♔ CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS IN THE UK

Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus. It is traditional in England for Primary schools to put on a Nativity play and every other year our school perform in the village church for the parents and local people. Many years ago live animals, including an ox and ass would have been used in the cast but now we can see  clever use of costumes. The play recreates the scene in the stable and centres around Jesus made of wax in a crib of wood and the parts of Mary, Joseph and the shepherds are played by the children.

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Pantomime is a marvellous and wonderful (if a little eccentric!) British institution. Pantomimes take place around the Christmas period and are nearly always based on well known children's stories such as Peter Pan, Aladdin, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty etc. Pantomimes are performed not only in the best theatres in the land but also in village halls throughout Britain. Whether a lavish professional performance or a hammy local amateur dramatic production, all pantomimes are well attended. Audience participation is a very important part of a pantomime. The audience are encouraged to boo the villain whenever he enters the stage, argue with the Dame (who is always a man) and warn the Principal Boy (who is always a girl) when the villain is behind them by shouting out "He's behind you!".  By the end of the pantomime, the villain has been defeated, true love has conquered all and everyone lives happily ever after. Pantomime literally means "all kinds" of "mime" (panto-mime) .

It is generally acknowledged that British pantomime is modelled on the early masques of the Elizabethan and Stuart days. In the 14th century the early masques were musical, mime or spoken dramas, usually performed in grand houses although by the 17th century they were really no more than an excuse for a theme party. The timing of the British pantomime at Christmas and the role reversal of the lead characters (the principal boy being played by a girl and the Dame by a man) may have also evolved from the Tudor "Feast of Fools", presided over by the Lord of Misrule. The feast was an unruly event, involving much drinking, revelry and role reversal.

The custom of hanging stockings comes from England. Father Christmas once dropped some gold coins while coming down the chimney. The coins would have fallen through the ash grate and been lost if they hadn't landed in a stocking that had been hung out to dry. Since that time children have continued to hang out stockings in hopes of finding them filled with gifts.Actually, the hanging of stockings by the fire supposedly dates back to the actual Saint Nicholas, a bishop in Lycia in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) during the fourth century AD. According to the legend there was a poor man with three daughters who could not provide a dowry for them to be married. One night, Nicholas secretly dropped a bag of gold into an open window of the house. The oldest daughter was then allowed to be married. This was repeated later with the second daughter. Finally, determined to uncover his benefactor, the father secretly hid each evening by his daughter's window until he caught the saint tossing in a bag of gold. Nicholas begged the man to not reveal what he had done, not wanting to bring attention to himself. Word got out anyway, and when anyone received a gift from an unknown source, it was attributed to Saint Nicholas. The stockings come into play in one legend, in that the third daughter had hung her stockings by the fire to dry them out after washing them, and when St. Nicholas tossed in the bag of gold it landed in one of the stockings. Thus the tradition began.

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Children write letters to Father Christmas listing their requests, but instead of sending them, the letters are tossed into the fireplace. The draught carries the letters up the chimney and Father Christmas reads the smoke.

The hanging of greenery around the house, such as holly and ivy, is a winter tradition with origins well before the Christian era. Greenery was brought into the house to lift sagging winter spirits and remind people that Spring was not far away. The needlelike points of holly leaves are thought by some to resemble the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when He was crucified. The red berries may symbolize the drops of blood He shed.Mistletoe is found on willow and apple trees (and garden centres) and the practice of hanging it in the house goes back to the times of the ancient Druids. It is supposed to possess mystical powers which bring good luck to the household and ward off evil spirits.

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The fir tree has a long association with Christianity, it began in Germany almost a 1000 years ago when St Boniface, who converted the German people to Christianity, was said to have come across a group of pagans about to sacrifice a young boy while worshipping an oak tree. In anger, St Boniface is said to have cut down the oak tree and to his amazement a young fir tree sprung up from the roots of the oak tree. St Boniface took this as a sign of the Christian faith. It was not until the 16th century that fir trees were brought indoors at Christmas time.
 
The decorating of Christmas trees, though primarily a German custom, has been widely popular in England since 1841 when Prince Albert had a Christmas tree set up in Windsor Castle for his wife Queen Victoria and their children. At that time the tree would have been decorated with candles to represent stars but because of the danger of fire an American telephonist invented the electric Christmas lights we know today.

