It seems unavoidable, the big day has almost arrived. Whereas last year I wrote a post on debunking myths surrounding Christmas and in 2015 on the history of Father Christmas and Santa Claus this time around I thought I would write a little on what Christmas was like through the ages.
I like Christmas but I tend to follow a religious and non-commercialised version of Christmas. It’s the 9th of December as I write this and so far I haven’t seen any Christmas advertising or indeed do I have any plans to spend any more money for the 52nd week of the year than any other. That’s not to say I don’t like a good old feast and that is something that has gone on in these islands for millenia at this time of year.
The shortest day of the year is the ‘midwinter solstice’ on 21 December and in the Neolithic period it was supremely important to the people who built stone munuments such as Stonehenge with its tallest stone lining up with sunrise on that day. Archaeologists working at nearby Neolithic sights such as Durrington Walls have discovered that ‘Neolithic’ people ate huge quantities of pork and beef. Just as with the stones originating from hundreds of miles away and the people from even further away, some of the animals had been driven hundreds of miles. Our New Stoneage ancestors also enjoyed dairy products like fermented milk and cheese, and probably drank barley beer or mead which is made from honey from decorated pottery beakers. These beakers were cutting edge stuff thousands of years ago and give their name to the civilisation that built places like Stonehenge and Avebury.
If present giving was part of the celebrations then the must have gifts would have included daggers made of bronze, the new material which had just begun to replace flint and stone for tools and weapons. Bronze weapons were probably imported from Europe, where metal-working technology was more advanced. The richest people’s party outfits included gold necklaces, and maybe gold hair decorations and gold buttons to fasten their clothes. They might have sung songs, played bone flutes and jumped over bonfires in honour of the sun, encouraging him to return and make the days longer again.
Skip thousand a few thousand years and we get to the Romans. Romans celebrated midwinter with at least five days of feasting and partying called the Saturnalia, which began on 17 December. Honouring Saturn, chief of the Roman gods, it was a time when all the usual rules about rank and etiquette were overturned. Slaves were served at meals by their masters, and everyone wore a pileus, the conical ‘cap of liberty’ presented to slaves when they were freed. Gambling with dice, usually forbidden, was allowed, and instead of white togas or dresses everyone wore bright party clothes. Public feasts were followed by celebrations at home, and people exchanged small gifts, especially sigillaria (little figures made of wax or pottery), or jokily satirical presents, songs or poems. Slaves could even criticise their masters, and got their only time off all year.
During Saturnalia at Housesteads Roman Fort on Hadrians Wall, soldiers might have been served by their officers. They’d have varied their everyday diet of bread and beef with some of the luxury foods the Romans introduced to Britain, such as figs, dates, pine nuts, snails, fattened-up dormice and garum, a strong-tasting sauce made from fermented fish. Instead of the usual Hadrian’s Wall beer, they’d have drunk imported wine, perhaps mulsum blended with honey and spices. During the snowy mid winter the Roman legionairres would have swapped their trademark uniform for warmer woolen cloaks and trousers.
These days people often complain about over eating or indeed over drinking but that’s largely because so many start pigging out from the beginning of December. To be a good medieval Christian however, you’d have been fasting right up until Christmas Eve. Then rather like Muslims with Ramadan and Eid, after prolonged fasting it was time to go a bit wild with with twelve full days of Christmas festivities, reaching a crescendo on 6 January, ‘Twelfth Night’, when presents were given. These celebrations commemorated Christ’s birth and the name Christmas (Christ’s Mass) is first recorded in England in 1038.
Medieval celebrations also combined the servants-as-masters antics and gift-giving of Roman Saturnalia with customs left over from the pagan Saxon Midwinter feast of Yule. These included the Yule Log (kept burning throughout the season), decorating houses with evergreens and eating richly decorated boar’s heads, sometimes washed down with mulled ‘braggot’, extra-strong ale with honey and cinnamon, spiked with brandy.
Boisterous medieval festivities were directed by a Lord of Misrule, whose word was law. The Christmas games he ordered could be rough; among the tamest was ‘Hot Cockles’, where blindfolded victims had to guess who’d slapped them from behind. If the guess was right, slapper became victim. Carols, originally dances accompanied by sung choruses, were also increasingly popular at Christmas; their words might be religious, worldly, or even rude. Blending devotion with drunken partying, medieval Christmases were also important state occasions, when kings ceremonially wore their crowns at feasts and lawgivings. Henry II, who built the Great Tower at Dover Castle, held Christmas ‘crown-wearings’ at 24 different places during his 34-year reign.
It’s hard to imagine a period in British history where our betters were more glutinous and over-indulgous than the Tudors. There is a reason why Kign Henry VIII finished his life with a waist line as long as he was in height… and Henry was a giant of a man.
Tudor Christmases were even more full-on than medieval, but were a tad less boisterous, at least at Court. On Twelfth Night (6 January) a bean was baked into a cake. The person who got it in their slice became ‘King of the Bean’, or if it was a woman, she chose her ‘King’, and everyone had to imitate him. When he drank, they drank; if he coughed, they coughed. This was also a time for plays (like Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’) and ‘disguisings’. Henry VIII (a talented musician who wrote the Christmas song ‘Green Groweth the Holly’) and his friends liked to dress up as Robin Hood’s Men or Moors, and you had to pretend not to recognise them.
Queen Elizabeth preferred energetic dancing, and had her own ‘Dancing Chamber’ at Kenilworth Castle. In the popular Christmas ‘Cushion Dance’, a man laid a cushion before his wished-for partner; she knelt on it, kissed him, and joined the dance. Then she chose her partner in the same way, until everyone was dancing. Perhaps the dancers got their energy from sugar, which richer Tudor people loved. They tipped it into already sweet wine, and held Christmas ‘sugar banquets’, with elaborate sugar models of castles, dragons, holly and even sugar goblets, all edible. The Queen (whose teeth went black from sugar-eating) also expected lavish presents, then customarily given on New Year’s Day, and carefully listed their exact value.
Much of what we know of Christmas Day is down to the Victorians. The wild excesses of yesteryear were toned down into a quieter family-focused festival. Queen Victoria and her beloved Albert, with their nine children, played a big part in these changes. Christmas trees, cards, lights and modern style decorations were popularised by the monarchy and spread throughout the globe. Victorian children’s presents were usually quite modest, such as sweets, nuts or oranges, although wealthier kids might hope for a gift echoing the latest technology, such as a toy train. ‘Christmas Box’ tips to servants and tradesmen were left until 26 December, hence called ‘Boxing Day’.
Christmas crackers also appeared as did the habit of eating turkey rather than traditional goose as well as Christmas pudding. Presents were now opened on Christmas Day itself.
Most Victorian families went to church at Christmas, and the words (if not always the tunes) of many popular carols (including ‘Good King Wenceslas’, ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’) are Victorian. Better-off people also provided gifts or Christmas feasts for poorer neighbours as shown in the works of Mr Christmas himself, Charles Dickens and his 1843 work ‘Christmas Carol’.
And if you want to know why you should really keep some decorations up into February rather than 12th night in early January (or about the 27th December in some of my more heathen neighbours!) then have a read of this.