It's the week before Christmas and if you are anything like me you are frantically running around like a headless chook trying to get all the last minute shopping, present wrapping and bits & bobs finished before the big day arrives. I finally finished my own Christmas cake this week and it's bigger than average this year so there will be plenty to share with everyone. It's kind of a tradition in our house to have a brandy infused rich fruit cake which we all eat with a piece of cheese. That's if we can fit it in after we have wolfed down a massive Christmas lunch!
As I was finishing off the cake I got to thinking about the various Christmas traditions that we all seem to follow at this time of year and how they came about. If you have been following my blog you will probably know that I am fond of a bit of history and tradition, having mentioned here about the tradition of Stir Up Sunday, in this post about various traditions associated with Easter and this one about wedding traditions.
So if, like me, you are curious about why we do what we do at Christmas, here are some little snippets for you.
The lives of the ancient Druids revolved around the pastoral year. They celebrated the sun's rebirth after the winter solstice and began their festivities on the shortest day of the year. The wild Norsemen of Northern Europe had a candlelit festival which was timed to brighten the darkest days and the Romans indulged themselves with the orgies of Saturnalia. The early Christians incorporated all these festivals and ceremonies into the church calendar and now we celebrate Christ's Mass on the 25th day of December.
Food plays an important part in any celebration and Christmas is a time for feasting all over the world. Here are some favourite dishes - past and present - from different parts of the world.
Peacock was once served at rich tables in England. The skin and feathers were carefully pulled away and the bird was spit roasted then rearranged in all its glory. The beak was gilded before the bird was proudly borne to the table.
Boar's head used to be a table centrepiece. After being stuffed and cooked, the head was rubbed with lard and soot (yuk!) to give it a life-like colour. It was surrounded by a wreath of bay or rosemary.
Suckling pig, another favourite dish in England in the past, is served at Christmas in Cuba. It can be roasted on a spit or in the oven, basted frequently with butter and beer to make it crisp and brown.
Goose was served to Elizabeth I of England on 24th December as news came of the destruction of the Spanish Armada. She decreed that goose should be eaten at Christmas ever after. The custom spread to Germany where it is still a favourite, as it is in Denmark, where it is often cooked with a stuffing of prunes and apples.
Turkeys definitely don't come from Turkey, though some say they got their name from Turkish merchants who first imported the birds. The Spanish Conquistadores first discovered the birds in South America and introduced them to Europe. Henry VIII ate turkey on Christmas day but the USA has made turkey real celebration fare, eating it on Thanksgiving Day as well as Christmas. Lovely with cranberry sauce 😋
Christmas Pie, made from chicken, pork and veal, is eaten in Canada.
Dried ling (fish) boiled up with white sauce flavoured with Jamaica pepper and black pepper is a traditional Swedish dish. The most typical dish is Christmas ham, eaten with mustard.
Bull's heart is served in Peru. It's quartered, marinated in spice and wine vinegar and then spit roasted.
Sweet things are important at Christmas too. In many countries, batches of special biscuits are baked for the Christmas season. Most of them are spiced, such as the German peppernuts or the dark molasses cookies that Moravian housewives, whose families settled in North Carolina, still bake in fancy shapes.
Christmas pudding has been eaten in England for many hundreds of years but it began as a rich porridge made from pieces of meat and dried fruits, thickened with breadcrumbs. As time went by the porridge became so thick that it was renamed pudding. Nowadays it doesn't contain meat any more but is a mixture of dried fruits, nuts, brown sugar, spices, shredded suet and breadcrumbs. This is cooked for many hours to produce a dark, rich Christmas pudding.
THE LEGEND OF THE SPIDER'S WEB
When Joseph, Mary and Jesus were on their travels, so the story goes, as the evening came they were weary and sought refuge in a cave. It was very cold. So cold that the ground was white with hoar frost.
A little spider saw the baby Jesus and he wished so much that he could do something to keep him warm. He decided to do the only thing he could and that was to spin his web across the entrance of the cave.
When King Herod's soldiers came along they were about to enter the cave and search it but the captain noticed the spider's web. It was covered with the white hoar frost and stretched right across the entrance so the soldiers left, believing that nobody was in the cave because anyone entering would have torn the web. So the holy family was safe because a little spider had spun his web.
And that, so they say, is why we put tinsel on our Christmas trees because the glittering tinsel represents the spider's web, white with hoar frost.
EVERYONE'S FAVOURITE SAINT
In the Middle Ages, St. Nicholas was everyone's favourite saint. He was patron saint of all kinds of people, including merchants, sailors and small boys. Not much is known about Nicholas and there are some quite far-fetched legends about him but this one could be true.
In Nicholas' home town it was said lived a family so poor that the father could not afford dowries for his three daughters. Nicholas was determined to rescue them from starvation and distress but without making his generosity known. So, when the eldest daughter was old enough to marry, he dropped a bag of gold in at her window by night. Some say he dropped it down the chimney where it fell into the shoe or stocking she had left on the hearth to keep warm and that's why children hang up their stocking or leave a shoe ready for presents.
