UK Christmas History

I live in the UK and so I'm especially interested in how Christmas has been celebrated over the years in my country. Here's some brief information about what Christmas (and especially the food!) was like during some periods in history.

Early Christmas in the UK

St Augustine of Canterbury was the person who probably started the widespread celebration of Christmas in large parts of England.

The first recorded date of Christmas in England in when Augustine baptised 10,000 Saxons in Kent on Christmas day 597. (There was some earlier Christianity in England before the fall of the Roman Empire, but there's no records of the birth of Jesus being celebrated. After the Romans left, other Celtic parts of Britain knew about Christianity but again there aren't many documents about if or how they celebrated the birth of Jesus.)

Pope Gregory the Great wrote to Augustine in 601 telling him to absorb existing pre-Christian mid-winter customs into celebrating Christmas.

Around 700 the historian Bede wrote that "The Angli [English] begin the year on 25th December when we celebrate the birth of the Lord; and that very night which we hold so sacred, they called in their tongue 'Modranecht'. That is 'mother's night'.". That 'mother' probably wasn't Jesus's mother, Mary, but it could be a 'hang over' from a pagan goddess or even that the new year was the 'birth of the year', so it was connected with mothers...

The in the ninth century, King Alfred, the king of Wessex, said that the Twelve Days of Christmas should be a time of celebration and no work should be done. Wassailing probably started around this time. As 'waes hael' is an old Saxon phrase meaning 'good health'.

On Christmas Day 855 Edmund Martyr was crowned king of East Anglia in Suffolk; and on in 1066 William the Conqueror had his coronation in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066.

The Medieval and Tudor Period

During Advent it was traditional to eat no meat, eggs or cheese. This was done for religious reasons - but it also saved up more food for the 12 Days of Christmas, which were a time of big celebrations, especially for the upper classes.

A Traditional English Church from a Christmas Card Scene

December 21st is St Thomas’s Day and poor people often went ‘Thomasing’ around their richer neighbors and employers asking for help over Christmas. They were normally given real items like flour and oats rather than money. Poor people could have also been given some money on Boxing Day when the 'poor boxes' were opened in churches.

During the 12 Days of Christmas everyone was meant to stop work. However, lots of people still did have to work! Farmers weren't allowed to work in the fields, but they still had to look after their animals, so extra feed was needed to be stored for the animals, etc. and lots of firewood was needed for all the houses to burn to keep them warm!

The celebrations by royalty and the upper classes were very extravagant - so all their servant and kitchen staff certainly had to work over Christmas! However, it was traditional to invite all those who’d worked on farms belonging to rich land owners to the main Christmas meal (although they ate with the servants rather than the rich people).

Christmas Day in 1170 and 1171 were very eventful. During Christmas 1170, whilst in a castle in Bures, Normandy, Henry II was very unhappy about some of the things that Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had been doing. (Becket thought the King had too much power in the church and had removed some of the King's power and influence in the church.). Henry said something against Becket, which came to be known as 'Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?'. This wasn't a direct order, but four knights travelled from Bures to Canterbury and murdered Becket in Canterbury Cathedral on the 29th December 1170. In 1171, Henry II had a huge Christmas celebration in Dublin, Ireland. He wanted to impress the Irish noblemen with is wealth. At the meal there were swans, peacock and crane! The Irish refused to eat the birds, but Henry happily ate them. Following the meal there were entertainments including dwarf tossing and a jester known as Ronald le Pettour (Ronald the Farter!) - REALLY.

King John was born on Christmas Day 1166, 100 years after his great-grandfather's coronation. 1213 saw another large Christmas feast, this time by King John; it included 420 boar's heads, 16,000 hens, 15,000 herrings, 100lb of almonds and 500lb of wax for candles. But a year later, John dined alone as he was in dispute with his noblemen. The Magna Carta was signed in 1215.

