Here is a brief explanation of the meaning and origins of many age old customs that we repeat annually without perhaps knowing why.
The remote origin of “Christmas Presents” can be traced as far back as the new Stone Age ten thousand years ago and the story goes like this……
Hand in hand with innovation of agriculture came food surplus which made it possible to create food stores, the latter to see people through the cold months of winter.
When the midpoint of winter was reached the people would celebrate that the worst was over and they would do this by organizing a feast. Each farmer had his own specialty, so in order to make the feast as varied as possible, a food exchange was arranged, this exchange was the original midwinter gift swapping custom. Everything else that developed later was centred on the practice and meaning of this festivity. Over the centuries the range of gifts has increased to include things other than food.
Origins of the Christmas tree
An origin of the Christmas tree can be traced to the paradise play, which in medieval times was performed each year on the 24 December. The play depicted the fall of Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden and required an apple tree as part of the story.
However, since it was winter an evergreen tree would be substituted as an alternative to the apple tree. The evergreen replacement would be decorated with apples. In this day and age apple-like baubles are used as decoration and hung on Christmas trees together with other paraphernalia.
Why do we decorate trees?
Back in the dark ages when people believed in tree spirits, they decorated trees each winter. When trees shed their leaves in autumn, it was felt that the tree spirits had abandoned them. Back in the dark ages when people believed in tree spirits, they decorated trees each winter, to encourage the leaves to return to the trees. Decorations of painted stones and cultured cloth were attached to the trees in midwinter; the idea being that it would make the trees so appealing that the tree spirits would be appeased and happily return the next year.
Centuries ago people in Europe started the custom of bringing a tree indoors at Christmas time. Indoors, the decorations became more elaborate. Fruit, gingerbreads, sweet meats and candies were hung on their branches. Prior to that the decorations were attached to the trees outside where they stood.
What is the origin of the Yule log?
Historically the Yule log formed an important part of Christmas and is to date still employ it as a decorative motive on Christmas cards or the Christmas table.
Traditionally the Yule log had to be kept burning throughout the Christmas festivities. Failure to do so would spell disaster for the year ahead.
For Christians the symbolism of the Yule log was that it represented the need to keep the stable warm for the infant Christ. The reason they chose the midwinter festival for this fine ceremony was that this particular celebration was originally designed to welcome back the sun; our other great source of heat.
The French were always very keen on the Yule log ceremony, but it became very difficult for city dwellers to keep up this custom. As a reminder of it, Parisian confectioners baked a carefully made replica of the log. This delicious chocolate cake, known as a Bûche de Noël, was covered in chocolate, grained to look like bark, with a lighter coffee colour chocolate at either end to give it the appearance of a chopped off log. So thanks to French bakers a small token version of the Yule log ritual continues in the baked version; and instead of burning the Yule log one gets to eat it.
Why do we have a Christmas cake?
The Christmas cake as we know it today actually began life as a twelfth night cake. When Queen Victoria banned twelfth night celebrations in the eighteen seventies, because they had become too boisterous, the cake was rescued by switching it from twelfth night to Christmas.
In one ritual the cake was presented in two halves. Inside one half there would be a hidden pea and in the other a hidden bean. Each guest was offered a slice of cake and the man and woman lucky enough to find the bean and the pea became the mock king and queen of festivities!
In France the cake was cut up into as many slices as there were guests present. Then the youngest boy in the house was put under the table, out of view of the cake, and then the head of the household would hold up the first slice and asked the child to name the person who should have it.
The child would give the first name that came into his head, regardless of status and that person then ate the slice. If there was no bean present the process would be repeated with the second slice and so on, until at last someone was lucky enough to find the bean and be named king.
Most of these traditions were lost when the cake was ‘transferred’ from twelfth night to Christmas, but they did not disappear altogether, but reappeared in a modified form in the Christmas pudding.
Why do we eat mince pies and why are they called minced pies?
In medieval times Christmas feasting involved the baking of a pie into which all manner of flesh and fowl was thrust. The meats were shredded and mixed together with fruits and spices. In the early days this was called simply the Christmas pie. As time passed they became bigger and bigger and cooks competed with one another to see who could create the most magnificent pie of all.
In 1770 one single Christmas pie was shipped from the north of England to London for a particular noble table. It apparently included the following ingredients; four geese, two turkeys, two rabbits, four wild ducks, two woodcocks, six snipes, four partridges, two ox tongues, two curlews, seven blackbirds and six pigeons. It was nine feet in circumference and weighed 168 pounds. Underneath it was fitted with four wheels to ease the problem of serving at the dinner table. I think you will agree this is a far cry from the modest mince pies on offer today.
In the 19th century the mincemeat was omitted from the pies, but somehow the name mince pie managed to survive the simplification, and is a name though no longer appropriate that we still use today. The newly cultivated mince pie was much sweeter and instead of it being offered at the beginning of the meal, it was presented the end.
A popular legend states that if you eat one mince pie on each of the 12 days of Christmas you will have good luck in the 12 months ahead. The caveat though is that it was necessary to eat each pie at a different home.
A less demanding superstition states simply that you are granted one wish when you take your first bite of your first mince pie each Christmas. Conversely if you refuse the first mince pie you are offered you will suffer misfortune.
Why do we have Christmas crackers?
The Christmas cracker can be traced as far back as 1840. It was an English invention and was influenced by French packaging and Chinese custom.
A London confectioner by the name of Tom Smith, when on holiday in Paris was duly impressed by the wrapped bon-bon’s on sale for the Christmas celebrations. It was something he had not seen before as in those days British sweets were sold unwrapped as opposed to the French whose sweets were closed in a paper with a twist at either; needless to say the French style appealed to his imagination.
The bon-bon was extremely successful, but Tom Smith wanted to add a little bit more fun to it. Influenced this time by the Chinese who were well known for celebrating with firecrackers at the end of each year, to scare away the evil spirits and improve the chances of good fortune the following year; the twisted bon-bon paper together with the influence of the Chinese firecracker and the innovativeness of Tom Smith would later give the cracker its distinctive shape, bang and placement at the Christmas table.