Did You Know…?
The celebration of the passing of mid-winter and the lengthening of the days is ancient, Norsemen lit bonfires, told stories and drank ale at the winter solstice; the Roman festival of Saturnalia ran for seven days from 17th December and was a time when ordinary rules were turned upside down (such as men dressing as women, masters as servants), houses were decorated with evergreens, candles were lit and presents given. It was the arrival in Britain of the Romans that brought many of the rituals of Saturnalia to the mid-winter celebrations of the British peoples.
· Evergreens have long been valued for showing life in the dead of winter.
· Mistletoe was sacred to the Druids and was thought to bring good luck, fertility and protection from witchcraft.
· Since the Middle Ages the Yule log has been gathered and carried into the house on Christmas Eve. It is lit with the end saved from the previous year’s log and kept burning until Twelfth Night.
· The Georgian period saw the introduction of the Christmas tree to England, however the idea wasn’t popularised until Victorian times when a drawing of the royal family gathered around a decorated tree was published in an 1848 newspaper.
· The first Christmas card was commissioned in 1843 and by the 1880s the sending of cards had become very popular. Gift giving had traditionally taken place at New Year but with the increased focus on family at Christmas by the Victorians this tradition was moved.
· The Christmas meal in its now familiar form began to take shape in the Victorian era, meat was replaced by fruits in mince pies, turkey started to be served instead of goose – at first just for the wealthy and later for all.
· Father Christmas’ origins are in old English mid-winter festivals; he dressed in green and represented the returning spring. He was known as Old Father Christmas or Old Winter and roamed from home to home, feasting with families.
· The ghost of Christmas Past in A Christmas Carol is based on Father Christmas. Images of him dressed in red started to appear on Victorian Christmas cards and our images today owe a lot to early American cards.
· Santa Claus is based on St Nicholas of Mrya, (Sinterklaas in Dutch). St Nicholas was a 4th century Christian who had a reputation as a secret gift giver to the poor. It was Dutch settlers in America that gave us Santa Claus. St Nicholas is patron saint of children and also unmarried women, prisoners, thieves and pawnbrokers.
· The Dutch custom of leaving shoes filled with food for St Nicholas’ donkeys is where we get our custom of Christmas stockings
· Norwegian scientists have speculated that Rudolph’s red nose is the result of a parasitic infection of the respiratory system.
· In Poland spiders and spiders webs are common Christmas tree decorations because according to legend a spider wove a blanket for the baby Jesus.
· In Germany Christmas Eve is said to be a magical time when the pure of heart can hear the animals talking.
· St Nicholas’s evil accomplice in Austrian tradition, Krampus is a demon-like creature that punishes bad children. Men dressed as Krampus roam the streets during the festive period, frightening the children.
· In some rural areas of Wales, a villager is selected each Christmas to perform the ritual of Mari Lwyd. They must then parade around the streets with a mare’s skull fastened to the end of a wooden pole, while villagers sing traditional songs. White sheets are used to conceal the pole, and the person carrying it. Sometimes the horse’s jaw is spring-loaded, so that it can be used to snap at passers-by.
· In Spain the Catalonians have the traditional caga tio or defecating log. A character is made from a log by drawing a face and putting a hat on it. A fortnight is then spent ‘feeding’ the log with fruit, sweets and nuts until on Christmas Eve the whole family beats the log with sticks until all the treats are ‘excreted’.
· For many in Japan the traditional Christmas dinner today is Kentucky Fried Chicken, reservations have to be made to eat at KFC on Christmas day.
· Next time you moan about eating sprouts think of the folk in Greenland, for their Christmas meal they have Mattak – raw whale skin and blubber, and kiviak – auk (a small seabird) wrapped in seal skin, buried for months and eaten once decomposing.
· The robin is strongly associated with Christmas, appearing on many Christmas cards.
· Different legends associate the robin with Christ and Christianity however the association with Christmas is probably due to the fact that postmen in Victorian England wore red jackets and were nicknamed ‘robins’, the robin representing the postman delivering the card.
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