The big formal halls of large houses and palaces were decorated with boughs of holly and ivy. The main decoration was a 'Christmas Crown' made by weaving small branches of ash or hazel together (skills which the farmers had for making fences). It was kind of like a giant Christmas wreath which was filled with more holly, ivy and other greenery and it was hung from a high ceiling on Christmas Eve.

The feasts that very rich people ate were huge. They normally consisted of pottage/frumenty (a watery kind of porridge) or soup (to line the stomach!), lots of meat (only rich people could afford to eat meat), different kinds of 'puddings' (suet or pastry puddings filled with meat and expensive dried fruits) and the meal was finished with cheese. That's still quite similar to the different courses we have today. But often all the dishes were on the table at the same time.

Frumenty is cracked wheat boiled in milk and was eaten all year round. But for Christmas they added dried fruit and spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger which were all very expensive! (Over time, Frumenty became what's Christmas Pudding.)

The traditional center piece of the meal was a boar's head. This went back to Saxon times and there's an early carol called 'The Boar's Head Carol' which was written in the 15th century and was sung when the boar's head was ceremonially brought into the feast! The carol is still sung in many places in the UK.

The boar, or pig's, head had its skin and skull carefully removed and it was then pickled and stuffed with chopped pork. It was sewn back together, a bit like a bag, and then was wrapped in cloth and boiled for 2-3 hours. When it was cooked, for presentation, the skin was sometimes put back on it - you wanted it to look as life-like as possible!

An alternative to a Boar's head was a Swan pie. The body of the swan was stuffed and put on the top of the pie for make it look spectacular!

An early form of a mince pie was a 'shrewd pie'. They were large raised pies (like modern pork pies) containing meat, dried fruit and spices. There might have also been pease pudding (a thick soup type of dish made from boiled dried split peas and often cooked with a joint of bacon or ham), pickled salads and 'leach' (milk set in gelatine).

Monks and Nuns ate poultry rather than red meat (it was thought to be less stimulating!) including chicken, ducks, geese, swans, game (pheasant, partridge and woodcock).

During this time, churches, especially monasteries, starting to have what we now think of as church choirs with (professional) male singers and choir boys - not just the monks singing. Monasteries and churches spent lots of money on candles for the Christmas services as they wanted to have the best lit church and wanted the church to look incredible to glorify God at Christmas. These weren't like Christmas carols as we'd think of them today. The songs were normally in latin and normal people couldn't understand them.

In 1251, Henry III had a huge Christmas celebration as it was also the wedding day of his daughter tot he King of Scotland. However, his daughter was 11 and the King of Scotland was 10! 1348 saw Edward III have Saturnalia themed celebrations from Halloween to Candlemas (2nd February)! This happened in Guilford, Surrey with their being costumes for 80 people.

During this time Mumming plays were very popular. In 1377 the 10 year old King Richard II (who was born on 6th January, Epiphany) saw a parade of 100 Mummers in London at Christmas. Mumming dates back to pre-Christian times at mid-winter festivals.

Mystery plays during this time, might have started the custom of Christmas Trees (although they wouldn't come to the UK as we known them today until the 1790s).

Thoughout the middle ages, into the Tudor period there was the custom of the 'Boy Bishop' in English Cathedrals. A boy from the Cathedral or monastery school was elected as a Bishop on 6th December (St Nicholas's Day) and had the authority of a Bishop (except to perform Mass) until 28th December. King Henry VIII banned the practise in 1542 although it came back briefly under Mary I in 1552 but Elizabeth I finally stopped it during her reign.

There was also the Lord and Lady of Misrule who ruled over Twelfth Night parties.

The first turkey was brought to the UK in 1526 by a sailor called William Strickland. (In 1550 he was given a coat of arms featuring a turkey on it!) It's thought that the first British King to eat a turkey was King Henry VIII.

