With Christmas knocking on our door, let us take a look at the history of Christmas and how it came to be celebrated. It is hard to imagine now, but at the beginning of the 19th century Christmas was hardly celebrated. In fact, many businesses did not even consider it a holiday and worked through the day. However, by the end of the century it had become the biggest annual celebration that we recognise today. Christmas is both a sacred religious holiday and a worldwide cultural and commercial phenomenon. For thousands of years, people around the world have been observing it with traditions and practices that are both religious and secular in nature.
The middle of winter has long been a time of celebration around the world. Centuries before the arrival of Jesus, early Europeans celebrated light and birth in the darkest days of winter. Many people rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight.
In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from December 21, the winter solstice, through January. In recognition of the return of the sun, fathers and sons would bring home large logs, which they would set on fire. The people would feast until the log burned out, which could take as many as 12 days.
In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the main holiday; the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. In the 4th century, church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. Unfortunately, the Bible does not mention date for his birth. Although some evidence suggests that his birth may have occurred in the spring, Pope Julius I chose December 25th.
It is commonly believed that the church chose this date in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. First called the ‘Feast of the Nativity’, the custom spread to Egypt by 432 and to England by the end of the 6th century. By the end of the 8th century, the celebration of Christmas had spread all the way to Scandinavia.
In the early 17th century, a wave of religious reform changed the way Christmas was celebrated in Europe. When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they vowed to rid England of decadence and, as part of their effort, cancelled Christmas. By popular demand, Charles II was restored to the throne and, with him, came the return of the popular holiday.
The transformation happened quickly, and came from all sectors of society. Many attribute the change to Queen Victoria, and it was her marriage to the German-born Prince Albert that introduced some of the most prominent aspects of Christmas. In 1848 the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the royal family celebrating around a decorated Christmas tree, a tradition that was reminiscent of Prince Albert's childhood in Germany. Soon every home in Britain had a tree bedecked with candles, sweets, fruit, homemade decorations and small gifts.
In 1843 Henry Cole, an inventor commissioned an artist to design a card for Christmas. These weren’t affordable for ordinary Victorians and so were not immediately accessible. However, the sentiment caught on and many children including Queen Victoria's were encouraged to make their own Christmas cards. With advancing print technology, cards became cheaper and more popular. By the 1880s the sending of cards had become hugely popular, creating a lucrative industry that produced 11.5 million cards in 1880 alone. The commercialisation of Christmas was well on its way. Along with this came gift giving, all over the world, families and friends give presents to each other. Most children around the world believe in a Christmas gift bringer. It's often St. Nicholas, Santa Claus or Father Christmas, but in parts of Germany they believe that it is the Christkind, in Spain they believe it is the Wise Men and in parts of Italy they believe it is an old lady called Befana. The legend of Santa Claus can be traced back hundreds of years to a monk named St. Nicholas. It is believed that Nicholas was born sometime around 280 A.D. in Patara, near Myra in modern-day Turkey. Much admired for his piety and kindness, St. Nicholas became the subject of many legends. Ideas of Santa Clause have evolved within different cultures and different elements now embody the father christmas we know and love today.
The Christmas feast has its roots from before the Middle Ages, but it's during the Victorian period that the dinner we now associate with Christmas began to take shape. In England, mince pies start to be eaten at Christmas, originally made with mincemeat. The roast turkey also has its beginnings in Victorian Britain.
While carols were not new to the Victorians, it was a tradition that they actively revived and popularised. The Victorians considered carols to be a delightful form of musical entertainment, and a pleasure well worth cultivating. Old words were put to new tunes and the first significant collection of carols was published in 1833 for all to enjoy.
The Victorians also transformed the idea of Christmas so that it became centred around the family. The preparation and eating of the feast, decorations and gift giving, entertainments and parlour games were essential to the celebration of the festival.
The Victorian way of celebrating Christmas is in fact very similar to how we celebrate today. Their festivities have been handed down and today are recognisable of a Victorian Christmas past. While Charles Dickens did not invent the Victorian Christmas, his book A Christmas Carol is credited with helping to popularise and spread the traditions of the festival. Its themes of family, charity, goodwill, peace and happiness encapsulate the spirit of the Victorian Christmas, and are very much a part of the Christmas we celebrate today.
Notable Festive Dates:
• 354 AD 25 December is made the official birthday of Jesus.
• 11th Century The word Christmas is first used (previously it was called Yule). However Christmas is just one of many festivals and is not particularly important.
• October 1621 The origins of Thanksgiving date back to 1621 when a group of English pilgrims in present-day Massachusetts shared a feast with a tribe of Native Americans to celebrate a plentiful harvest.
• 16th Century In Central Europe Christmas trees are decorated with a variety of candles, wax ornaments and gingerbread.
• 1843 The first Christmas card is designed by John Horsley.
• 1847 Christmas crackers are made for the first time by a confectioner named Tom Smith.
The 'bang' inside Christmas crackers is added later in 1860.
• 1848 Victoria and Albert are shown in a picture in the Illustrated London New with a Christmas tree. As a result Christmas trees become more popular in England.
• 1862 Cartoonist Thomas Nast creates our modern image of Santa Claus
• 1863 Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday across the whole of the USA. Thanksgiving is also celebrated in Canada and various Caribbean islands.
• 1871 Christmas Day is made into a bank holiday.
• 1882 Christmas tree lights are invented.
• Late 19th Century Christmas cake was originally eaten on 6th January but at this time people began to eat it at Christmas.
• 1974 New Years Day is also made a bank holiday in Britain.
• 7th January Today Christmas is still celebrated on 7th January in Ethiopia. The Russian and Greek Orthodox Church also celebrates Christmas on 7th January.
However, you chose to celebrate Christmas this year, make sure to check out what The Candle Tree has to offer. We have a large and fabulous range of soaps, gifts and luxury bath products, both online and in-store. Take a look at our online store from the comfort of your home to discover our collection of French soaps, speciality soaps, body treats, home fragrance, special gifts and much much more! If you are local, pop along to our Gloucester store right next door to the beautiful Gloucester Cathedral for lots of festive gift ideas and inspiration!