Christmas Traditions Celebrated in the Western World

X-mas Tree

Christmas is a wonderful time of year especially important for Christians who are celebrating the birth of Christ. There are many traditions followed in the festive season, some religious and some not really connected to religion. Here we take a look at some of these traditions followed in the western world, where they originated and what they entail.

The Christmas Tree

A special tradition at Christmas time is to decorate a Christmas tree and display it in the house for the twelve days of Christmas. It's a fact that years before Christianity came about ancient people considered evergreen plants and bushes special as they flourished during the Winter months.

Manypeople throughout the world thought that hanging evergreen foliage above their doors and windows would protect them from evil spirits. During the Winter Solstice around the 21st December evergreens became even more important as they reminded ancient people that the sun god, whom they worshipped, would return again when Winter was over.

The Christmas tree as we know it was first brought inside our homes and decorated by the German people back in the 1500's. Martin Luther was thought to have encouraged lighted candles to be displayed on the branches, while Christmas trees did not become important in America until German immigrants displayed them in the 1830's.

Queen Victoria brought the Christmas Tree to popularity in the UK when she was featured in a magazine standing next to a decorated Christmas tree with her family. Everyone who was anyone followed suit and so the traditional Christmas tree was born.

By the 1890's baubles and decorations had been introduced with decorated trees becoming more elaborate. Once electricity became widespread lights were strung on Christmas trees taking away much of the danger of fires breaking out due to lighted candles plus people could light up their trees endlessly.

Nowadays there are many types of evergreen tree grown from Norwegian spruces through to trees that are guaranteed to no longer shed their pine needles plus also artificial trees that have gained popularity over the years.

The Christmas Card

Christmas Card

The first Christmas Card was sent in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole when he commissioned John Calcott Horsley to design a card that he could send to friends to wish them "Merry Christmas". Many copies of the card which featured a family together enjoying Christmas were sold for one shilling.

Victorian Christmas Cards often depicted a robin delivering the mail, while as a result postmen of the day became to be known as Robins due to their red uniform. Queen Victoria's children were said to have made their own Christmas cards to send to family and friends.

The Christmas Pudding

Christmas dinner is traditionally finished by eating Christmas pudding although the first puddings were nothing like the delicious treat we enjoy today! The first type of Christmas pudding or Frumenty as it was known, appeared in the fourteenth century and was a porridge based pud made from oats, beef, mutton, raisins, prunes and spices.

The plum pudding originated in the late 1500's and included eggs, breadcrumbs, fruit, beer and spirits. By the Victorian era the Christmas pudding had evolved into the type of pudding we enjoy today, while the pudding has many superstitions attached to it if you believe in that sort of thing!

many thought that the pudding should be made from thirteen ingredients to represent the twelve apostles plus Christ, while children and other fmily members present were asked to stir the pudding one by one from east to west to honour the three kings. The sprig of holly we often put on top of the pudding depicts Christ's crown of thorns, more to do with Easter than Christmas we think, while including a silver coin into the mixture is said to bring good luck to the person who finds it.

Singing Christmas Carols

The word carol actually means to dance to something or sing praise with the first carols being sung by Pagan people at the Winter Solsticecelebrations. Originally carols were sung to celebrate the start of all four seasons with only the tradition of singing them in winter or Christmas remaining. Carols usually tell the story of the nativity and the surrounding events.

In AD129 a bishop in Rome asked that songs be sung at a Christmas sevice in Rome. By AD 800 many composers all over Europe had begun to write words and music for Christmas carols, while the fact that they were all written in Latin made them unpopular with the masses.

In 1223 Saint Francis of Assisi was producing nativity plays and introduced songs or carols into the pieces. The earliest known existing carol was written in 1410, while by the time Oliver Cromwell took power all carol singing was banned by the Puritans. Carols survived however as people still sang them in private.

By the Victorian era carols were once again being written and sung. Carol services and singing carols in the streets became very popular, while candlelit services, that are still held today, also gained in popularity. Carols are still sung today at services and in schools at Christmas time, while money is also raised to help the needy by carol singers in many towns and cities throughout the UK.

Father Christmas

Father Christmas and little boy

Father Christmas is a big fat jolly old man with a white beard. He wears a red suit trimmed with white fur, black boots and a red hood, while he can usually be seen carrying a sack of gifts or riding in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. He lives at the North Pole along with his elves and of course Mother Christmas. So, who is he and how did he come to be one of the most popular traditional christmas figures, especially for children?

Father Christmas originated in the old English mid winter festivals but back then he wore a green coat that signified the start of Spring. Known as Sir Christmas, Old Winter or Old Father Christmas he was not associated with climbing downchimneys to deliver presents to the children of the world. Back then he would wander round villages tapping on doors and eating with the inhabitants to celebrate the season.

Father Christmas in his red outfit came about in Victorian times, while we also know him by the name of Santa Claus. Both these names now refer to the same person but Santa Claus was originally based on Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas was a devout man who believed in charity. He would climb onto rooftops and drop money down the chimneys of the poor so they would not know where or who the money had come from.

One day money made its way into a childs stocking that was by the fireside drying thus beginning the tradition that Santa comes down the chimney to put gifts in a stocking that children hang up on Christama Eve. Of Dutch origin, Sinter Klaas was adopted by the Americans who changed his name to Santa Claus.

The Christmas Pantomime

The Christmas pantomime is a traditional British Christmas play based loosely on popular fairy tales such as Cinderella or Jack and the Bean Stalk. Pantomimes or Pantos as they are affectionately known take place in theatres locally and nationally with many famous celebrities taking part in them every year. They usually run from the middle of December through to the end of January.

The main staple of a panto is that many of the female parts are performed by men and vice versa, while audience participation is obligatory with kids shouting "Oh yes he is" when the villain of the piece appears on stage behind the hero who does not believe that he is there.

Pantomimes were silent productions originally and hailed from Ancient Greece before becoming the popular early format that originated in Italy known as Commedia dell'arte. Pantomime was brought to England by John Rich a dancer and acrobat. Harlequins and acrobats were a mainstay of these early productions. By the end of the 19th century these shows had morphed into family based productions with the pantomime dame plus the hero and heroine of the piece taking centre stage.

These days pantomimes are performed up and downthe country entertaining families with slapstick comedy, colourful costumes and songs that kids can join in with. Audience participation is a key to their success, while the panto we hope will carry on from strength to strength for decades to come.

The Advent Calendar

Black Snowflake

The Advent Calendar is a unique type of calendar that helps us celebrate the run up to Christmas day. Calendars usually have a colourful Christmas themed picture such as the Nativity, Santa or snowy scenes with Christmas trees. There are twenty four doors on an Advent Calendar, one to open each day from December 1st through to the 24th December, Christmas Eve.

Behind each door there is a picture or poem or in modern calendars even pieces of chocolate to discover, while some Advent calendars strictly adhere to the religious theme depicting the nativity from start to finish. The tradition of Advent Calendars began in Germany, as many of our Christmas traditions did, in the late 1800's.

Pictures depicted behind the twenty four doors originally showed Hebrew images from the bible. The word Advent means the time waiting for the arrival of Christmas and the birth of Jesus. Advent Sunday is the first Sunday of four leading up to Christmas.

Advent calendars have lost none of their appeal with children enjoying opening the doors each day as much now as they did years ago. Advent Calendars have however become commercialised unfortunately with pop stars, celebrities and all kinds of topics gracing the front of the calendars, somewhat missing the point of the original purpose of the Advent calendar.