THE CHRISTMAS TREE FESTIVAL — 6–9pm 8–10 December 2004
100 Historical Facts about Christmas that you really ought to know but you're too Chritmased out to be bothered!
Are our Christmases over-commercialised, and do we really need to open that 3rd tin of Quality Street on Boxing Day? Christmas has undoubtedly changed over the centuries but many aspects of our annual carnival of kitsch have stayed the same; the boozing, the over-indulgence and the dreaded visit to the in-laws. Here at the Museum of Welsh Life we offer a seasonal haven with ancient rituals, traditional foods and crafts with candle-lit cottages, holy and mistletoe. With the crisp winter evening air ringing with the peals of bells, carols and the traditional fairground the Christmas Tree Festival is sure to melt the heart of the most miserable old Scrooge. If you have ever wondered why we celebrate Christmas and are curious about the history of our traditions, St Fagans brings you 100 Historical Christmas Facts to help ease you into the spirit of good will and merriment.
In the middle of the fourth century, Pope Julius 1 carried out a detailed investigation into the date of birth of Jesus Christ and declared that Christ's official birthday would always be the 25th of December.
A clever move, the 25th of December placed Christ's birth in the middle of the Pagan midwinter festivities which the Christian Church wished to absorb and convert.
A mixture between Christianity and the ancient pagan festivities, Christmas became a mass of contradiction with the main focus on the 'Christ's Mass but in reality a time for feasting, drinking, gift-giving, the lighting of fires and all sorts of misbehaviour...
The ancient gift giving was turned to symbolise the bringing of gifts to the Infant Jesus.
Various forms of fire worship were now said to demonstrate that Jesus was truly the 'Light of the World'.
The Roman Saturnalia, the Norse ceremonies for Odin and the birth of the Persian god Mirtha (which was also on the 25th of December) all faded into the distant past and became a part of Christmas.
By Christmas 2000 the UK consumed 10 million turkeys, 25 million Christmas puddings, 250 million pints of beer and 35 million bottles of wine.
The UK spends £20bn on Christmas with £1.6bn going on food and drink.
Gift giving has been a part of human life since we settled into agricultural communities in the New Stone Age, about 10,000 years ago. Surplus food was prepared as a festival and shared between the communities.
In Rome, the ceremonies of gift giving was taken particularly seriously and attracted many superstitions with the failure to give presents during the midwinter festivities deemed to bring extreme bad luck.
The Christian Church tried to turn the gluttony of gift giving and over indulgence into gift giving for the poor and needy but failed as family and friends gave each other gifts as a sign of familial love and for mutual benefit.
The common abbreviation for Christmas to Xmas is derived from the Greek alphabet. X is the letter Chi, which is the first letter of Christ's name in the Greek Alphabet.
Since medieval times the Christmas Season traditionally lasted for 12 days following on from Christmas Day. In Wales this season was known as 'y gwyliau' (the holiday).
Y Gwyliau would often be the only prolonged holiday in the year when most of Wales made merry to commemorate the end of the year and looked forward to the next one with all agricultural work grinding to a halt for this much anticipated season.
Native evergreens have been collected for decorating the home during the gwyliau for thousands of years. Ivy, holly, yew and mistletoe have a mystical ability to produce fruit in the depths of winter and were a symbol of everlasting life.
For Scandinavians, the goddess of love Frigga is strongly associated with mistletoe. This link to romance may be where our tradition of kissing under the mistletoe comes from.
Another link to kissing under the mistletoe has its origins in the tradition of displaying small wooden effigies of the Holy Family inside the door of the home in 14th century Britain. These effigies were covered in greenery and were placed on small wooden platforms. The Holy Family or Holy Bough was blessed by the local priest each person that crossed the threshold over the Christmas period had to be embraced to demonstrate that everyone was loved in a Christian way. Over time, effigies were frowned upon and the mistletoe took its place.
The Church forbade the use of mistletoe in any form, mindful of its idolatrous or pagan associations. As a substitute, it suggested holly.
The sharply pointed leaves of the holy tree and said to symbolize the thorns of Christ's crown and the berries drops of his blood.
There are still some churches across the UK that forbids the use of mistletoe as decoration during the Christmas services.
One of the most celebrated and terrifying sights to travel around the narrow alley ways and winding roads of Wales was the Mari Lwyd. A horse's head, festooned by a white sheet ribbons and bells with its jaws set in a trap to make that all important SNAP SNAP; the Mari Lwyd is an integral and mythical part of the Welsh Christmas and New Year.