The 'Banning' of Christmas

Christmas was first banned in Scotland in 1560 under John Knox, the founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. It was known as Yule Day by 1575 in Scotland and there were punishments for anyone found dancing, playing or singing 'filthy carols'! It was reinstated in 1602 by King James I, but by them basically no one wanted to celebrate it. It was banned again in Scotland in 1640, when the Scottish Parliament made the celebration of "Yule vacations" illegal. Christmas was only made a public holiday in 1958 and Boxing Day only became a holiday in 1974!

The banning of Christmas in England, Wales and Ireland started from the mid 1640s until 1660 by the Puritans. They thought Christmas was wasteful and that it led to lots of people eating and drinking too much, etc. In 1642 Parliament made the last Wednesday of each month into a 'fasting day' for people to think solemnly about what they had done wrong. In 1644 the last Wednesday in December was the 25th and both Houses of Parliament went to fast sermons. Then in 1645 a new directive of official church worship said that only Sunday were to be holy days, and no other days (like Christmas) should be celebrated; Christmas could be spent in contemplation, but NOT celebrated!

In 1647 this was confirmed and the feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun (Pentecost) were all banned. Then in the 1650s more laws were passed ordering shops to stay open on December 25th and penalising anyone who went to a Church service on that day. Soldiers were even posted on the streets and confiscated any food they thought would be used to celebrate Christmas.

It's commonly thought that Oliver Cromwell 'banned' Christmas. But the laws were in place before he came to power. He was the 'Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland' from 1653 to 1658 and certainly supported the laws, but he didn't create them!

Although Christmas was officially 'banned', many people still celebrated it in quiet. In the late 1640s there were riots in several big towns between people who wanted to celebrate Christmas and those who didn't!

When King Charles was restored to the throne in 1660, all the laws made between 1642 and 1660 were thrown out and so Christmas and the 12 Days of Christmas were also restored and celebrated again in England, Wales and Ireland, but not in Scotland.

The Georgian Period

The 12 Days of Christmas continued to be very important into the Georgian period.

Popular Christmas food (for rich people) included Brawn/head cheese (boiled pigs head which then had the meat put in a mould and set with savoury jelly) and multi bird pies which were especially popular in Yorkshire (like a Turducken but in a pie).

In Georgian times all the food, savoury or sweet was served at once you just took what you wanted!

This time also started some things that were think of as more 'traditional' Christmas foods like roast beef and Christmas puddings and mince pies (without the meat in!).

They also like sweet jellies with lots of alcohol in them and different flavors of blancmange (a sweet set custard like panna cotta). Rich families hired very expensive chefs who could make jellies in large and spectacular moulds/shapes.

The Georgian also popularised the Twelfth Night Cake, which is still eaten in many countries at Epiphany.

The custom of kissing under mistletoe started during the Georgian period. The first time kissing under the mistletoe is recorded, is in a song from a musical comedy called 'Two to One' from 1784. The custom appears to have started around the 1720s. Mistletoe was also hung on the old English decoration the Christmas Bough or Kissing Bough which were very popular during 1700s - hence the name!

In 1700 the carol "While Shepherds Watched" was published in the Book of Common Prayer. The carol had existing as a folk song for a couple of hundred years, but now it was 'official'. It was the only carol 'allowed' by the Church of England at this time as the words pretty much all come directly from the Christmas Story in the bible.

The Victorian Period

The Victorian period has probably shaped more of how we now celebrate Christmas than any other. It was at this time that many of the foods and decorations that we now commonly associate with Christmas became popular.

Books such as 'A Christmas Carol' by Charles Dickens, published in 1843, put together new feelings about Christmas helped to shape the Christmas traditions and celebrations we still have today.

A drawing of the famous Royal Christmas Tree from 1848

Christmas cards were also invented in 1843 and Christmas crackers a few years later. The Christmas tree really became popular in the UK and USA around the same time when a drawing of the British Royal family with a tree was published in 1848 in the UK and 1850 in the USA.

