Christmas Past




I didn’t really know what the subject was going to be when I agreed to write the Blog so I put on my thinking cap. Eventually I came up with the idea of writing a Christmas scene staring the guys from my historical ghost novella, Death’s Desire, which is set in 1785. However, when I started to research Christmas in the eighteenth century I found it would be nothing like the Christmas we know today. I was surprised at some of the stuff I learned and decided a post about the development of the Christmas would be more interesting (at least I hope you find it interesting!)

Naturally I began by looking at how they celebrated Christmas in the eighteenth century and while some of this was familiar such as going to church, carolling, a little dancing, hanging holly, there were distinct differences: performing a mummers play, attending adult only dinner parties though these did still feature mince pies, fruitcake and other seasonal foods. However, children and the exchanging of gifts had no part in the eighteenth century Christmas celebration.


I decided to look into how many of the traditions of celebrating came into being, both before and after the eighteenth century. Some of the earliest traditions were actually borrowed from earlier pagan religions, which later did not sit well with some people.

English Puritanism was probably the most extreme manifestation of the Protestant reaction. Oliver Cromwell campaigned against the ‘heathen practices’ of feasting, decorating and singing, which he felt desecrated the spirit of Christ. Christmas was called such names as “the Papist’s Massing Day” and “Old Heathen Feasting Day”. Cromwell’s government abolished English Christmas celebration by an act of Parliament in 1647, and the ban was not lifted until Cromwell lost power in 1660. However, the tradition of carolling at Christmastime did not resume again in England until the 1800s.

The word carol derives from the Middle English carole – meaning a ring-dance with a song – but the tradition may have begun in Greece with the choraulein dance to flute music. The medieval church discouraged dancing to music. Originally carols were primarily folk songs for celebrations. Christmas became the holiday of carols in the 16th century, but condemnation of carolling by the Puritans in the 17th century dampened the tradition in England for over 160 years. Carols can include both religious songs, such as “Silent Night” & “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” as well as the nonreligious “Jingle Bells” & “White Christmas”, although some distinguish between carols and popular songs.


“Silent Night” (the most popular of all Christmas carols) was first written as a poem in Germany in 1816 by a young priest named Joseph Mohr. The church organ was too rusted to play for the 1818 Midnight Mass so Mohr asked his friend Franz Gruber (a local teacher) to compose a tune. The piece might been forgotten except that a visiting musician took the music and it grew in popularity as it was played throughout Austria & Germany.

“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” had long been a popular folksong before being published in 1833 in Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern by William Sandys. (Few people nowadays notice the placement of the comma, imagining that the title refers to “Merry Gentlemen”. In fact, the title is an exhortation for gentlemen to “rest ye merry” in the same somewhat obsolete use of the word “rest” as occurs in the phrase “rest assured” – “remain merry”.

“Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” was written as a poem by Phillip Brooks, a Philadelphia pastor who ministered to Union soldiers during the Civil War.

“Jingle Bells” was composed in 1857 by James Pierpoint, who became a Confederate soldier in the Civil War.

St Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and founder of the Franciscan Order, is said to have been the first to depict a scene of the nativity in Greccio, Italy, around 1223 AD. The word “creche” comes from the French word for “manger”, which in turn comes from the Italian word “Greccio”, the name of the town having the first nativity manger scene.

Nativity Scene


Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that attaches itself to trees, never touches the ground and can bear fruit in the winter. The Druids regarded mistletoe as sacred. Mistletoe was a token of peace & reconciliation – with a kiss symbolizing pardon. Kissing under mistletoe was actually a Roman custom. However, the church banned its use due to its pagan associations and substituted holly wreaths, which with its blood-red berries could represent Christ’s crown of thorns.

Christmas ham may originate from Norse traditions of eating wild boar in midwinter feasts. The ancient Romans ate boar during Saturnalia in honour of the god Adonis who was slain by a boar and whose birthday was December 25th. The oldest existing printed Christmas carol is “The Boar’s Head Carol” (printed 1521), which was sung in England at Christmas dinner while a boar’s head was carried on a platter – a possible relic of the Roman occupation of Britain. The custom is still observed every Christmas at Queen’s College.

