We all have our own Christmas traditions, from the ones that date back in history that have evolved over the years and that we follow without thinking about them, to the ones that your family may have started and continued. We thought we would share the history behind many of our favourite traditions.
Having helped set up the Public Records Office (now the Post Office), Sir Henry Cole and artist John Horsley created the first Christmas card in 1843 as a way of encouraging people to use its services.
When they were first created, cards cost a shilling, about £5.75 today and stamps a penny, about 40p at modern prices. Over the years advances in printing brought prices down, making cards hugely popular by the 1860s. By 1900 the custom of sending Christmas cards had spread throughout Europe.
The first one did not appear in the UK until the 1830s. When Prince Albert put up a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in 1841, he started what became an evergreen trend.
According to tradition you must make a wish when eating your first mince pie of the season.
Early mince pies were made of meat, fruit and spice and inspired by Middle Eastern cuisine brought back by the Crusaders.
They commonly had thirteen ingredients representing Christ and the Apostles, and were formed in a large oval shape to represent the manger. By the Victorian times meat had disappeared.
The traditional Christmas stocking began with St Nicholas, the fourth-century Greek saint.
Nicholas liked giving presents to people who were less fortunate than him. He preferred to give gifts anonymously. He heard a story about a local nobleman who had lost both his wife and his money. The nobleman had been forced to move into a peasant’s cottage with his three daughters, all of whom were of marriageable age.
At the time, a bride-to-be needed a dowry to offer her groom’s parents. Sadly, the nobleman couldn’t afford to feed his daughters, let alone give them a dowry. St Nicholas knew that the nobleman would be too proud to accept charity. So when he spotted that the girls had hung their stockings to dry on the chimney ledge, he decided to climb down the chimney and put a bag of silver coins into the oldest girl’s stocking.
The next day, St Nicholas climbed down the chimney again and placed a bag of coins into the second daughter’s stocking. The day after that, St Nicholas tried to do the same for the youngest daughter but the nobleman was hiding in the room and caught St Nicholas in the act.
St Nicholas begged the nobleman to keep it a secret but word got out and soon everyone was hanging stockings on their fireplace.
London sweet-maker Tom Smith invented Christmas crackers in the late 1840s, inspired by traditional, paper-wrapped French bonbons. Even though he included mottos or riddles inside each, it was not until he found a way to make them “crack” when pulled apart that sales took off. Hats and novelty gifts were later added by his sons Tom, Walter and Henry.
Turkeys originated in Mexico and were first brought to Britain by William Strickland in 1526. Henry VIII enjoyed turkey and although the bird became fashionable in high society in the late 19th century it was Edward VII who made it de rigueur at Christmas for the middle classes.
Even by 1930, however, it took a week’s wages to buy one and turkey remained a luxury until the 1950s.
Also known as plum or figgy pudding. It was thought to be brought to Britain by Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria.
In Victorian times plum pudding was a Christmas favourite. It is traditionally made a week before Advent on what is known as “stir-up Sunday”, and it is where families gathered in the kitchen to help make the Christmas pudding.
A silver sixpence was placed into the pudding mix and every member of the household gave the mix a stir. Whoever found the sixpence in their own piece of the pudding on Christmas Day would see it as a sign that they would enjoy wealth and good luck in the year to come.
Carols were songs and dances of praise and joy in pagan times and the practice of carol singing carried over into the Christian era. Carols have been written through the centuries but the most familiar date from Victorian times.