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The Origins of Christmas; Gifts; Mince Pies and Crackers etc.:-
Silent Night ...... Hark the Herald Angels Sing ....... The First Noel ...... Oh Christmas Tree ...... Auld Lang Syne
Once In Royal David's City ....... Good King Wenceslas ....... O Come All Ye Faithfull ....... Away In A Manger
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Rev John Currin, News Extra, St. Andrew's, Dibden Purlieu / All Saints Dibden, Southampton.
|Origins of Christmas|
The word comes from the Old English term Cristes maesse, meaning "Christ's mass." This was the name for the festival service of worship held on December 25th to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ. Whilst it is accepted that Jesus was born in the small town of Bethlehem a few miles south of Jerusalem, there is no certain information on the date of his birth, not even of the year. One reason for this uncertainty is that the stories of his birth, recorded in the New Testament books of Matthew and Luke, were written several decades after the event. And those who wrote of it gave no specific dates for the event.
For several centuries the Christian church itself paid little attention to the celebration of Jesus' birth. The major Christian festival was Easter, the day of his resurrection. Only gradually, as the church developed a calendar to commemorate the major events of the life of Christ, did it celebrate his birth.
Because there was no knowledge about the date of Jesus' birth, a day had to be selected. The Eastern Orthodox and the Eastern Rite churches within the Roman Catholic church chose January 6th. The day was named Epiphany, meaning "appearance", the day of Christ's manifestation. The Western church, based at Rome, chose December 25th. It is known from a notice in an ancient Roman almanac that Christmas was celebrated on December 25th in Rome as early as AD 336.
In the latter half of the 4th century, the Eastern and Western churches adopted each other's festival, thus establishing the modern Christian 12-day celebration from Christmas to Epiphany. In some places the 12th day is called the festival of the three kings because it is believed that the three wise men, or magi, visited the baby Jesus on that day, bringing him gifts.
Today Christmas is more than a one-day celebration, or a 12-day festival. It is part of a lengthy holiday season embracing at least the whole month of December. In the United States the holiday season begins on Thanksgiving Day and ends on January 1st.
The reason for this extended holiday period is that Christmas is no longer only a religious festival. It is also the most popular holiday period for everyone in countries where Christianity has become the dominant religion. Even in Japan, where Christianity is in the minority, Christmas has become a festive, gift-giving holiday time.
Gift giving is one of the oldest customs associated with Christmas: it is actually older than the holiday itself. When the date of Christmas was set to fall in December, it was done at least in part to compete with ancient pagan festivals that occurred about the same time. The Romans, for example, celebrated the Saturnalia on December 17th. It was a winter feast of merrymaking and gift exchanging. And two weeks later, on the Roman New Year - January 1st, houses were decorated with greenery and lights, and gifts were given to children and the poor. As the Germanic tribes of Europe accepted Christianity and began to celebrate Christmas, they also gave gifts.
In some countries, such as Italy and Spain, children traditionally do not receive gifts on December 25th but on January 5th, the eve of Epiphany. In several northern European nations gifts are given on December 6th, which is the feast of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children
The exchange of gifts has remained a central feature of the holiday season the world over. It has become so significant that most merchants count on making a very large proportion of their annual sales during the period from late November to December 24th. So important has the Christmas selling period become that many stores fail to show a profit at the end of the year if Christmas sales are low.
Mince pies became popular in the Victorian age, but their history is a long one. In the twelfth century, knights returning from the Crusades in the Holy Land introduced to Europe many Middle Eastern ways of cooking, which mixed sweet tastes with savoury, and recipes of meat cooked with fruit and sweet spices were popular. In Elizabethan times, mince pies were still a mixture of meat and fruit and were called "shrid" pies because they contained shredded meat and suet. The meat and suet were mixed with dried fruit such as raisins and currants, and it was traditional to add three spices - cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg - which stood for the three gifts given to Jesus by the Wise Men. The mixture was baked in an oblong pastry case to represent Jesus' crib. A little pastry baby often decorated the lid. It was thought lucky to eat a mince pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas. Each pie would be eaten in a different house in order to bring good luck to the household and the eater for the next twelve months.
In 1843, wealthy businessman Henry Cole, (who had worked as assistant to Rowland Hill from 1837 to 1840 and played a key role in introducing the 'Penny Post ' and 'Penny Black' postage stamp), came up with the idea of sending a "Merry Christmas" message to his friends and business acquaintances. His friend, artist John Calcott Horsely, printed 1000 copies of the card, depicting a family enjoying the festive holidays, and sold them to Londoners. (gln 20Dec2014)
In 1840 a London (UK) confectioner. Tom Smith, was travelling in Paris looking for business ideas. He found chocolates and sugared almonds being sold in tissue paper parcels. Back in London, he marketed the "bonbon" and added a short love poem or verse. By 1847 these "bonbons" had developed into the first crackers. They were called "casaques". By then, the chocolate almonds had been replaced by a novelty or gift and the verse by a riddle or joke. In addition, a snap had been developed, possibly inspired by the crackling of burning logs on the fire, to make the bang when the pack was opened. The Tom Smith company moved from their original premises in Clerkenwell, East London to Finsbury Square in the City of London. Sons Tom, Walter and Henry took over the business when their father died and later a drinking fountain was erected in Finsbury Square by Walter in memory of his mother and to commemorate the life of the man who invented the Christmas Cracker. It was Walter who introduced the paper hats and he toured the worls seeking new ideas for the little gifts. The Tom Smith company, always aware of current affairs, have created crackers for the Suffragettes, War Heroes, Charlie Chaplin, the Coronation and many other great occasions. Exclusive crackers were also made for the British Royal Family and still are to this day. The Christmas Cracker is now over 150 years old.
