It’s that time of year again when we scramble around in the loft, trying to find the Christmas tree, lights and boxes of decorations. But why do we do it and what does it all mean?


Very few homes in the 21st Century escape from the phenomenon of having decorations at Christmas time. Even those families who are not Christian still often adorn the home with a few ornaments, fairy lights or a holly wreath, probably more to appease their children than for any other reason. The festival of Christmas is certainly the biggest shopping season of the year.

The Christmas tree

The tradition of decorating the home at Christmas time has been well established for centuries. The origin of the tree is credited to Saint Boniface (circa 722) who stopped a child from becoming a human sacrifice to a pagan god by striking down the oak tree destined for use as the stake. A fir tree sprang up in its place and he declared it a holy tree and instructed the faithful to carry one to their homes and surround it with love and gifts.

By the 11th Century the tradition of Mystery Plays was well established in Europe and fir trees, left in situ, were hung with apples to represent the Tree of Life from the Garden of Eden. The first reports of trees appearing in private houses dates back to 1521 when Princess Hélène de Mecklembourg brought one with her to Paris after her marriage to the Duke of Orleans. So popular did this custom become that the area of Alsace started to run out of pine trees and a law was passed to limit their use to one per house.

By the 17th Century Christmas markets were held to sell not only the trees but also decorations. Originally limited to either white or red decorations to symbolise Innocence and Knowledge, records now showed that paper flowers were available in all colours with twists of candy, candles, gingerbread shapes and figures moulded from wax all being used. It was around this time that the first tinsel was made from real silver stretched into strips.

The Christmas tree first appeared in England with the Hanoverian Kings. Because of the unpopularity of the German rulers and the reluctance of the populace to follow court fashion, they didn’t truly become part of the festival until the reign of Queen Victoria. Decorations during the 1800s were still hand-made. There were crocheted snowflakes and stars and baskets for sugared almonds made from paper. Candles were protected by hoops and beaded decorations and tinsel were ordered from Germany.

During the Victorian era the trees were bedecked with tinsel, silver wire ornaments, candles, and strung beads. Glass baubles were available and the first electric lights were patented in 1882. The size of the tree became a status symbol – the bigger the better – and gifts were hung from the tree as well as around the base.

After the death of Queen Victoria the use of a tree at Christmas went into decline but was resurrected in the 1930s mainly due to the popularity of Dickensian tales. The first artificial trees were manufactured at this time; in Germany they were made from goose feathers and in the USA the Addis company made theirs from the same material used to manufacture their toilet brushes! The infamous ‘silver pine’ artificial tree appeared in the USA in the 1950s and had grown in popularity by the 1960s. Lights were designed to twinkle or flash on and off and the modernisation of the tree was complete.

Many trees grown for the Christmas market these days are specially treated to prevent needle loss. Due to stringent forestry laws they are no longer an endangered species in the UK.

Holly, mistletoe and the yule log

The use of holly and mistletoe was already common before the celebration of Christmas was introduced. The Druids regarded the mistletoe as sacred, dedicating it to the goddess of Love and preventing it from touching the ground. This belief was altered to accommodate Christianity by claiming the white berries symbolised the purity of the Virgin Mary.

Holly had also been an integral part of early English folklore. It easily made the transition with its sharply pointed leaves symbolising the crown-of-thorns and the red berries symbolising the drops of Christ’s blood. The tradition of hanging a holly wreath on the door at Christmas began during the 17th Century and signified a home that celebrated the birth of Christ.

The Celts used to bring a large log inside on the winter solstice and burn it to celebrate the return of Sun God. The Cornish drew a man on a log to commemorate the very old custom of human sacrifice by burning on a bonfire. This lead to the introduction, in the 12th Century, of the Yule Log which was supposed to ward off the devil provided it burned continually until reduced to a pile of ashes. It gradually transformed into a smaller, table ornament embellished with greenery and candles with the advent of closed fires and hearths. By the Victorian era it was also found in edible form as a chocolate roll smothered in icing sugar and topped with a Christmas scene or a sprig of holly.

Christmas cards and Christmas crackers

The Christmas cracker was invented, purely by chance, by an English baker called Tom Smith. He took the simple principal of the wrapped sweet or ‘bon bon’ and added first a love motto then, after much experimenting, a strip of paper impregnated with a compound which would ‘crack’ when opened. Over the course of time he dropped the sweet, lengthened the wrapper and introduced small novelty gifts. The first Christmas crackers went on sale in London in 1847. They rose in popularity, being produced for any major event and not just for Christmas time.

A team of writers was employed to compose witty sayings or jokes and his son, Walter, started including paper hats. Many crackers were commissioned with gifts ranging from the expensive to the ridiculous and also ‘By Appointment to The Crown’. There is one tale of a gentleman sending a diamond ring for inclusion in a cracker along with a ten shilling note to pay the company for their effort. Sadly he didn’t include his address and the company still keep the diamond ring and the money locked away in their safe.

Crackers today are sold by all major retailers and range from poor quality to excellent value. Some of the best include collectibles such as Wade Whimsies. Kits are also on sale to ‘make your own’ although the search for worthwhile items to hide in them can be difficult. If you want to try for yourself why not revert to the original idea behind the concept and fill them with sweets?

The Christmas card was a Victorian invention. The first known card was made by Sir Henry Cole of the British Postal Service in 1843, the design executed by an artist called John Horsley. It depicted a family scene at the centre and two pictures either side expressing the need for Christian charity. The wording was familiar: A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You. This expression of goodwill probably came into existence following the tradition by schoolboys of sending Christmas Pieces home to parents to prove their writing skills. The idea to send family, friends and business associates cards caught on quickly, very likely fuelled by the enthusiasm of the postal service.

The Christmas stocking

The custom of hanging a stocking on the hearth or bedpost on Christmas Eve in the hope that it will be filled with presents the next morning started about 400 years ago. It originated in Holland where children placed wooden shoes next to the hearth on the 5 December, the night traditionally associated with St Nicholas or Sinterklaas. The children would fill their shoes with straw (for the white horse that carried the gifts) and food for St Nicholas. Stockings, pillow cases or shop-bought ‘Santa sacks’ were substituted for the shoes in Britain, most of Europe and in North America with the popularisation of Father Christmas or Santa Claus during the 20th Century.

(Article source: H2G2)

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