Christmas Traditions: A Short History

Written by Grace Mooney

Christmas is a delicious time of year, and within Western culture it coincides with the northern hemisphere winter solstice, a significant moment in the yearly calendar when the harsh, cold, dark months finally begin to wain. This move toward the renewal of life in the natural landscape has always been celebrated – from Paganism to Christianity. In AD 336 the first Christmas feast was recorded in Rome and in AD 350 Pope Julius I adopted the date as the official day of the birth of Christ. At this time of year there remain sets of specific traditions that differ from culture to culture – or even from family to family!

Sweet citrus and heady cloves are scents that are quintessential to Christmas, however their fascinating history is hidden within their name – Pomander. Derived from the French Pomme Amber (or Amber Apple) these now common Christmas decorations were once much more complicated. In fact, the ‘amber’ in Amber Apple does not reflect the colour of oranges, not even in a poetic sense. It derives from the word Ambergris, a solid waxy grey-black substance from the digestive system of sperm whales, a highly sought-after ingredient for making perfumes. It was during the Renaissance that Pomanders moved from being a vessel for religious keepsakes to the earliest version of what they are now – balls of sweet and spicy scent. Although apple shaped, these were highly technical spheres made from a mixture of resins that were heated and mixed with rosewater, spices including both cinnamon and cloves, deer and civet musk and of course ambergris. This opulent and heady mixture (made for no one less than Princess Mary, daughter of King Henry VIII) evolved into pouncet boxes that held perfumes before finally transforming into the clove studded fruits we know today.

The humble Mince Pie was once not so modest. They developed from a very real need for a practical solution to the issue of feeding livestock through the cold winter months found in Britain and Europe. Mince pies were, at their conception, large pies consisting of the dried fruit and spices we know and love, as well as meat or liver – the neat solution for when animal feed had become scarce. Such pies were purely for the pleasure of the rich, as extravagant ingredients such as dried fruits and exotic spices cost a small fortune when first introduced from the Middle East after the crusades of the eleventh century. As time marched onward they became smaller and the hard pastry coffyns (a basic mixture of water and flour kneaded into a pliable but inedible dough) were replaced by the soft crumbly casings we have today. Nonetheless, the meat stayed with them until well into the nineteenth century, with even Mrs Beeton including a recipe that contained one and a half pounds of lean beef in her eponymous Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management.

From paganism to royalty, Christmas trees have been a symbol of renewal of life at a time when winter was at its bleakest. Harkening back to pre-Christian days, evergreen trees (most commonly the Fir tree) were representative of fertility and new life, especially in the depths of winter. From the pagans of Europe to the ancient Egyptians and Romans, the tradition lived on in Europe until the modern Christmas tree emerged in Germany during the sixteenth century, when trees were brought into the home and decorated with gingerbread, nuts, apples, candles and in some extravagant cases, gold leaf. When Queen Victoria and Prince Albert married in 1840, Albert brought the practice of tree decorating with him. The Christmas tree became part of popular culture in Britain when in 1848 an image of the royal family celebrating around a decorated Christmas tree was published in the Illustrated London News. From that point onwards the Christmas tree, festooned with ornaments, baubles and even the odd candy cane (first hung on trees in 1882) became a mainstay and symbol of Christmas worldwide.

So this Christmas partake in a bit of tradition, old or new, and enjoy a cheeky mince tart or two – after all, they were banned by Oliver Cromwell and the law has never been repealed.

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