Mari Lwyd translates as the Grey Mare and the horse is a highly significant animal or symbol in the mythology of most of northern Europe.
Carried around Wales by wassail-singing groups of men, Mari Lwyd was an extremely popular figure in parts of south and north east Wales during the last century and a half although the tradition has slowly died out and is today performed in small pockets of Glamorgan and the Museum of Welsh Life.
The ritual of the Mari Lwyd began with the singing of traditional stanzas by the Mari Lwyd group at the front door, soliciting both permission to sing and entry into the house.
A challenge would be issued to the residence of the home to a versifying contest, called the pwnco, which was sung in verses that were filled with heavy leg-pulling and mocking of personal characteristics which inevitably led to admittance to the house and a few swifts ales, cake and often a gift of money in return for entertainment and general merriment!
New Year's Day, or, dydd Calan was a big day for the children of Wales. In the industrial areas of south Wales, factory and colliery horns were sounded at twelve midnight with children flooding the streets shouting 'Blwyddyn Newydd Dda!' (Happy New Year). This lasted about an hour. After an early rise, children as young as 3 would travel around their locality calling on all the houses for Calennig, a New Year's gift of money or sometimes fruit or nuts.
Calennig was mostly a morning ritual and had to be over by noon. but in some areas of Wales children travelled for up to 2 days calling on homes and farms for their Calennig. Poorer families often went to sing Calennig together with gifts of bread, cheese and milk welcome in some of the less fortunate rural households.
Towards the end of the 19th century with the emergence of industrialisation throughout Wales, most of the gwyliau's celebrations disappeared but a few remained and are still practiced in pockets of Wales and the Museum of Welsh Life.
A large bowl of unopened nuts with a nutcracker on top of them is an enduring Christmas image and can be traced back to Roman times. At Saturnalia nuts were given as gifts and were especially common as gifts for children who used them for a game similar to marbles. Hazel nuts were thought to prevent famine, walnuts for prosperity and almonds were believed to offer much needed protection for the body against heavy drinking!
St Francis of Assisi introduced Christmas Carols to formal church services.
Silent Night, Tawel Nos or 'Stille Nacht' is the world's most popular carol, written in 1818 by an Austrian priest Joseph Mohr. With the church organ broken on Christmas Eve, Mohr wrote a 3 stanza carol that could be sung with a choir or a guitar.
Christmas Trees are a part of the ancient pagan tree-worship practiced across Europe.
Originally, the tree worshipped would have been a mighty oak. The expression 'touch wood' comes from this tradition and if you are really serious about it, make sure that the only wood that you touch is oak.
The pagan Germans, in particular, revered the oak. Attempts were made to convert them to Christianity but the tree culture was too deep-seated (or should that be rooted!) and the Christian missionaries adopted or absorbed this tradition rather than try to pan it.
Christianised tree worship turned the revered tree to be the fir tree. With its triangular shape it was said to represent the Holy Trinity with God the Father at the top of the tree and the Son of God and the Holy Spirit at the 2 lower points.
The first printed reference to Christmas trees appeared in Germany in 1531.
In 1800, the German-born matriarch Queen Charlotte, wife of George III erected a Christmas tree at the Queen's Lodge at Windsor, but it failed to catch on in Britain, probably because of the gross unpopularity of her husband.
By 1840, Prince Albert installed a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle for Queen Victoria and the imported German custom became accepted. By the 1860s it had spread all across the country and was becoming an essential part of the Christmas celebrations.
Strong German connections in the USA meant that the Christmas tree tradition spread across the world and by the end of the 19th century it was commonplace throughout Scandinavia, northern Europe and North America.
At first, trees were always placed on tables in pots with the presents unwrapped in a display beneath or hanging on the tree, with name cards to identify the lucky recipient.
By the 1880s, when the home-grown Norway Spruce began to take the place of the imported German Springelbaum, the tree became more widely affordable and the larger floor-standing trees increased in popularity.
The Victorians decorated their trees with candles and ribbons and in 1880 Woolworths first sold manufactured Christmas tree that caught on very quickly.
Martin Luther, in the 16th century, is credited with lighting his tress with candles and the first electrically lighted Christmas tree appeared in America in 1882.
Calvin Coolidge in 1923 ceremoniously lit the first outdoor tree on the White House lawn and started up a new tradition which now includes giant light-up Homer Simpsons and thousands of homes festooned with twinkling fairy lights from October right through until February.
