The history of Christmas traditions.
Most December 25th traditions are far less Christian and much more recently adopted in the UK than they may think.
Celebrating on 25 December
Why is Christmas celebrated on the 25 December? Midwinter festivals abounded by the time Christianity took hold. There were winter solstice celebrations such as Yule and Koleda, and the Roman festivals of Saturnalia (which included decorating your home with evergreens). It was easier for Christians to introduce it into these longstanding festivals than to persuade people to give them up.
The first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine, began celebrating Christmas on 25 December in 336. A few years later, Pope Julius I declared it the official date to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Orthodox and Coptic Christians celebrate Jesus’s birth on 7 January – the ‘original’ 25 December. Our 25 December moved when we adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752.
Today, Yule logs have been mainly superseded by log-shaped chocolate cakes. Logs were burned as part of the Scandinavian Yule celebration, beginning at the winter solstice and continuing until they burned out. Celts also burned a Yule log, believing it persuaded the sun to return.
Holly, ivy and mistletoe
Evergreens were used in winter solstice festivals to bring good luck and signify the coming spring. The tradition of hanging mistletoe in the house is an ancient Druid custom to ward off evil spirits, but in Norse mythology it’s also a symbol of love – hence kissing under the mistletoe.
The original Christmas pudding was frumenty, a thin 14th century porridge, containing raisins, currants, prunes, wine, spices, beef and mutton. However, by around 1650, people ate plum pudding and, by Victorian times, it was similar to the modern-day Christmas pud.
The Christmas tree
Evergreen fir trees have been used in winter festivals for thousands of years to symbolise the coming spring and everlasting life, although they were often hung upside down from the ceiling rather than upright. Christmas trees emerged in the 1500s in town squares but took time to come into people’s houses. The Royal Family had one from Georgian times, but an 1848 photo of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their family gathered around theirs, popularised the idea.
A merry Christmas
Christmas wasn’t celebrated widely in the UK until the Middle Ages, when it was predominantly a time for merrymaking and feasting on animals. It was later banned by the Puritans for its Pagan origins, but began to recover in Georgian times with a focus on charity and gift-giving, paving the way for the idealised Victorian Christmas described by Charles Dickens.