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Christmas is Coming!
For some reason, this old rhyme was the first thing that came into my head when I started thinking about this article. Now, goose was long ago replaced by turkey as the bird gracing the typical British Christmas dinner table; the halfpenny has been obsolete for decades; and I doubt that an old man would thank you if you put a penny in his hat, since it is worth next to nothing. Christmas in multi-cultural twenty-first century Britain bears little resemblance to the Christmas of tradition and myth; yet it is to these myths and traditions that our thoughts immediately turn when the word 'Christmas' is mentioned.
Many of our Christmas traditions date from the Victorian era. It is probably from the Victorians that we got the idea that Christmas should be cold and snowy, rather than mild and wet as it usually is; in the 19th century the climate was much colder, so cold indeed that the Thames sometimes froze in London. It was Prince Albert, the German consort of Queen Victoria, who introduced the customs of his homeland, including the Christmas tree, to a nation that was already accustomed to brightening up the dark days of midwinter with feasting and celebration. And the most famous of Victorian novelists Charles Dickens embodied many ideas about Christmas that survive until this day in his Christmas novels, especially A Christmas Carol. (For a copy of this novel, click here.)
Traditionally the countdown to Christmas began in autumn on Stir-up Sunday, the last Sunday after Trinity, when careful housewives would prepare their Christmas puddings. Everyone in the household would be invited to stir the mixture, and often a few silver coins would be dropped in, to be found by some lucky people in their slice on Christmas day. The mixture was then put into pudding basins, steamed for several hours, and then put away until the great feast day arrived.
Many people would also make mincemeat, a mixture of dried fruit and spices, that would be stored in jars and used to make mince pies in the days before Christmas. Mince pies are still popular accompaniments to social occasions around Christmas time, and some people still make the pies - and even the mincemeat - themselves, while others buy them ready made.
In the Christian church, the countdown to Christmas starts with Advent Sunday, four Sundays before Christmas day. In many churches a special candle is lit, to mark the passage of the weeks before the celebration of Christ's birth. For many children, Advent means the Advent calendar, a picture usually of a Christmas scene with 24 pictures hidden behind little windows, one of which is opened on each day of December up to Christmas Eve to reveal the hidden picture. In recent years, the reward of a mere picture has come to be seen as insufficient, and many calendars now contain a piece of chocolate behind each window; and calendars with secular images, often relating to popular TV series, have become popular.
Britain today is a multi-faith, multi-ethnic society, many of whose people do not celebrate Christmas. Even for those who are nominally Christian, the religious aspect of Christmas has taken a back seat; that said, many people who do not set foot inside a church during the year make an exception for Christmas, and especially the services held on Christmas Eve. Since the celebration of Christ's birth was bolted on to much older midwinter celebrations, it could be said that pre-Christian traditions of feasting to ward off the dark and the cold have survived the two millennia of Christianity and are still going strong today.
During the run-up to Christmas, carols are heard in shops and on the radio, in churches and concert halls, and in the streets. The tradition of singing these special Christmas songs survives strongly; many schools and choirs hold special carol concerts in the weeks before Christmas, and in some areas groups of singers gather to go round the streets, singing carols and raising money for charity. All carols have a Christian theme, and together they tell the story of Christmas from the announcement of Christ's birth to the journey to Bethlehem, the birth itself in a stable surrounded by farm animals, the visit of the shepherds, and the arrival of the wise men with their gifts. For many people, Christmas has not begun until they have sung, or at least heard a few carols. The most famous carol concert is the one performed on Christmas Eve by the choir of Kings College Cambridge and broadcast around the world.
Christmas is regarded as a time for keeping in touch, and most people send Christmas cards to friends and family. The tradition of sending greeting cards was started by the Victorians, and today many millions of cards are sent, featuring all kinds of images from snowy landscapes, to scenes from the Christmas story, to cartoons. Many people choose to buy the cards produced and sold by charities.
