As if the news of their engagement hadn’t dominated the headlines enough, it’s been all over the press this week that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will break with tradition this Christmas and spend the big day with the Royal Family. Meghan is allegedly the first royal “fiancée” to be welcomed into the Christmas household before her royal union has been made official. But it got us thinking about all the other weird and wonderful festive traditions that families undertake at this time of year. And we decided to explore some of the history behind them.
The mince pies of yore are a little different from those we eat now. Originally made of meat, fruit and spice to imitate the flavours brought back from the Middle East by the crusaders, early mincies had 13 ingredients. These allegedly represented Christ and the Apostles, and the pies were usually formed in a large oval shape to represent Jesus’ manger. Meat disappeared from the recipe by Victorian times, leaving the festive favourites we indulge in now.
You’ve got Queen Victoria’s beau Prince Albert to thank for the festive spruce we adorn with baubles, tinsel and lights every Christmas. While the spruce we know and love had been commonplace in Northern Europe for centuries, it wasn’t til Al put one up in Windsor Castle in 1841 that it became an evergreen trend that would last long after Bertie passed and Queen Vic had left the throne.
The trend for sending Christmas greetings through the post might be on the decline, but back in 1843, the first Christmas card was sent to encourage people to use the newly established post service. Having helped set up the Public Records Office (now the Post Office), Sir Henry Cole and artist John Horsley created the very first Christmas card iteration. It cost a shilling to buy a card (equivalent to almost £5.75 now) and stamps were a penny each (about 40p at modern prices). As the cost of printing dropped towards the early 1900’s, the custom of sending Christmas cards had become widespread across Europe.
Legend has it that St Nicholas once sent a bag of gold down the chimney of a poor man who had no dowry for his unmarried daughters. The gold landed in stockings which hung on the fireplace to dry. St Nicholas became Sinterklaas, and eventually Santa Claus to English speakers. The tradition of leaving stockings for Santa has lasted the test of time.
Hands up who only eats turkey once a year? Yeah. Us too. It seems that this was the case for many after the bird was brought over from Mexico in1526 by William Strickland. Turkeys were quite the luxurious extravagance for a very long time, with one family sized bird often costing up to a week’s worth of wages until as recently as the 1950’s. It was Edward VII who made them a regular on the Christmas table during his reign of the early 1900’s.
You know the slightly aggressive verse of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” about figgy pudding? Well – that’s about the Christmas pudding we know and love. This Christmas classic has been around since the Middle Ages when it was known as frumenty, but it gained real popularity as “plum pudding” in the Victorian era.
What are your favourite festive traditions? Which of these do you forgo in favour of your own takes on Christmas? Whatever they are, we’d like to take this opportunity to wish you a VERY Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!