A Nordic tradition of burning the Yule log goes back to medieval times. The Yule log was originally an entire tree, carefully chosen, and brought into the house with great ceremony. The large end would be placed into the hearth while the rest of the tree stuck out into the room. The log would be lit from the remains of the previous year's log which had been carefully stored away and slowly fed into the fire through the twelve days of festivities. Having the remains of the Yule log in the house throughout the year was thought to give protection against fire and it was considered important that the re-lighting process be carried out by someone with clean hands. Nowadays of course, most people have central heating so it is very difficult to burn a tree! On Christmas Eve children leave out mince pies, brandy or some similar warming beverage for Father Christmas, and a carrot for the reindeer.

Christmas crackers are a party favourite in England. Conceived in 1850 by a London confectioner called Tom Smith whilst sitting in front of his log fire. His attention was focused on the sparks and cracks emanating from the flames when suddenly he thought what an added attraction it would be if his sweets and toys could be revealed with a crack when their fancy wrappings were pulled in half.  Today's crackers are short cardboard tubes wrapped in colourful paper and traditionally there will be one cracker next to each plate on the Christmas dinner table. When the crackers are pulled, out falls a colourful party hat, a toy or gift and a festive joke. The party hats look like crowns and we assume these symbolise the crowns worn by the three kings.

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The Christmas pudding (also known as plum/figgy pudding) is a rich fruit pudding. It was called Frumenty when it was served in Medieval times. Frumenty was a spiced porridge, enjoyed by both rich and poor. It has its origins in a Celtic legend of harvest god, Dagda, who stirred a porridge made up of all the good things of the earth. The pudding became specifically associated with Christmas, rather than merely any festive occasion, when it was introduced to the Royal Christmas dinner table by Prince Albert. Plum puddings are a very rich, dark pudding made with all sorts of dried fruits, nuts, spices, black treacle and lots sherry or brandy. They are made well before Christmas as it takes time for the alcohol to soak into the dried fruit, however nowadays most people buy them from a supermarket. They are steamed when first made, and re-steamed on Christmas Day before being served with a sweet white sauce or brandy butter. If the pudding is made at home, everyone in the household must take it in turns to stir the pudding and make a wish, the mixture should be stirred from east to west, in honour of the three wise men.  Some people like to hide a coin or trinket in the Christmas pudding. This may have originated in the ancient custom, in Rome and elsewhere, of concealing a particular object in food. During the Roman festival of Saturnalia, a dried bean would be hidden in the food. Whoever found it was then "master of the revels" - a king for the holidays. Even a slave could be the lucky one. In medieval times, a cake was eaten on Twelfth Night (January 6th), during the most boisterous party of the year. The "King of the Bean" ruled the whole party. Nowadays people put in a silver coin and eat carefully. Whoever gets the piece of pudding with the coin in on Christmas day is especially lucky and their "pudding wish" (made when the pudding was stirred) will come true!

Gifts are opened Christmas morning. The younger children will awake very early in the morning to find a stocking at the end of their bed and some presents on the floor. Later, the family will gather together to open all the presents that have been left under the Christmas tree.

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"Wassailing" is an ancient custom that is rarely practiced today. The word "wassail" is derived from Middle English term waes hael, which means  "good health to you". Similarly it corresponds to the Old English “wes hal,” and the Old Norse “ves heill.”  Originally, wassail was a beverage made of mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and sugar. It was served from huge bowls, often of silver or pewter for the purpose of enhancing the general merriment of the season. In medieval England wassail was a common fermented drink, a type of ale, or mead, served with bread or toast and consumed ceremonially and socially like beer or wine in modern society. Typical ingredients of wassail included sweetened apple cider, spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger.  Modern popular varieties may use a fruit juice, ale, or wine as a base, sometimes spiked with liquor.    The legend says that a beautiful Saxon maiden named Rowena presented Prince Vortigen with a bowl of wine while toasting him with the words "Waes hael". In England, wassail was traditionally used as a beverage for making important ceremonial toasts, a ritual closely related to the sumble.  Over the centuries a great deal of ceremony developed around the custom of drinking wassail. The bowl was carried into a room with great fanfare, a traditional carol about the drink was sung, and finally, the steaming hot beverage was served.