Also during the Victorian period there was a renaissance of singing Christmas carols with people collecting old folk tunes and adding new words to them. Popular magazines published the music and words for carols and Christmas songs, so people could make their own entertainment at home on the piano. Many new carols were also written at this time including Silent Night (written in 1816 but it was translated into English in 1863), Good King Wenceslas and In the Bleak Midwinter (written in 1872 and became a carol in 1906). The famous Christmas Carol Service of Nine Lessons and Carols started in 1880 in Truro Cathedral.

Magazines and books also published new 'parlour games' like snap dragon which became popular ways of having entertainment after Christmas dinner.

'Traditional' Christmas cakes and puddings only really became what we now think of them during the Victorian period with more cook books being published and dried fruits and spices, although still being expensive, were becoming available to many more people.

The First Christmas Card
First Christmas Card. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Christmas also became much more 'commercial' with there being presents you could actually buy and a much wider range of food available. Traditionally, any presents had been made by hand, like sewing and wooden toys. There was no electric lighting, with only oil (or perhaps) gas lamps and certainly no central heating. So it was dark and cold, not easy to make things in - but people did amazing craft works even in those conditions!

With trains expanding throughout the UK at the time, travel became easier; so foods such as turkey became more popular (and one also appeared in 'A Christmas Carol'!). They could get from farms in the countryside to the towns for sale much more quickly. Having a roast goose was still very popular. Many people belonged to 'goose clubs' where you put some money away each week and in December you've have enough to buy a goose (the plot of the Sherlock Holmes story 'The Blue Carbuncle' (opens big) is about a jewel being hidden in a goose from a goose club).

Whether you had a goose or turkey, it was normally spit roasted over a fire or on a mechanical spit called a 'bottle jack & hasner' which was a wind up vertical spit with a metal surround (to reflect the heat all around the bird) which was placed in front of an open fire/range. Sometimes bakers would also let people cook their birds in the large bakers over.

It was also during the later Georgian and Victorian periods that the 12 Days of Christmas became less important. Many more people now lived in cities and large towns and had to work over the Christmas period. So things like the Twelfth Night parties and Twelfth Night Cake became Christmas parties and Christmas Cake.

World War I

British soldiers were able to receive gifts and cards from family and friends and towns and cities also send gifts to their local regiments. In 1914, the King and Queen sent all active soldiers and sailors a Christmas card and their daughter started the 'Princess Mary Gift Box' which was sent to everyone on military service. These were mentioned in many letters from soldiers sent back to their homes. Over the whole war, more than 114 million parcels and 2 billion letters were sent to the war zones.

Both sides of the trenches also often had some Christmas decorations in them. Some German units near Ypres even had small trees in them!

Perhaps the most famous event associated with Christmas and World War I is the 'Christmas Truce' of 1914. December of that year has been wet, but it got colder on Christmas Eve, with frost making the ground harder.

During the evening of Christmas Eve, in some German trenches candles and other lights were lighted. Initially some British shot at them and the lights were extinguished by the Germans, but later they were re-lit and an uncanny silence came over parts of the battle field. There were some carols sung back and forth between the trenches in places, with carols like 'While Shepherd's Watched' and 'Stile Night'.

On Christmas Day, in some parts of the front line, some soldiers from both side agreed not to fire on each other for the day. Then some went further, meeting in no man's land. There was some exchange of small gifts like tobacco, food and photos. Letters home even say that the Germans cut some of the British soldiers hair as they were barbers before the war! There was also the grim task of burying the dead.

One of the most 'famous' things about the 1914 Christmas Truce is that the soldiers played football. Letters shows that a couple of 'kickabouts' happened in Wulverghem and Frelinghien but it seems football wasn't a common activity during the truce.

There also certainly wasn't a truce for Christmas everywhere. Along much of the front lines there was fighting 'as usual' and many non German and British soldiers found the whole idea of the truce confusing.

