Christmas is rich in ritual and tradition, just like weddings are. And, just like weddings, Christmas traditions can be the things we most treasure about this time, IF they work for you.
And if a Christmas tradition doesn’t work for you? Well, just like I tell my wedding couples, chuck it or change it!
The pressure can be on with the traditions though as (unlike weddings) there is a huge proportion of the population all celebrating at the same time.
You thought you had wedding tradition pressure from your family and magazines? Christmas comes with the pressure of all of the mainstream media, as well as the expectations of friends, family and well, just about everyone else in the country!
If you find this Christmas pressure overwhelming, you might like to check out my post on when it all seems too much… But if you’re in the mood for some Christmassy facts, read on!
I thought it would be interesting to look into some of the many, many traditions we have at this time of year and find out where they came from:
Why do we celebrate on 25th December?
Traditionally this time of year was celebrated for the Winter Solstice, or the Pagan festival of Saturnalia. People have celebrated the solstice for many thousands of years, and most religions have a ‘light-based’ celebration at this time of year.
Why light-based? Well, at Winter Solstice, when the days are at their darkest, the return of the light is celebrated. When Christianity came to Europe, it wouldn’t have been much of a selling point to stop one of the biggest parties of the year, so Christians adopted Saturnalia and turned it into Christmas. It fits, as Christians see Jesus as the light of the world, so his birth fits into a light-returning story.
Again, carols were part of the party many thousands of years ago. They were dances or songs of praise and joy, often sung at winter solstice celebrations around stone circles or fires. Early Christians took on the idea because, hey, party, right?
During the Middle Ages, churches opened their alms boxes on this day to distribute money to the poor, hence the name ‘Boxing Day’. Also, servants would traditionally have Boxing Day off to celebrate Christmas with their families.
Hanging out the stocking for Father Christmas
This was from an old story about St Nicholas dropping money down the chimney of a poor family who needed money for dowries so that the daughters could marry. The money that St Nicholas dropped landed in a stocking hanging up by the fire.
St Nicholas gradually became Father Christmas and Santa Claus. Whatever he’s called, mince pies and a drink are left out for him by families all over the world, and not forgetting a carrot for the reindeer…
Talking of Santa…
His red coat, rounded tummy and white beard do NOT come from Coca-Cola, despite the popular urban myth.
Thomas Nast first drew Santa Claus for Harpers Weekly in 1863 and drew him each year. His 1881 version of Santa is in the iconic red suit and this inspired artists and popular media everywhere. Coca-Cola started using him 40 years after this!
Another tradition borrowed from the early Pagans, fir trees have been used for millennia to celebrate winter festivals, reminding them of the coming Spring. Christians took on the tradition, reminding them of everlasting life in God.
Bringing a tree inside became popular in Eastern Europe and spread to Germany. Prince Albert, a German married to Queen Victoria, brought a Christmas tree to Windsor Castle in 1841, starting the tradition over here.
It wasn’t just Christmas Trees that the Victorians introduced.
In 1843, Christmas cards were first commissioned by Sir Henry Cole who also pioneered the Penny Post, enabling people to be able to send them (cards are on the decline as technology improves and it costs significantly more than a penny to send them now!)
Christmas crackers were also a Victorian invention, started by a London sweetmaker called Tom Smith, who was inspired by French bonbons. They didn’t sell well, but then he was inspired by a crackling fire to put the snap in them, his sons introduced little toys to the mix and they took off.
New and ‘acquired’ traditions
Improved communication and technology, plus living in an ever more multicultural society, has meant that traditions suggested by retailers, from other countries – or even just new ideas that are well presented – quickly become engrained into the public’s consciousness.
New ‘traditions’ inspired by the retail industries
These include such oddities as the Starbucks ‘red cups’ or the Coca-Cola ‘Holidays are Coming’ advert being shown for the first time inspiring grown adults to exclaim on social media that Christmas has started.
Also, there’s an idea that a new sofa might be necessary for Christmas, thanks to the furniture companies planting a seed of worry about our seating arrangements.
We coo over the John Lewis advert, which is becoming more and more of an art form, and being joined by other big businesses. These often spawn a whole raft of parodies, feeding social media feeds for weeks.
Chocolate advent calendars have gone from being almost unheard of to being the norm in just a generation, and are now being joined by gin or miniatures calendars as well as ones filled with make-up. Making sure you book a delivery slot for your online Christmas groceries as soon as they’re available is almost a ritual these days too!
Some traditions from other countries
Just as we took the indoor tree idea from the Germans, now we have the German Christmas markets. The largest one outside Germany is in Birmingham every year – and who doesn’t love a steaming cup of Gluhwein on a cold evening?!