The celebration of Boxing Day, which takes place on December 26th - the feast of St. Stephen, is a part of the holiday season unique to Great Britain. Traditionally, it is on this day that the alms box at every English church is opened and the contents are distributed to the poor. Also, this is the day that servants traditionally got the day off to celebrate with their families. It became traditional for working people to break open their tip boxes on this day.  Wealthy people indulged in huge Christmas feasts, and when they were finished, packed up the remains of feasts in boxes and gave them out to their servants. It didn't become widely celebrated though until Victorian England. In the UK Boxing Day is still a public holiday, some shops and supermarkets open nowadays, but banks and most offices remain closed. Today, Boxing day has become a time of major sports events, much as Thanksgiving Day is in the United States. The most traditional sport on this day has traditionally been fox hunting, and a picture of a redcoat on horseback surrounded by white hounds poised to chase down a red fox is a veritable symbol of Boxing Day. Fortunately for the foxes, killing the fox in a fox hunt has been banned. Now the chase is done just for fun, and some people with a bit of humour even chase human beings instead. Horse races, soccer games, cricket tournaments, and rugby matches are also all popular on Boxing Day. Boxing Day is also the day when the post-Christmas shopping season officially begins in the UK, and huge sales are on everywhere. Stores often open very early, at 5am or earlier, and shoppers are already lined up waiting at the doors, hoping to grab the best bargains and maybe win a door prize. More recently, sales are running from just before Christmas up to New Year's Eve, and this is being called "Boxing Week".

In Scotland they celebrate Christmas rather somberly and reserve their merriment for New Year's Eve which is called Hogmanay. This word is derived from a kind of oat cake that was traditionally given to children on New Year's Eve.Also in Scotland, the first person to set foot in a residence in a New Year is thought to profoundly affect the fortunes of the inhabitants. Generally strangers are thought to bring good luck. Depending on the area, it may be better to have a dark-haired or fair-haired stranger set foot in the house. This tradition is widely known as "first footing". In England it is said that a stranger coming through the door carrying a lump of coal will bring good luck.

The story of Christingle. Many years ago in Czechoslovakia, children were asked to take a gift to put beside the crib in church. One family had no money for gifts but were determined to take something. They found an orange which they felt would be okay, but were disappointed to find it was going moldy at the top. However, they thought they would scoop out the bad bits and put a candle in the top and turn it into a lantern. Thinking that it looked a bit ordinary, one of the girls took a red ribbon from her hair and tied it around the middle. They had difficulty getting it to stay in place, so fastened it with four small sticks, on the ends of which they put a few raisins. They took their lantern to church and were afraid of the reactions of the other children. However, the priest acknowledged their gift and told the congregation how special it was for the following reasons; the orange is round like the world the candle stands tall and straight and gives light in the dark like the love of God the red ribbon goes all around the 'world' and is a symbol of the blood Jesus shed when he died for us the four sticks point in all directions and symbolise North, South, East and West - they are also said to represent the four seasons the raisins represent the fruits of the earth, nurtured by the sunshine and the rain. Some children in the UK make their own Christingles in their classrooms and gather together to light them in a church service that raises money for the Church of England Children's Society.

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Christmas Carols have their roots in medieval England, when minstrels travelled from castle to castle, today they would be called Carollers. Originally, "Christmas carol" referred to a piece of vocal music in carol form whose lyrics center on the theme of Christmas or the Christmas season. The book "A Christmas Carol" was written by Charles Dickens. It is the tale of a miser called Ebeneezer Scrooge who is visited by four ghosts (Jacob Marley, The Ghost of Christmas Past, The Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Future). He was made to see the error of his ways and became a reformed character. Today Carollers generally collect money for charity. The 'Round Table' in England often sends a big sleigh with a Christmas tree and people singing and playing carols around the cities and towns of England. In Wales, each village may have several choirs which rehearse well in advance of the holidays and then go carolling collecting money for charity.

 

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The Queen's Speech. One last Christmas ritual not drawn from an ancient tradition is the British monarch's broadcast on Christmas day.  The tradition began in 1932 when King George V read a special speech written by Rudyard Kipling. The broadcast was an enormous success . It began, "I speak now from my home and from my heart, to you all...". Queen Elizabeth II continues the tradition to this day. Since 1952, the message has been read by Elizabeth II; today it is broadcast on television, radio, and the Internet via various providers. Indeed, every year she broadcasts her message on Christmas Day, and it is heard by millions of people all over the world. The message typically combines a chronicle of that year's major events, with specific focus on the British Empire originally and later the Commonwealth of Nations, with the sovereign's own personal milestones and feelings on Christmas. It is one of the few instances when the sovereign speaks publicly without advice from any ministers of the Crown in any of the monarch's realms.

Planning for each year's address begins months earlier, when the monarch establishes a theme and appropriate archival footage is collected and assembled; the actual speech is recorded a few days before Christmas. In England most people watch or listen to it while digesting their Christmas Dinner!

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