After 1914 there were a few truces around Christmas but these generally happened at non-active parts of the front line and were more for things like retrieving and burying the dead. There were truces like this at other times to recover the dead, etc.

Back in the UK during WWI, due to the war there were shortages of items like sugar, bread, petrol and paper. (In Germany paper Advent Calendars were in short supply due to paper shortages. Paper Advent Calendars didn't arrive in the UK until 1956!)

Toys with war themes like soldiers, guns and uniforms were popular. More toys had to be made in the UK. Before the war, most 'tin plate' toys were imported from Germany, as were many glass and metal Christmas decorations.

More practical presents were suggested and it was seen as unfashionable to be extravagant at Christmas.

World War II

The Christmases during World War II in the UK were very different. Many people were not in their own homes. Lots of men went into the army; most children from cities were evacuated into the countryside (some lived with family members but others with people who took them in).

In cities lots of houses were bombed and destroyed during air raids.

Decorations could be hard to get as most things were scarce and/or rationed. Real Christmas Trees were hard to find, especially in cities, as wood was used for construction. There weren't many balloons as most of the rubber plantations were in the war zone in the Far East.

The WVS (Women's Voluntary Service) and other groups published, in papers and magazines, instructions for home made decorations made from scraps and left overs. Such as paper lanterns/paper chains made from old magazines/wallpaper, etc. Paper was strictly rationed so every bit was used and reused!

Greenery like Holly and Ivy was still available and you could also decorations using the Chinese Lantern Plant (Physalis alkekengi) plant. As well as threading the paper lanterns on cotton.

Some other unusual decoration came from the sky! German planes released 'chaff', lots of strips of metal foil, to try and confuse radar. People used them to make shiny decorations!

Many children lost all of their toys as thousands of homes were completely destroyed. Toys were made from what you had lying around! Before the war, many toys were imported from Germany - but that all stopped!

Pipe cleaners, wire, matchboxes and cigarette packets and cards, matchsticks, cotton reals snd odd bits of materials could all be used to make furniture for doll's houses. Four lids from cocoa tins and one tin could make a model car.

Games like 'pin the tale on the donkey' became 'pin the moustache on Hitler'!

During the war, going to church became more popular again. People were looking for hope and comfort. Although others found the war put them off religion all together.

Christmas cards were very popular as a way of families, often split up or in the forces, keeping in touch. The military forces used 'air graphs' where letters were photographed and put onto film and then developed/printed at their destination and put in the normal post! This saved lots of space taking things to and from the front line as you could get up to 1500 letters on one role of film.

Most food was rationed so there wasn't the huge range of food we have today. However, farmers could take as much milk they wanted from their own cows - so they had lots of butter and cream! Often lots of vegetables were eaten as people were encouraged to grow their own fruit and vegetables. Lots of things were made from carrots, including candied carrot (made into sweets!), carrot soup, carrot cake and even carrot fudge!

Carrots, and other vegetables, were also added to things like Mince Pies, Christmas Pudding and Christmas Cake as it was often very hard to get hold of things like dried fruit. During Christmas time, people were given extra food rations by the Government to help people celebrate Christmas.

Stuffed rabbit was an alternative to Turkey! Only 1 family in 10 would be able to get a Turkey or Goose.

In cities like London, many slept in underground caves, tunnels and air raid shelters to be protected from bombs and rockets. At Christmas 1944 in Chiselhirst Caves under London, up to 15,000 slept in the caves. It became an underground town with water and sanitation, a chapel, cinema and hospital! Some people lived in the caves for months.

There was 'blackout' at night so enemy planes couldn't see the lights of town and cities to drop bombs on them. Houses were fined if they even showed a little bit of light from their windows! People had blackout curtains to stop light escaping. Cars, trucks and even trains had to have things on their lights to stop them shining up and there were no street lamps and certainly no Christmas light displays in the streets!

You can watch some excellent short films about Christmas during WWII on the site of the Imperial War Museum (goes to another site).