Firstly, may I wish you all A VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR from all your committee members.
On 31st. October 1995 we had an excellent talk given by Carol Hill of the Local History Dept. of Doncaster Central Library, the subject being High Days and Holidays. During this talk she gave us a little information on the history behind some of the traditions of Christmas. This month for the first time I should like to break from the norm and instead of doing a newsletter on local history would like to elaborate on some of the subjects she touched upon and tell you of some of the history behind our Christmas Festivities.
THE ORIGINS OF THE MODERN CHRISTMAS
Why we celebrate Christmas on 25th December
Ask any child when Christmas is and what Christmas is about and the answer will automatically come back that it is a celebration held on the 25th December each year to mark the birth of Jesus Christ, but in actual fact we do not know the exact year or date of Jesus' birth so why do we celebrate it on this date every year?
At first Christians did not celebrate the birth of Christ at all and it wasn't until the year 354 A.D. that we find the first mention of this celebration. This first Christmas commenced on Christmas Eve and did not end until 2nd. February which is now known as Candlemas.
But still there was no official date for the celebration of the birth of Christ, so the church took it upon itself to clarify this point. The 25th March was the festival of spring and the church adopted this date as that of Mary's visit by the angel Gabriel and added nine months to it arriving at 25th December.
Our calendar has not always been as it is now and up until 46 B.C. the new year began on 25th March and was based on the phases of the moon. In that year Julius Caesar revised it measuring it against the movement of the sun and developed a new calendar known as the Julian Calendar. But it was not very accurate, and by 1582 Pope Gregory XIII decided that something had to be done as the seasons now were appearing to be at incorrect times of the year, and ordered a revised calendar bringing everything back to where it should be, which meant taking 11 minutes 15 seconds off the length of the year and moving all celebrations back by 10 days. This revised calendar became known as the Gregorian Calendar after the pope. England did not adopt the new calendar until the middle of the 18th century, by which time we were 11 days ahead of the Continent, so to bring us into line 11 days were taken out of September which meant that the 25th December came 11 days earlier, this of course did not please everyone and many continued to celebrate "Old Christmastide" for years to come.
The Christmas Card
The first Christmas cards were printed in 1846, and were the idea of Henry Cole, who was the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Only 1,000 were produced, and they were sold by Felix Summerly's Treasure House for one shilling (5p) each. They showed a happy family scene in the centre with pictures of poor people being fed and clothed in panels on either side, and Henry Cole intended his cards to be sent by the new Penny Post which had started six years before.
The Christmas Tree
Most of us will know that the Christmas Tree was made popular in this country by Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert when he introduced a beautifully trimmed fir tree into the royal family's Christmas at Windsor in 1840.
What many seem not to know however is why we trim a fir tree or why we trim it at all. It appears that this custom goes back to a time when Christianity was first being introduced into Europe and on Christmas Eve Saint Boniface came across an oak tree which was used by the pagan people for sacrifice. To prevent it being used for this he chopped it down and miraculously in its place grew a fir tree which was taken as the new faith growing out of the old. The first person to trim a Christmas tree appears to have been Martin Luther (1483 - 1546) who when walking through a forest saw the sky full of stars. He took home a fir tree which he decorated with lighted candles as a reminder of the beauty of god's heavens. This could also be where the idea of "Wessley Bobs" (glass tree decorations) came from.
In November every year since 1947 a Norwegian Spruce fir tree has been placed in Trafalgar Square which is very simply decorated with plain white bulbs. This is a gift from the people of Oslo to commemorate the help which Britain gave to Norway during the Second World War.
The Character of Father Christmas seems to be a hybrid between Saint Nicholas and a pagan god Woden who brought the Norsemen presents at his mid -winter festival.
Saint Nicholas was the 4th century Archbishop of Lycia who is said to have done many good things for children, including feed many hundreds of them. As a result of this he was made patron saint of children, and on his saint's day which is 6th December he is remembered in many countries by giving children presents.
The Father Christmas we know today seems to come from America when Thomas Nast drew a picture of Father Christmas for "Harpers" magazine in the 1860s which showed him as a jolly old man with white hair and a beard, wearing red robes trimmed with white fur. The idea of Santa Claus came from the Dutch Sinter Klaas which is the Dutch Father Christmas.
Reindeer did not appear in the Christmas tradition at all until 1832 when Clemency Clarke Moore wrote a poem called "A Visit from St. Nicholas" and it was he who gave them the names of Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen. Rudolph did not appear until 1939 when a song was published about his glowing nose. There is no reference anywhere to the reindeer flying but let us just say that this idea comes from the magic which surrounds Christmas.
