‘Once Upon a Christmas...’ Part 1

Updated: Apr 1, 2021

When was Christmas banned in England? Why do we put up trees at this time of year? What has Santa Claus got to do with a Turkish bishop?

Well, take your seats (socially distanced, of course), belt up and let me transport you back through time. We’ll be discovering the origins of some of our most popular Christmas traditions, as well as having a look at how people celebrated (or rather didn’t) through history.

It all starts with a bishop named Saint Nicholas. He lived in Myra, Turkey during the 4th century. As a Christian, he was persecuted by the Romans for his faith, spending time in prison. Remarkably, he was only released when the Roman emperor Constantine turned to Christianity.

That’s all well and good, I hear you say, but how did this man morph into the figure of Father Christmas that we know today? One story goes that a family in Myra were so poor that the father was considering selling his three daughters into slavery. In response, Nicholas visited over 3 nights, and secretly threw three bags of coins through the window to save them. Other accounts claim that Nicholas dropped the bags down the chimney instead, where they fell into a shoe or stocking left by the fireplace, which set off today’s custom of hanging out stockings for presents.

The emergence of Santa Claus didn’t end there, though. The Dutch continued to remember the stories of St. Nicholas. In Holland, for example, he was known as ‘Sint Nikolaas’. Over time, this was shortened to ‘Sinter Klass’, and eventually ‘Santa Claus’ became known in Britain from around the 1870s. Major Henry Livingston Junior wrote the famous 19th century poem ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’, which heavily influenced the caricaturist Thomas Nast. Nast’s cartoons of Santa Claus, and Coca Cola’s advertising campaigns from the 1930s also helped to popularize the stereotypical image of Father Christmas, recognizable to most of us today.

By the late 1700s, Christmas in Britain was considered outdated and unpopular. Just take the fact that the festival was not mentioned at all in ‘The Times’ paper between 1790 and 1835! This attitude would be overturned by 1843 with the publication of ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens. His novella was an instant success, and re-established Christmas as a firm favourite of Victorian Britain. In subsequent years, numerous traditions that we still follow during the festive season would be established...

The integration of the tree into our Yuletide celebrations began with Queen Charlotte. Having emigrated to Britain to marry George III in 1761, she carried over traditions from her home country of Germany. These included celebrating around a single yew branch.

However, by 1800, the Queen decided to upgrade the branch to a whole yew tree and set it up at Windsor for that year’s party. Whilst this set up the Christmas tree as the fashion item for the nobles, it was not until the mid-19th century that this spread to the general public. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, magazines like ‘The Illustrated London News’ published images of Victoria and Albert gathered around the royal tree.

As a result, much of the population followed their lead. By the late 1800s, most households would not be seen without one. Even at parties held for poor families, the Christmas tree was the main feature.

To be continued...


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