Humble pie was made from the “humbles” of deer (heart, liver, brain and other organs) by the servants of nobility who feasted on the more choice cuts of meat. By the 17th century humble pie had become such a traditional Christmas dish that it was outlawed by the Puritan Cromwell government in England.

Mincemeat pie was originally mainly minced meat preserved with sugar & spices. Fruits were often used as a less expensive preservative and flavouring agent than sugar. Meat was increasingly omitted (except for beef fat) and additional fruits were included.

Plum pudding was originally a soup made by boiling beef & mutton with dried plums (prunes), wines and spices. The prunes & meats were later removed, raisins added and the pudding was thickened with eggs & breadcrumbs to be more like a steamed or broiled cake. So “plum pudding” is not a pudding and contains no plums. In the 17th century the word “plum” was commonly used to refer to any dried fruit. A “sugarplum” was any candied fruit (dried & sugared) – and could be a plum, apricot, cherry, etc. Prior to the age of chocolate children yearned for sugarplums, which is why “visions of sugarplums” danced through the heads of children in Clement Moore’s poem – and why the Sugarplum Fairy was a prominent character in “The Nutcracker”.

Candy canes are edible ornaments which originated in Germany in the late 1600s. Originally made as straight white sticks, a German choirmaster bent the sticks so as to represent a shepherd’s staff and distributed them to children during Nativity services. Not until the year 1900 did candy canes become striped with the red-and-white Christmas colours or become flavoured with peppermint or wintergreen. Some people have the idea that the J-shape is a reference to J-esus and that the red & white symbolize the blood & purity of Christ.

Midnight Mass is the first of three masses held at Christmas by the Roman Catholic Church, each mass characterized by a distinctive liturgy. For many people Midnight Mass is the most important of Christmas masses because of a popular belief that Jesus was born at midnight.

St. Stephen’s Day (December 26th) commemorates the first Christian martyr Stephen, who was stoned to death for his religious beliefs in 35 A.D. In the Middle Ages priests opened the church alms-box on St. Stephen’s Day to distribute deposited coins to the needy. St. Stephen’s Day became Boxing Day in Britain and is a recognized holiday not only in Britain, but in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. In British tradition, Christmas was a day of exchanging gifts whereas the day following Christmas was a day in which people of less fortunate station (servants, etc and the poor) received gifts from the more fortunate – often in boxes – without the expectation of anything being given in return.

I think it’s fair to say that many of the traditions we recognise and still keep today began in the mid-nineteenth century.

Victoria became Queen of England in 1837 at age 18. She proposed to the German Prince Albert and married him in 1840. It was Albert who provided the first Christmas tree, well decorated, for his family at Windsor Castle for the Christmas of 1841. Albert distributed Christmas trees to schools and army barracks to foster his childhood love of the seasonal tree in his adopted country. Newspaper illustrations in 1848 showing the royal family with a Christmas tree decorated with glass-blown ornaments, candles and ribbons in Windsor Castle excited the popular imagination in Britain.

Christmas Tree

Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, the same year that the first Christmas card was published. Both the book and the card helped popularize the phrase “Merry Christmas”. Dickens’ popular book had an extremely powerful influence on undermining opposition to Christmas, especially among those influenced by Puritans. Dickens used Scrooge to symbolize the idea that those who don’t celebrate Christmas are uncharitable, twisted, mean-spirited and socially isolated. Dickens depicted Christmas as a one-day family event held in the home rather than a twelve-day public holiday – thus contributing to changing the way Christmas was celebrated. Central to the Dickens Christmas celebration was a lavish family dinner.

A Christmas Carol

And I think last, but by no means least, Father Christmas. In England, as elsewhere, many churches had been dedicated to Saint Nicholas, but with the elimination of Catholicism “Father Christmas” reverted to a green-clad elfish figure associated with pagan mid-winter festivals. Father Christmas did not distribute gifts and he was often the master of ceremonies for mummer’s plays.

