Christmas A Strange Form of Madness by Sally Stacey.
Our Christmas traditions are such oddities. Christmas is the festival during which we are allegedly celebrating the birth of Jesus. One wonders what that has to do with fir trees, snowmen, crackers, stockings, reindeer and an old man in a red suit!
I’m pretty sure that snow is as rare as hens’ teeth in Bethlehem. It isn’t a great deal more common in England, at least over the festive season. The Met office tell us that there were 10 white Christmases in London during the 20th century. However, as a single snowflake, or something resembling one, falling on the weather centre is enough to qualify as snowfall, the statistics are deceptive. Significant snow cover has been a feature of a London Christmas only four times in the last 116 years.
Snowmen and Santa
All those Christmas cards with cheerful snowmen and Santa in his sleigh are a little optimistic! But seasonal cards depicting reality would lack that all-important festive cheer. Who wants to look at anaemic grey skies and drizzle? Santa Claus just wouldn’t be as charming if shown trudging through the rain to make his deliveries because his sleigh was stuck in traffic on the M25. In the real world, by the time he had visited half a dozen houses, his reindeer would have lost the will to live and then decamped to Clacket Lane services.
You have to wonder how most of our Christmas traditions evolved.
The Legend of St. Nicholas
Father Christmas appears to be a hybrid character which has emerged from a number of different folk stories, none of which had anything to do with the birth of Jesus. One such story originated in Asia Minor. It tells of a bishop called Nicholas who had heard of a family of three girls who were without dowries. He decided to help the eldest girl anonymously and so dropped a bag of gold down the chimney of the family’s house. By chance, the money fell into a stocking hanging by the fire. Nicholas later made further gifts of money for the other girls but was caught in the act of going down the chimney. News of his generosity spread and people came to believe that unexpected gifts were the work of the bishop. His good deeds meant that he became a saint.
So this was a tale of Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, stockings and gold coins. Nobody knows if there is any truth to it. The story certainly had absolutely nothing to do with Christmas but appears to have been mixed with some Nordic and Germanic legends to produce good old Father Christmas. He is a Teutonic/Asian fusion! Interestingly Asia Minor is the region that we now call Turkey! But there is no suggestion that this story has anything to do with our tradition of eating a certain bird on Christmas day. Turkeys are actually a relatively modern Yuletide innovation as most family’s couldn’t afford them prior the 1950s.
A Cracking Christmas
Christmas dinner wouldn’t be complete without those most curious of decorative features – crackers. These were at least a British invention but not one that was evolved for Christmas. In the middle of the 19th century, sweet maker Tom Smith had been trying to sell bon bons wrapped up in pretty paper. He included a motto or a riddle with the sweets but they weren’t selling well. One night, whilst listening to his fire crackling, he decided that he might achieve more sales if his sweet wrappers opened with a bang. How he came to this conclusion is anyone’s guess but he was right. His cracker business was a huge success. When his sons took over from him they started putting hats and other gifts into the crackers. These were probably of a superior quality to the paper and plastic that drops out of most Christmas crackers today.
What about Christmas Trees? Evergreen trees have been used in pagan festivals for thousands of years. Both Latvia and Estonia claim the first documented use of a tree to celebrate Christmas but the details of these trees have been lost in the mists of time.
The practice of adding lights to a tree appears to have started with the German preacher Martin Luther who was allegedly inspired by the stars shining through trees at night.
The first Christmas tree came to England courtesy of George III’s wife Charlotte. The Royals then invested in a tree each year and when a photograph of the Royal tree was published in 1848, everybody wanted one!
The Christmas Stamps
So there you have it. None of our Christmas traditions have anything to do with Jesus or the reality of a British December. But hey! Life wouldn’t be the same without Santa, snowmen, Christmas lights and crackers.
This year, Royal Mail’s Christmas stamp issue reminds us of our festive traditions. The six stamps feature images created by artist Helen Musselwhite and celebrate decorating the Christmas tree, making a snowman, hanging out a stocking, eating a Christmas pudding and lighting a Christmas lantern. There is also a rather splendid robin, a bird which can actually be seen in our gardens at Christmas.
What is your favourite Christmas tradition? Do you love decorating your tree and hanging up your stockings? Do you adore snowmen or is it the festive food that you look forward to most? Will you be choosing your crackers with care or buying the cheap ones from Aldi? Do you usually cover your house in lights and your tree with tinsel or can’t you be bothered? Will your mince pies be homemade or will you purchase a box of six from Lidl? Let us know all about your Christmas traditions.