The Christmas season officially begins with Advent, four Sundays before Christmas day. By definition, ‘advent’ means arrival and is a religious time which gives people of the Christian faith time to prepare for the arrival of Jesus. However, an advent calendar is now adopted by households, whether religious or not. The advent calendar has small doors that are opened by children each day, for 24 days prior to Christmas to reveal a hidden surprise picture or chocolate.
Homes are adorned with Christmas decorations, both greenery and coloured tinsel. Holly, ivy and mistletoe are associated with rituals going back beyond the Dark Ages. Mistletoe, considered sacred by the British Druids, was believed to have many miraculous powers. Among the Romans, it was a symbol of peace, and, it was said that when enemies met under it, they discarded their arms and declared a truce. From this comes the custom of kissing under the mistletoe. England was the first country to use it during the Christmas season.
Christmas wreaths are used as a decoration on the doors, windows, and fireplaces and even on tables. They are made of plants which maintain their green shades throughout the entire year; eg. pine, holly and ivy. The greenness of the leaves in the winter season symbolize that life is everlasting.
The Christmas tree became popular after Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert, who made a tree part of the celebrations at Windsor Castle in 1840. Since 1947, the country of Norway has presented Britain annually with a large Christmas tree which stands in Trafalgar Square in commemoration of Anglo-Norwegian cooperation during the Second World War.
The first ever Christmas card was posted in England in the 1840s. Over a billion Christmas cards are now sent every year in the United Kingdom, with many of them sold in aid of charities.
An important part of the Christmas celebrations are the singing of carols. Carols are sung around the Christmas tree on the village green and during special ‘Carols by candlelight’ services in most churches. Many people attend a ‘Midnight service’ in church on Christmas eve which is mainly carols. Most of the popular carols now sung were written in the 19th century.
On Christmas eve children hang a stocking on the fireplace or at the foot of their bed for Santa Claus (also known at Father Christmas) to fill. Many leave some food and drink for Santa and the reindeers (generally a mince pie, carrot and whisky so guess who has that!). Presents for the family are placed beneath the Christmas tree.
Presents are opened on Christmas Day, generally in the morning. Christmas lunch consists of a roast turkey or goose with lots of trimmings, stuffing, sausages wrapped in bacon, Brussels sprouts and other vegetables and roast potatoes. This is followed by Christmas pudding flaming with brandy, which might contain silver coins or lucky charms for children. The pudding is usually prepared months beforehand and contains lots of alcohol. Later in the day, people eat mince pies or Christmas cake (a rich baked fruit cake with marzipan, icing and Christmas decoration). Open fires add to the spirit of Christmas, making the home warm, cozy and inviting
The pulling of Christmas crackers accompanies food on Christmas Day. Invented by a London baker, Thomas Smith, in 1846, he had imported some French novelties to sell as Christmas gifts, but these were not popular until he wrapped them up and added a snapper. A cracker is a brightly coloured paper tube, twisted at both ends, which contains a party hat in the shape of a crown, a riddle and trinket. When it is pulled by two people it gives out a crack. The paper crowns are worn throughout the meal.
A traditional feature of Christmas afternoon is the Queen’s Christmas Message to the nation, broadcast on radio and television. The tradition began in 1932 with a radio broadcast by King George V.
In the British armed forces it is traditional that officers wait on the men and serve them their Christmas dinner. This dates back to a custom from the Middle Ages.
26th December is traditionally known as St Stephen’s Day, but is more commonly known as Boxing Day. Historically, alms boxes in churches were opened and the money distributed to the poor, also servants received boxes of gifts from their employers. My family tradition has been that everyone purchases a small, inexpensive gift for all those present on Boxing Day and it’s amazing what can be purchased for only a few pounds!
On Christmas Day and Boxing Day many families play cards or participate in board games and children’s games. Boxing Day is traditionally a day of sport, walking and fund-raising events, such as swimming in the sea!
Popular among children are pantomimes which are song and dance dramatisations of well-known fairy tales which encourage audience participation of shouting responses to the actors or joining in with the songs.
Alas, on or just before the twelfth night all Christmas decorations, cards and the tree are tidied away until next year!