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A Weird History of Xmas, Part III - Bizarre British Traditions!

Posted: 21/12/2012 00:00

Hello again. If you read Parts One and Two, and you're back for more, then you're clearly very strange. If you haven't read them, now might be a good time to do so. Or not. It doesn't really make much of a difference.

So, in this blog post let's ignore the 'why' of Christmas, and let's look at the 'how'. Customs have changed a great deal over the centuries, and while some may seem familiar, some will sound plain bonkers. As ever, the further back in history we go, the more doubtful our evidence is. We've already mentioned in Part One the Viking tradition of gutting a live animal and flinging its blood over the guests sat around the meal table, so that's a pretty weird place to start. The Saxons, it seems, were slightly less inclined to spray each other with guts, though they did enjoy a juicy dead animal for Christmas, most commonly a roasted boar.

Our sources on medieval feasting are often filled with rambunctious anecdotes of epic meals and world class standards of boozing, though the food itself was not quite as unusual as the behaviour away from the table. Wassailing - the practise of door-to-door singing - was a Saxon concept linked to an old form of feudalism. The wealthy lords of the manor were expected to reward their gathered peasants with gifts at Christmas; rather than a tin of Quality Streets, this often took the form of animal manure. Strangely, your boss handing you a steaming pile of shit was a good thing, as manure was a handy thing to have around the house back then, mostly because your walls were made of it - the modern equivalent would be getting a tub of Polyfilla in the office Secret Santa pool.

In any case, wassailing was pretty rowdy, and in the Middle Ages it was associated with carolling, which was actually a form of circular dance. This got so raucous that carols (as they were known) were banned from churches, so you instead went carolling door to door. If carol singers turn up on porch this Christmas, give them a turd and tell them it's tradition...

Today, we think of Christmas as a festival for kids. However, medieval Christmas was a mixed bag for children; on the one hand you had a chance of being elected a 'boy bishop' in your local cathedral, briefly handing you the power to boss around the local priests and dispense sweets to the other kids in your area (also, if you died while 'in office', then you were buried with full episcopal honours - Result!) That said, this was a pretty rare opportunity for boys only, whereas all children had to endure the horrors of Childermass on 28 December, when they were soundly beaten to remind them of King Herod executing all the first born kids. Social services were presumably rushed off their feet on that particular day...

Children aside, Christmas was usually more auspicious for monarchs, though William the Conqueror got his slightly wrong in 1066. Electing to hold his coronation at Westminster Abbey on December 25th, his knights were perplexed by the unintelligible cheers of the local English, and decided to interpret them as evidence of riotous mutiny. William's lovely festive shindig ended with the church catching fire, and the occupants of London being stabbed in the streets by vicious knights - so, not quite "good will to all men".

Thankfully, King Henry II knew how to put the cheer back into Crimbo. He famously hired a jester to perform just once a year, on Christmas Day, and the famous act for which this jester was amply rewarded with huge tracts of land was nothing more than "one jump, one whistle, and one fart". It fills my heart with unbridled joy that the Latin word for a fart is "bumbulum." Just say it out loud to yourself a few times, I promise you'll smile...

The Tudors were also big fans of Christmas, and really pushed the boat out with the dinner options. After a month of fasting through December, the 12 days of Christmas were pretty debauched. While out of the reach of most, turkeys were recent discoveries from the New World, and Henry VIII was the first Englishman to eat one for Christmas, though it would have been part of a much larger feast involving all sorts of other animals. Later on, the famous Christmas Pie was invented, featuring turkey stuffed with goose, stuffed with chicken, stuffed with pigeon, stuffed with partridge - basically a Russian doll of dead birds, served in a crust.

Alternatively, one could have Umbles Pie, which consisted of deer lungs, spleen, heart, guts, liver and kidneys. As you've probably guessed, even Christmas pudding involved a liberal splattering of meat, blended with spices, which was cooked inside pig intestines to ensure it kept its shape... and that was the vegetarian option!

Tudor Christmas banquets often involved the Lord of Misrule, whose job it was to spread cheerful chaos, and invert the social order of the day. Dressing up, theatrical plays and pretending to ride wooden horses seems to have been part of the fun, and even Henry VIII enjoyed pretending to be King Arthur, though he was less than pleased when his fifth wife went all method actor, and allegedly 'did a Guinevere' with some other bloke - understandably, the axe was swiftly deployed on young Catherine Howard.