The Holly and the Ivy
The idea of having evergreens in the home at Christmas has its origins in the pre-Christian pagan celebrations of mid-winter and were seen as representing everlasting life and hope for the return of spring. The holly and the ivy were fertility symbols the holly being male and the ivy female but Christians took the holly to symbolise Christ's crown of thorns with the berries his blood.
Mistletoe was another pagan fertility symbol associated mainly with the druids who believed it to have magical powers and used it to protect themselves from witches. It was said to cure illness, and ensure peace and prosperity. The idea of kissing under the mistletoe comes from these ideas of fertility.
Henry VIII was the first person to eat turkey on Christmas Day but prior to this goose and not turkey was the traditional bird to be eaten, since on Christmas Eve 1588 when Elizabeth I heard of the defeat of the Spanish Armada she was dining on goose and decreed that goose should be eaten at Christmas from then on. Exactly when the turkey took over as our traditional dish is not known as they were not imported into this country from America until the 16th century, to be bred in any quantity, and even in Victorian times the majority of people would dine on either chicken or goose.
Christmas Pudding or Plum Pudding started out as a thick savoury porridge made with beef, veal, wine, sherry, lemon and orange juice, sugar, raisins, currants, cinnamon, cloves, and prunes, which of course are dried plums hence the name of Plum Pudding. This whole sticky mixture was thickened with the use of brown bread and eaten with a spoon. To us today the idea of mixing fruit and meat seems strange but in the times before the invention of refrigeration it was not unusual to find meat and fruit mixed in a dish such as this as the fruit helped to preserve the meat. Eventually as time went by the meat was omitted from the dish and suet was added to thicken it to the consistency we are familiar with today.
If we were to see an original mince pie I do not believe that any of us would recognise it for what it was. Firstly an oblong would be made from pastry to represent the crib, this was then filled with a mixture similar to that of the old Christmas Puddings, and then on top of this would be placed a shaped piece of pastry representing the Baby Jesus. Following the Civil War the Puritans banned them and when the eating of mince pies again became popular under the reign of Charles II the shape had completely changed and had become the one we know today .
Stir up Sunday, which this year is 26th November, is always held on the Sunday nearest to one month prior to Christmas Day, and is by tradition the day on which all Christmas Cakes, Christmas Puddings, and Mincemeat have to be prepared. It got its name not because of the stirring of puddings etc. but because of a special prayer for this Sunday, which is the last Sunday before Advent, and begins with the line "Stir up we beseech thee, 0 Lord"
The Christmas Cracker was invented by Tom Smith in 1846, but there is a contradiction in the reference books regarding his occupation. One book tells us that he was a London pastry cook, and the other a sweet-maker. He spent a holiday in Paris where he noticed that sugared almonds and various other sweets were sold in coloured twists of paper, so when he returned home he copied the idea and included a love motto and riddle. At first they were called "cosaques" and a little later included the tiny strip of paper which caused a bang when pulled. Tom
Smith's Crackers became very elegant, some even containing fans, jewellry, and headresses. He opened his first factory in 1847 and it is still there to this day. In 1983 thirty-six million crackers were sold.
Churches always had an Alms Box into which were placed gifts on Christmas Day, which were opened the day after and the contents distributed to the poor, and because of this it became known as Boxing Day.
The 26th December is the Feast of St. Stephen who is the patron saint of horses, it is possibly because of this that horse racing and hunting became so popular on this particular day.
A visit from Saint Nicholas
Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care; In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds, While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap, When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter. Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash. The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below, When, what to my wondering eyes should appear But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer, With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled and shouted, and called them by name; 'Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall! Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!'
As the leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and St Nicholas too. And then in a twinkling, I heard on the roof The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around, Down the chimney St Nicholas came with a bound. He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot :A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedlar just opening his pack.
His eyes — how they twinkled! his dimples how merry! His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow, And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow; The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath; He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly. He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself; A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work, And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk, And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle, And away they all flew like the down of a thistle. But I heard him exclaim, 'ere he drove out of sight, 'Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.'
Clement Clarke Moore
For those of you who wish to know more about the particular traditions which surround our Christmas Festival you may obtain from Mexborough Branch Library the two books used in the writing of this newsletter they are:-
Christmas by Tim Wood
The Oxford Merry Christmas Book by Rita Winstanley
A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year To You All from
J. R. Ashby