Sometimes it seems as though Christmas is just about over-eating, over-drinking and bickering with one’s relations. Perhaps we should abandon the whole thing. So wrote a bishop of the Roman Church in the year 384 AD. Some things never change. In fact the festivities of Christmas time have changed a lot over the centuries, as we learned from a memorable talk by Professor Ron Hutton of Bristol University at the December gathering of Thornbury History and Archaeological Society.
We tend to think that our Christmas traditions go back into the mists of time but most are actually quite recent. Kissing under the mistletoe is not a druidic ritual. And Christmas cards popped up on a Victorian edition of Dragon’s Den. Christmas trees, used from the 1600s to decorate German churches, were introduced here by Prince Albert. The original feast of Saint Nikolaos gave presents to children on December 6th but the 1822 New York poem, ‘Twas the night before Christmas’, had Santa Claus delivering presents via his reindeer on Christmas eve. The craze sleighed across America like a blizzard, reaching here in the 1880’s. Queen Victoria, however, continued with the original tradition of giving one’s presents to one’s friends and relations on New Year’s Day.
Father Christmas, these days merged with Santa Claus, was originally an older home-grown tradition. He wasn’t particularly fond of children, but he certainly knew how to eat, drink and be merry. He was in fact an invention of Ben Johnson’s in 1616 as an antidote to the Puritanism spreading across the country. And as for kissing under the mistletoe, this was invented by the servants of grand houses in the 1700s. The rich would have great bunches of mistletoe to decorate their houses for Christmas, and some enterprising young footman invented the ‘tradition’ of kissing under it. The masters, far from suppressing it, thought it rather a good idea. The rest is, as they say, history.
If you like a traditional Christmas you will be pleased to know that a festival to celebrate the rebirth of the sun after the midwinter solstice is at least 6000 years old, as evidenced by the alignment of many stone-age monuments. So why the 25th and not the 21st? The position of the sunrise appears to stand still for a few days around the solstice (it means sun standing still). After a few days the position of sunrise starts to progress again and the sun is ‘reborn’. Certainly by the year 354 AD the festival of the birth of the sun had amalgamated logically with the birth of the Son of God. Some of the more pagan elements of the festival, such as dancing around dressed as animals, have died out or been suppressed, but those of feasting (originally on a goose rather than a turkey) and decorating the home continue unabated.
One of the oldest traditions at Christmas is that of charity. In the middle ages villagers in good voice might take around the Wassail bowl (Wassail meaning ‘Be you Well’) in the hope of gifts or, in this neck of the woods, go ‘mumping’ for food and drink from their neighbours. Charity was especially important for the well-being of the community in the depths of winter, as Dickens well knew when he thought up the character of Scrooge. Charity is certainly one ancient Christmas tradition that we hope continues.
The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.