As December 25th approaches people decorate their homes with a Christmas tree (real or artificial); Christmas decorations made of paper, card, tinsel etc; the cards they have received; candles; and often with greenery - holly, ivy, and the like. Many people hang a wreath of evergreen plants on their front door. Some people hang up pieces of mistletoe: tradition has it that if you stand underneath one, you have to give a kiss to anyone who asks for it.
Ask a child what Christmas means to them, and they will almost certainly answer: presents! Christmas has long been a time of gift giving, and even though the number and scale of the gifts has increased greatly in recent decades, many of the traditions associated with this aspect of Christmas remain unchanged. The process starts with the writing of the Christmas list, a list of the presents the child hopes to receive, addressed to Father Christmas, or Santa as he is also known. This list has somehow to be delivered to the North Pole, where Father Christmas and his helper elves are busily working to get everything ready for Christmas Eve. The list may be put in an envelope and posted in the usual way; or if there is an open fireplace in the house, it can be sent up the chimney, from where it will magically be delivered to its destination.
Astonishingly, with all he has to do, Father Christmas still finds time to visit department stores and Christmas fairs all over the country in the weeks before Christmas; there he receives children in his grotto, asks them what they want for Christmas, and often gives them a small gift. The queues that form wherever he appears attest to the continuing power and popularity of his myth, even if many older children only pretend to believe in Father Christmas in order to please their parents. Excitement rises steadily as Christmas draws nearer, and comes to a climax on Christmas Eve. During this night Santa flies all the way round the world on his magic sleigh drawn by flying reindeer, the best known of whom is Rudolph (you may have heard the song about his shiny red nose). Santa's preferred method of delivery for the presents piled on his sleigh is the chimney, even though in many houses these are now blocked up or even non-existent. It is traditional to leave a glass of sherry and a mince pie to fortify Santa on his journey, and perhaps a carrot for his faithful reindeer. Some children hang a stocking at the end of their bed, waking to find it magically filled with gifts (there are even special small gifts called 'stocking fillers' that can be purchased for the purpose); in other homes presents are stacked around the Christmas tree.
In contrast to many other countries, there is no tradition of eating particular types of food on Christmas Eve, all the traditions being reserved for dinner on Christmas day. The centrepiece of Christmas dinner in very many homes is still a roast turkey, 'with all the trimmings': the traditional accompaniments including stuffing, small sausages called chipolatas, rolls of bacon, chestnuts, vegetables including roast potatoes and Brussels sprouts, cranberry sauce, and gravy. This feast is traditionally followed by a piece of Christmas pudding with custard, cream, or brandy sauce. It is traditional for the pudding to be soaked in brandy and then set alight and carried flaming to the table.
An essential non-edible accompaniment to Christmas dinner are Christmas crackers: tubes of coloured paper that make a small bang when you and a partner pull them apart. The contents usually include a small present, a slip of paper with a corny joke on it (which must be read aloud, to general dismay), and a brightly coloured paper crown.
Christmas dinner is normally eaten in the middle of the day and, incredibly enough, some people feel the need for tea later on. This might consist of sandwiches followed by a piece of Christmas cake, another calorie-laden delicacy made with further large quantities of dried fruit, and covered with marzipan (almond paste) and icing. Other foods traditionally associated with Christmas are tangerines, nuts in their shells, dates and other dried fruits, blue Stilton cheese, and port.
The day after Christmas is Boxing Day, a public holiday in England and Wales. The name has nothing to do with the sport, but rather refers to the custom of giving a gift of money known as a Christmas box to servants and tradespeople. Many people still give money to people such as postmen, milkmen, and dustmen who provide domestic services throughout the year. On January 6th, the Twelfth Night after Christmas, decorations must be taken down and put away until next year. This day is also the feast of Epiphany, when Christians celebrate the visit of the three Wise Men to the Christ child.
There are many books and poems about Christmas. A good starting point for finding these is this website: www.night.net/christmas
For a glossary of Christmas terms, click here.