America is responsible for so much Santa, and the reason he’s not often called ‘Father Christmas’ any more. We’ve mentioned the adverts featuring a certain lorry and the red cups of course, but the Americans are also responsible for such debatable ‘joys’ as ‘Elf on the Shelf’ too.
My personal favourite appropriation of other countries’ traditions is the increasingly popular Icelandic tradition of giving books on Christmas Eve and spending the rest of the evening cosying up and reading them. In Iceland, this is known as ‘Jolabokaflod’ – the Yule Book Flood – and it is around December that most Icelandic publishing houses bring out their new titles as a result.
If in doubt, ask Facebook…
Pondering on Christmas rituals and traditions, I put a post up on Facebook asking what people’s favourite traditions were at this time of year and I got an amazing amount of responses.
There were a lot that seemed to be based around that lovely feeling of gathering in – getting everyone together, closing the door, putting the fire on and hunkering down (I guess the Danish would class that as ‘hygge’).
Angie shared that her adult family has a tradition of everyone having their own decoration which they hang when they arrive ‘home’ at Christmas. When all the decorations are up, it signals the start of Christmas for her.
Many people said that they had a tradition of opening a present on Christmas Eve. This was often pyjamas and a book or a DVD (several people pointed out it made the kids look much better in Christmas Day photos!) Actually, there were a lot of Christmas Eve traditions – watching certain films, putting out the mince pies, telling the story of Babushka or even having a barbecue! I wondered whether it was because, up until Christmas Eve, it’s all about finishing off work, getting ready or getting to a place etc. By Christmas Eve, it’s too late to do anything else anyway and you can relax into the holiday. Therefore, marking it in some way seems really fitting. In fact, there were many more ‘Christmas Eve’ traditions shared than ones for the day itself.
Suzanne and Judy both mentioned listening to Carols from Kings College and both said they do it on their own. This is something I love to do too, and alone most years – it was interesting to learn I wasn’t the only one!
Several people said that they had traditions relating to buying a family decoration for the tree each year, sometimes one per family member. Sarah said ‘When the children were young, we took them to choose a new tree ornament every year. Charlie always chose a bird and we now have a tree full of 23 birds. This year he is just back from America and he came round with a present for me – needless to say, it is another gorgeous bird for our tree.’
Archie started a decoration tradition like this when he got together with his wife 10 years ago, hoping that their decorations would tell the story of their lives together when they were in their 80s. Sadly though, their house flooded and all their decorations were lost, so they’re starting over this year.
This is sometimes the issue with traditions, as it can be very painful when they can’t be followed for some reason. Clare shared this story: ‘When my folks died, I found Christmas just the worst, as it was FULL of traditions we had as a family… and our family unit was gone. So now I go out of my way not to have traditions – we have gone to the theatre on Christmas Eve and stayed at home; we have decorated the tree together and on my own; we have had Christmas on our own and with friends, and family – just shaking it all up, keeping it fresh and creating new memories year after year.’
Whereas Bev is starting as many traditions as she can this year: ‘This year we will be starting new traditions as this is the first one in our house and we don’t have to work/gig/visit every family member under the sun! It will be the first time since I was 8 that I will have spent Christmas Day and Boxing Day in one place. We are starting with bacon butties and bucks fizz for brekkie!’
I liked the blending of old and new traditions that Karen described: ‘Our most important traditions (my mum, my brothers and me) are having a particular kind of homemade dip, Christmas fudge and playing Mahjong. The treats are my grandmother’s recipes and the Mahjong was always what we played with my grandfather. Somehow, those things seem to bring us together and laughing, making us feel close to each other and the people who aren’t there anymore. All the newer members of our family have traditions too, so Christmas tends to morph a bit every year according to who’s there (husbands, wives, kids, girlfriends, mothers in law…) but as long as we have a bit of dip, fudge and gaming over Christmas, it all feels seasonal and lovely.’
Other traditions mentioned included mass watching of Doctor Who, decorating the tree all together, yellow stretchy men in the stockings every year and hot dogs on Christmas Eve!
And Miska shared this gorgeous Slovac family tradition: ‘at the beginning of our Christmas family meal we open a whole walnut and cut an apple in half. The healthy nut inside symbolises healthy life. The pattern of the seeds creates the shape of a star which means that the whole family will be lucky the whole year. Then we all share the nut and the apple so that the whole family is healthy and lucky for the whole year till next Christmas, when we share it again.’
What’s your take on Christmas traditions? Do you have your own favourites? Remember if a tradition doesn’t work for you, you can always chuck it or change it.