening, a bean was baked into the Twelfth cake in one half, along with a pea in the other. Whoever found the bean would become the Lord of Misrule, and whoever found the pea would become the Queen.
Plays also became a common occurrence. A good example of a play that was often enjoyed during the festivities was that of ‘Twelfth Night’, by none other than Shakespeare.
The Victorian era is where we start to see Christmas become something much more like that of the present-day celebrations. The grand feasts and large-scale partying were replaced with smaller, more family centric gatherings.
It was during this time that Boxing Day became part of the standardised celebrations of the holiday – named after the boxes in which servants would receive money and gifts from the rich.
The concept of Father Christmas had been around in England since the mid-17th Century, when he was portrayed wearing green clothes, signifying the return of spring, as part of an old English midwinter festival. Santa Claus was introduced to the British in the 1850s by the Americans, who had the stories of St. Nicholas (Sinter Klaas) passed to them by the Dutch settlers in America.
During the beginning of the Victorian times, many poor families had to make do with having a rabbit for Christmas dinner, as only the rich could afford a Christmas turkey – however, nearing the end of the 19th century, most people were able to enjoy a turkey as their Christmas meal – this tradition still holding true to the present day.
Thanks to the industrial revolution and introduction of factory scale manufacturing, toys, books, and other forms of entertainment were much more affordable in comparison to their prior counterparts (which would have been hand-made and, as such, highly expensive). Hence, the gifts given (especially to children) truly began to resemble that of current day gifts.
It was also during this era that Tom Smith, a baker and confectioner located in London, created the basis of the modern-day Christmas cracker, after being inspired by France’s wrapped bonbons. First patented in 1847 and then finally mastered in the 1860s, the pop function was added after (allegedly) being inspired by the sound of a log fire crackling.
The religious element of Christmas remained for many, with families often going to church on the day, singing carols such as ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ and ‘Once in Royal David’s City’. The well-known story of ‘A Christmas Carol’ was also written by Charles Dickens during this time (1843, to be exact!), and with it came the promotion of being mindful and providing for your poorer neighbours, especially by those of wealthier status.
One of the most iconic features of modern-day Christmas – the Christmas Tree – saw its introduction to Britain during the Victorian times. Originally introduced from Germany by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, he brought a tree that would be displayed in Windsor Castle during the 1840’s. The rest is history!
If you’ve got this far, you’ve probably realised the stark contrast to how Christmas was celebrated in the early eras of society when compared to the traditions of today. With the Victorian era gradually taming a lot of the boisterous and outlandish traditions of way back when, and the gradual move away from the more tradition religious aspects of the holiday, for many it’s much more about spending time relaxing with family and friends.
Our ancestors would have upheld different traditions to us – but equally so, aspects of their celebrations may still be represented by those of today!
We hope that everyone reading this blog has a merry Christmas!
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