Although Father Christmas is still the name of choice in the United Kingdom, his appearance & conduct has become indistinguishable from his counterpart of Santa Claus. Saint Nicholas underwent a transformation to Santa Claus largely in America during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1809 Washington Irving, a member of the New York Historical Society created a tale of a chubby, pipe-smoking little Saint Nicholas who road a magic horse through the air visiting all houses in New York. The elfish figure was small enough to climb down chimneys with gifts for the good children and switches for the bad ones.

The 1823 poem “The Night Before Christmas”, reputedly by Clement Moore, replaced the horse with a sleigh drawn by eight flying reindeer. Following Irving’s example, Moore’s St. Nick was more an elf than a bishop. Unlike the earlier St. Nicks, this one brought no birch switches, only presents. And it was Moore who established that St. Nick brings presents on the night before Christmas rather than on Saint Nicholas Day or any other time.

Father Christmas

Thomas Nast, head cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly magazine, depicted Santa Claus from 1863 to 1886 as a jolly, bearded fat man who lived at the North Pole and wore a furry suit & elfish sleeping cap. Nast transformed Santa into a full-sized human who somehow retained the ability to climb through chimneys, but who had a team of elf assistants. By 1881, Nast had drawn Santa as a large man with a white beard in a red suit trimmed with white fur. The red-suited Santa continued the long tradition inspired by the red & white bishop’s robes of Saint Nicholas.

Stevie is a Brit living in the Northwest of England. A long time avid reader of romance with a dash of adventure, Stevie only stumbled over ‘slash’ pairings a few years ago and was an immediate convert. Having dabbled with writing on and off for years, it wasn’t long before Stevie was tapping away on the keyboard inventing stories around two hot guys, gaining her first publication in the summer of 2007.

Stevie has a soft spot for Historical settings but also thoroughly enjoys SF and Fantasy, Paranormal and Contemporary, finding the similarities as intriguing as the differences. Stevie already has a variety of novels, novellas and short stories released by Torquere Press, Phaze Books and MLR Press.


Advent Calendar Giveaway!

Stevie will be offering one of her books from her website. Leave a comment and Stevie will be in touch with the winner after Christmas to discuss which book you’d like

The BONUS BUMPER PRIZE QUESTION (don’t answer this – just save them up for Christmas Eve.)

17. The Christmas period of 1813-14 saw the last what in London? (hint hint – I have a book about it. Erastes)

18 Responses

  1. The origins of traditions always fascinate me. Great post.

  2. Wow, you packed a lot of information in there!

    I was amused to find that naughty children were to get switches from Father Christmas – presumably these were to be used by their parents to teach them to be better behaved in future. Ouch! Given a choice, I think I’d have preferred a lump of coal! 😉

  3. Wonderful post. It really is amazing how far Christmas has come and to see the journey it’s taken. Though now I want to look up when the bit about Santa giving coal came into play!

    • Thanks, Alex. I found it fascinating just how much of it was linked to the old religion. Probably a pagan reason behind the coal too!

      • I found this bit: “Well, the history of Santa can be traced to the Netherlands and Belgium where Santa Claus (called Sinterklaas there) reigned as an icon. Sinterklaas, with the help of Black Peter would go around the town and give presents to the little kids who deserved it. The ones who were bad would receive a silk bag with a lump of coal in it, symbolizing the change they needed to become a diamond.”

        Not sure if it’s true, but it’s interesting!

  4. Another great blog. I had no idea where Humble Pie came from. thank you for the answer to that and so many others.

  5. I think you packed as much research in this post as some people do entire novels! *g* Very impressive.

  6. Very interesting. It’s fascinating to learn about where all of the traditions we take for granted now actually came from. Thanks for sharing what you found.

  7. Wonderful _ I must bookmark this page for future reference.

  8. Thanks, Charlie! Glad the article was so successful.

  9. Thanks, Alex, for taking the trouble to post this. It is indeed very interesting and could well be the basis for the coal developed.

  10. Wow. That’s a great roundup of how the various traditions came to be. I’ll have to share it with my daughter, who loves history almost as much as I do.

    • Glad you liked it, Twila. And please pass it on, I was amazed by how much I didn’t know about, or had misunderstood the history of, certain traditions. These things shouldn’t be forgotten.

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