In the 16th century after the reformation, saints went out of favour in Europe but someone was needed to take the place of St. Nicholas and give presents at Christmas. In England a jolly character from children's plays, known as Father Christmas, took over the job. In the United States, Dutch settlers took St. Nicholas with them. They shortened his name to Class and called him Sinta Class, which soon became Santa Claus in English.
No one is quite sure how the reindeer came about but a 19th century book shows a picture of St. Nicholas with one reindeer and Dr. Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem for his children about Santa Claus in which he described eight reindeer and gave them all names.
The English Father Christmas came to look more and more like his American counterpart and now Father Christmas and Santa Claus have become one and the same person.
DECK THE HALLS
Long before the days of the Christian Christmas, people gathered evergreens in December and decorated their homes to drive away evil spirits and remind themselves that spring would soon come. Early Christian leaders continued with the custom and gave it a Christian meaning.
Holly, once called Holm, was given all kinds of Christian associations. Some told the story that a holly tree stood outside the stable where Jesus was born. The tree was bare of berries because the birds has eaten them. In honour of Christ's birth, the tree bore buds, flowers and berries all in one night. In the carol, 'The Holly and the Ivy', the prickly holly leaves represent Christ's crown of thorns and the red berries his blood.
Mistletoe was part of pagan New Year ceremonies among the Druids of Britain. It was a sacred plant to them and was cut by the high priest of the cult. Mistletoe grows as a parasite on trees and our pagan forefathers believed that the mistletoe plant held the life of the parent tree during the winter. The early Christians incorporated mistletoe, fertility symbol of the Druids, into their own teachings and it became the evergreen symbol of ever lasting love. Some say that it was banned from churches due to it's association with the Druids but many church accounts in England in the Middle Ages show payments for mistletoe to be used to decorate the church at Christmas. In York Minster there was a special mistletoe ceremony where wrongdoers could come to receive a pardon. There is a legend that Loki, the god of evil, was jealous of Balder, the sun god. He took a bough of mistletoe and sharpened it into an arrow which he then placed in the hand of Hoder, the blind god, took aim and shot at Balder, killing him. The other gods were grieved and angry. They brought Balder back to life and made the mistletoe plant promise never to harm another mortal or immortal soul. Since then, a kiss beneath the mistletoe is supposed to be a year long promise of protection from fire, earth and water. An unwary girl can be kissed under a sprig of mistletoe hanging up in the house. In old times, a berry had to be plucked and given to each girl kissed. When all the berries had gone the kissing had to stop!
Rosemary is often grown in today's gardens but it used to be a favourite decoration because of its attractive green spikes and fragrant smell.
THE YULE LOG
As well as branches of evergreen, a great log was brought into the house at Yule time and this custom continued in Christian times. Different kinds of wood were chosen in different countries. The log was stripped of it's bark and dragged in amid great rejoicing and ceremony. Since it was to burn for the whole twelve days of Christmas it had to be very large and took up the whole family hearth. It had to be lit on Christmas eve from a stump left from last year's log and is supposed to bring good luck. These days, chocolate cakes fashioned to look like yule logs have taken over in most households. The cake is supposed to be cut and eaten on Christmas eve.
THE CHRISTMAS TREE
The Christmas tree originates from Germany.
At one time, 'Adam & Eve Day' was celebrated on 24th December. A tree, known as the Paradise Tree, was decorated with apples and fruit and the story of the Garden of Eden was acted out.
At first, Christmas trees were decorated with things to eat - edible angels, gingerbread men and apples. German glass blowers may have been the first to make glass ornaments which were not so heavy. Initially, a little model of baby Jesus was put at the top of the tree. This changed to an angel with gold wings then to the fairy we see on many trees today. Candles were used to light the tree at first but there were many bad accidents and this eventually gave way to the tiny fairy lights we have today.
There are a number of legends and superstitions concerning the robin, who often appears on Christmas cards. The robin is easy to recognise by his red breast and is one of the few British birds that doesn't migrate. The robin is fearless of humans and when he is shown hospitality he will visit the same house regularly. In the Middle Ages people suspected that he must be the familiar of witches and it was considered most unwise to gossip in the presence of a robin. If an old lady gave crusts to a robin she soon found herself with an unfortunate reputation! Fortunately for me we live in more enlightened times as I am often putting cake scraps out for the birds in my garden and the robin comes to call most days!
I hope you have enjoyed reading this little run down on some of the more common Christmas traditions. All that remains is for me to wish you all a very, very happy Christmas. I hope Santa is kind to you all. It has been a great pleasure to make all your cakes this year and I look forward to hearing from you in the New Year with more cake requests.
Don't forget that you can contact me with new requests here at any time but as it is the holiday season response times will be delayed. You can also email firstname.lastname@example.org or private message the Facebook page.
MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Sharing the cake love!
Related: Stirring it up! What does Easter mean to you? I do, I do, I do!