The History Society was treated on December 6th to a fascinating presentation by Maureen James on The Customs and Folklore of Christmas, which got is us in the mood for the festive season.

She covered a wide range of the traditions from Stir-up Sunday, and the peculiarities that had been part of celebrating Christmas from the Middle Ages to the present day. She began by pointing out that, despite people having been involved in partying, feasting and playing games from the earliest years, the Puritans of the 17th century tried to ban all festivities, in their attempt to focus Christmas solely on worship. This was a failure, and in response the late 17th century saw the introduction of a variety of old and new celebrations with which we are very familiar today.

Making us all desperate for a mince pie, she then talked about Christmas food and its important role in celebrating Christmas. The silver 6d coin (or its equivalent) in the Christmas pudding, for example, has been a practise going back hundreds of years. The boars head, pork and goose for the wealthy, and rabbit for the poor, have been largely replaced in modern times by ham and turkey. Once spices were available mince pies became a favourite. They were originally square shaped, to represent the cradle, and eating twelve pies over the Christmas period was thought to bring good luck for the coming year.
Biscuits, originally made in the shape of knots, have been common since Tudor times and the Christmas cake, with its icing and decoration, was normally kept for the twelfth day of Christmas. Traditionally, 12th Night was the biggest party of the year, stemming from the joy and relief that Jesus had survived.

For centuries, and just like today, people had been tempted into the shops by the official town singers, bell ringers and musicians, with further entertainment in the weeks before Christmas being provided by the mummers, who performed traditional folk plays. Carol singing gave the opportunity for people to tour the community and knock on people’s doors to sing carols for money or sweets. However, legislation attempted to stop this as, in the distant past carol singing could last until the early hours of the morning.

Decorating the house, or ‘decking the halls’, resulted in the greenery from the garden and hedgerows – holly, mistletoe, wreaths and the kissing bough – being brought indoors. Christmas trees, a German tradition, became a favourite after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert decorated one in their palace. Giving people presents also became popular in the Victorian period as did sending Christmas cards, once the postal service and 1d post began in the 1840s. Much of what we associate with Christmas today can be traced back in history, with some customs going back hundreds of years. Father Christmas (in his different forms),
Christmas crackers, raffles and prizes, pantomimes, New Year fireworks and Boxing Day sports and entertainment were as familiar in years gone by as they are today.

With Christmas approaching, Maureen gave us a captivating insight into the traditions, customs and origins of how, and why, we celebrate the festive season.

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