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Grantham Civic Society column: The birth of today’s Christmas traditions

By Paul Brackley | Mar 18, 2017

Christmas traditions.
Christmas traditions.

The way that we celebrate Christmas today with Christmas trees, Christmas cake, Christmas cards and Christmas crackers derives from the Victorian era.

Earlier in the Tudor period, carols were an important part of Christmas and enabled people to tell the story of the Nativity. Advent was a time of fasting when people were not allowed to eat eggs, cheese or meat. This ended on Christmas Day, when celebrations began early with a mass before dawn and then two further masses later in the day. Other days for celebration included New Year’s Day and Epiphany or Twelfth Night, as well as saints’ days.

The administrative day of the new year was 25 March, the Feast of Annunciation, which celebrated the Angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she was pregnant with God’s child, but New Year’s Day was also celebrated on 1st January, the start of the calendar year.

During the Twelve Days of Christmas, work on the land would stop and spinners were not allowed to spin. Work would not start again until Plough Monday, or the first Monday after Twelfth Night. People would visit their neighbours and friends and enjoy the Christmas minced pie, which contained thirteen ingredients to symbolise Jesus and his apostles. The mutton in the pie would be to symbolise the shepherds to whom the Angel Gabriel appeared. The pie would be rectangular, or crib shaped and the following Tudor recipe stated, ‘Pyes of mutton or beif must be fyne mynced and ceasoned wyth pepper and salte, and a lyttle saffron to coloure it, suet or marrow a good quantite, a lyttle vyneger, prunes, greate raysins and dates, take the fattest of the broathe of powdred beyfe, and yf you wyll have paest royall, take butter and yolkes of egges and so tempre the flowre to make the paeste”

The Yule log was brought into the home on Christmas Eve, and decorated with ribbons. It was then lit and kept burning throughout the twelve days of Christmas. This tradition is thought to originate with the Vikings and their midwinter festivals

Wassailing was also part of the Tudor Christmas and was focused on the wassail bowl, a wooden bowl containing up to a gallon of hot ale, apples, spices and sugar. During the reign of Henry VII there is an account of the wassail tradition. His steward entered the court with the wassail and shouted wassail three times. The people of the court then replied with a song. At the bottom of the wassail bowl was a crust of bread, which was presented to the most important person in the room. This is thought to be the origin of the drinks toast at receptions and dinners. The following is part of a wassail originating in Gloucestershire.

Wassail, wassail all over the town

Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown

Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree

With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee


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