Like the Romans and Vikings, gifts were also exchanged, though this time on New Year's Day. During her reign, Elizabeth I received silk stockings and Europe's first wristwatch for Christmas - decent pressies, I think you'll agree - but it was customary for monarchs to give something more expensive back in return; a bit like when you give your dad socks, and he gets you an Xbox. That said, both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I occasionally refused to accept a gift if someone had pissed them off; so, for Henry that might be because he was bored of having sex with them, and for Elizabeth it was usually because she was furious that they were shagging someone else instead of her...

In the 17th Century, the Christmas Mince Pies (yes, more meat...) were famous for having a little baby Jesus on the crust, which sounds rather nice, but was a horrifying act of blasphemous cannibalism in the eyes of Oliver Cromwell. It should be said, Olly was not a miserabilist most of the time, but he did feel Christmas was meant to be a period of holy reverence. Accordingly, he did away with it all, and even ordered the confiscation of Christmas dinners from people's tables. Strangely, attending church was also prohibited on Jesus' birthday, which seems a bit weird, even by his standards. Thankfully, Cromwell copped it in 1658, and Charles II was back in power by 1660. This opened the floodgates to more Christmas excess, and by the 18th Century one enterprising aristocrat had commissioned a mince pie weighing 75kg! Alas, his name was not Mr Kipling.

The Victorians took Christmas very seriously, thanks hugely to Charles Dickens' famous novel, and the middle classes rushed to embrace traditions old and new. Special Christmas magazines, cookery books, decorations, and foods were all available for the house-proud lady to chuck in the direction of her servants, while she drank tea and fainted a lot, as was the custom for women at this time. Children also became the central focus of the celebrations, with Christmas crackers invented in 1840 by Thomas Smith to ensure that even puny kids and meek ladies could beat the master of the house in a tug of war. The increasingly cosy relationship between father, mother and children was best encapsulated by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert setting the familial standard in a famous illustration from 1848, showing them gathered around the Christmas tree in a rare moment of royal informality.

Trees were a new thing to the British masses, but not elsewhere in Europe. It is said that Martin Luther, the German founder of Protestantism, first decorated a Christmas tree in the 1520s, and it was another German, Queen Charlotte, who first brought a tree to Britain to amuse her husband, King George III. No-one's quite sure why dragging a tree indoors seemed like a good idea - you wouldn't bung a hedge in your lounge, would you? - but some have suggested it was decorated to resemble the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, while others argue, as was the case with holly, ivy and mistletoe, that surrounding yourself with the natural world was an homage to pagan times of yore. Personally, I think it has a lot more to do with the Industrial Revolution making everyone feel rather cooped up in grey, urban sprawl, and longing for a bit of greenery, even if it was dead greenery, slowly rotting on your mantelpiece...

The other great invention of the Victorian age was the Christmas card, first designed in 1843 by Henry Cole. The concept actually originated as Valentine cards, which is why if you ever study them en masse (which I had to do for a year) you'll notice they're often covered in flowers and springtime imagery. This may have been because Christmas was a good time of year for a spot of wooing under the mistletoe, and the language of flowers, called floriography, was a useful secret messaging service between young lovers. Oddly, some Christmas cards were rather surreal - examples have been found of cards stapled with actual slices of bacon, or a dead dormouse. Some depicted children being attacked by giant wasps, or clowns attacking policemen. In any case, more than 11million were sent by 1880, and they helped unite the disparate members of far-flung families, wrenched apart by the huge sprawl of the British Empire.

Much like the Roman aristocracy - and as with Scrooge's conversion to altruistic niceness after years of being a total dick - Christmas Day was supposed to be a time of charity. Even the horrendously abused prisoners in the barbarous Victorian jails were served special Christmas lunches by their guards, while the wealthy squires of the countryside were expected to donate winter fuel to their villagers. More famously, on 26 December, money donated to church boxes was distributed to the poor, or to servicemen in the army and navy, and this may be the origins of Boxing Day.

However, before we get all sentimental and go and watch A Muppet Christmas Carol, it's worth remembering that the Victorian Christmas was an enormous commercial hype machine, motivated by capitalism and stretching out for weeks. Don't believe anyone who tells you our modern festival has lost its sacred values... nothing could be further from the truth. And if I hear one more idiotic thing about the supposed 'War on Christmas', I swear I'll scream.

So, there we have it. Merry Christmas! Now, go overindulge until you're sick. You have to... it's tradition.

 

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