Want to read some dreadfull Christmas Cracker jokes ? - Howlers (updated 18Dec2019)
The first mouth blown glass balls for the Christmas tree originated in central Germany around the year 1850. Now these scintillating glass balls bring the spirit of Christmas into the home for millions each year.
The fir tree has long been associated with Christianity. In Germany around 1000 years ago, it is said that Saint Boniface (who converted the German people to Christianity), discovered a group of pagans worshipping an oak tree. In anger Saint Boniface was supposed to have cut down the oak tree, whereupon a young fir tree sprang up from the remains of the oak tree roots. Saint Boniface took this as a sign for the Christian faith. However it wasn't until the 16th century that fir trees were brought indoors at Christmas time.
In the UK, the turkey was not originally served as the Christmas meat, its adoption didn't occur for many centuries. At first, in medieval England, the main course was either a peacock or a more usually a boar. The turkey appeared on Christmas tables in England in the 16th century, supposedly introduced around 1526 by William Strickland (died 08Dec1598) - an English landowner who sailed on early voyages of exploration to the Americas.
The story goes that William brought back half a dozen turkeys and sold them in Bristol market at tuppence each. He continued in the turkey trade and made enough money to build a stately home in Boynton, near Bridlington, East Yorkshire. Granted a coat of arms in 1550 he chose a turkey as the crest. Even today, near the entrance to Boynton Hall, St Andrews church (where William Strickland is buried and his still surviving 82 year old great, great, great, great, great great great great great great great great grandson Richard Marriott is warden) there is a lecturn, a stone wall carving and stained glass window all celebrating his famous turkeys.
Popular history tells of King Henry VIII being the first English monarch to have turkey for Christmas. The 16th century farmer Thomas Tusser noted that by 1573 turkeys were commonly served at English Christmas dinners. The tradition of turkey at Christmas rapidly spread thoughout England in the 17th century and it also became common to serve goose which remained the predominant roast until the Victorian era. (it was quite common for Goose "Clubs" to be set up, allowing working class families to save up over the year towards a Christmas goose).
A famous fictional Christmas dinner scene appears in Charles Dicken's "A Christmas Carol" (1843) where a mellowed Scrooge sends his assistant Bob Cratchitt a large turkey. (gln 07Dec2014)
The Christmas Pudding or Plum Pudding as it was originally known, has a firm tradition here in the UK. It dates back to the 14th century, but was rather different in those days, being a sort of porridge, made with wheat or corn and milk called Frumenty. This contained the unlikely ingredients of boiled beef and mutton with fruits, wines and spices - more like a soup than a pudding. It tended to be eaten as a fasting dish in preparation for the Christmas festivities.
By the 17th century the pudding had evolved somewhat, being thickened with eggs and bread crumbs and with more dried fruit, ale and spirits was more like the puddding we know today. We are told that in 1664 the Puritans banned it as a 'lewd custom'. Because of its rich ingredients it was 'unfit for God fearing people'.
It remained in obscurity until 1714 when George 1, who developed a taste for plum pudding, re-established it as part of the Christmas feast. This, despite the Quakers calling it 'the invention of the scarlet whore of Babylon'. It was finally established as an essential Christmas food in the 1800s when Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert's love of it made it fashionable throughout the country.
There are many traditions associated with the Christmas pudding - it should be made several weeks before Christmas to allow the fruits to mature and the mix to form the gooey texture indicative of a good pudding; - a silver ring, thimble or coin should be added to the pudding and each member of the family make a wish as they give the mixture a good stir, whoever gets the coin or ring in their portion on Christmas Day will have their wish come true; - it should be made with 13 ingredients to represent Jesus and his Disciples.
Whatever the history and traditions, enjoy your Christmas Pudding, maybe enriched with a brandy sauce!
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Last updated: 25 December 2019
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Grahame Newnham's Web Pages
Dec 2010 - Christmas pudding info added Dec2012 - typos corrected - at last! 09Dec2013 Minor updates
02Dec2014 - Silent Night & Good King Wenceslas text added / 07Dec2014 - Christmas Turkey added
20Dec2014 - Christmas Cards added / 18Dec2015 - Christmas Entertainment added
19Dec2019 - Entertainment & Cracker Jokes updated / 25Dec2019 - Cracker Jokes updated