We will watch, on average 8 hours of television each over Christmas and Boxing Day.
Just under a third of the population will attend a church service over Christmas.
During the Civil War, Christmas was banned by Act of Parliament. Nevertheless, people risked imprisonment and death to protect their right to celebrate. In 1646-7 there were disturbances in London, Canterbury and Ipswich with near riots in Canterbury.
With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 came the restoration of Christmas with an enormous sigh of public relief that the old customs could maintained again in public and in private.
In Jamaica, the traditional Christmas day feast consists of rice, gungo peas, chicken, ox tail and curried goat.
Joel Roberts Poinsett, then the first US ambassador to Mexico, imported the poinsettia plant, a winter growing shrub from Mexico to the USA over 100 years ago. The plant is also called 'Flower of the Holy Night' and its association with Christmas comes from the legend of Maria and Pablo, poor siblings that bring a gift of the poinsettia flower for the baby Jesus at their local church.
As a symbol of the beginning of y gwyliau, a plough was carried into the home and placed under the table in the room where the meals were to be eaten. This room was called y rwm ford.
Christmas Day during the 19th century was marked only by a sumptuous meal of goose, beef and pudding at the large farms of the neighbourhood to which all other farmers and locals were invited.
The rest of the gwyliau, up until Epiphany was marked by large drinking parties sitting around the rwm ford regaling themselves with beer, which was first dabbed on the plough underneath the table, indicating that they had no use for the plough that day but that they had not forgotten about it.
In many parts of Wales, Christmas meant rising early (or even staying up all night), not to open presents but to attend the plygain service at the parish church. This custom, in a modified form has survived in some parts of Wales.
It has been suggested that the plygain was a survival of a pre-reformation Christian service and that the night-time service replaced the Catholic midnight mass and was originally associated with a communion service held later on Christmas morning.
The hour of the plygain varied between 3am and 6am, the latter becoming more common with time.
To await the hour, young people in particular would make cyflaith (treacle toffee) and spend the hours decorating the houses with holly and mistletoe. Toffee making was a real art form with the sticky ingredients poured onto a well-greased slate or stone slab to cool. Members of the family or gathered friends would then attempt to 'pull' the mixture into thick golden 'twists'. This practice is still demonstrated at the Llwyn yr Eos farmhouse at St Fagans during the Christmas Tree festival.
According to Mrs Thrale's journal of a tour in 1774, the inhabitants of Dyffryn Clwyd kindled lights at 2 in the morning and sang and danced to the harp until plygain.
In many districts, and particularly in towns, the time was spent playing in the streets with young men at Laugharne running up and down the streets carrying enormous fired torches and burning barrels with similar scenes in Tenby and Llanfyllin in Montgomeryshire where candles were used instead of torches.
Upon arriving at the brilliantly candle-lit churches, unusually long carols were sung, often unaccompanied in rotation parties with one ready to take the place of the last in this sobering and extremely intense welcoming of Christmas morning.
In preparation for the plygain, local poets would write new carols consisting of numerous verses based on traditional themes, which the carol singers would have to memorise and sing unaccompanied. As many as 15 of these long carols could be sung during the plygain.
Far from disappearing under the impact of non-conformity in the nineteenth century, the plygain was one of the few traditional church festivals that were not discarded by the chapels with between 200 and 300 coloured candles illuminating the chapels of Glamorgan villages.
Christmas dinner in Italy can last for more than 4 hours. Most families will have 7 or more courses including antipasti, a small portion of pasta, a roast meat, followed by 2 salads and 2 sweet puddings - then cheese, fruit, brandy and chocolates.
In 1939, Santas at Montgomery Ward stores gave away 2.4 million copies of a booklet entitled 'Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer'. The story was written by advertising worker Robert May and the original name of this biological aberration was Rollo and not Rudolph. But store executives didn't like the name, or Reginald. The name Rudolph came from the author's young daughter and in 1949 Gene Autry sang a musical version of the poem that became a run-away best seller. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is only 2nd in popularity to 'White Christmas' across America.
Over the course of the 19th century the nature of Christmas, or y gwyliau changed from an intensely social occasion to one a family celebration in seclusion of the home. Many of the essential trimmings of Christmas started around this time and slowly replaced the old folk traditions and the commercialised holiday that we know and 'love' today.
Christmas traditions were entirely transformed in the reign of Queen Victoria. Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert, have often been credited with the revival of Christmas, and with making it a family centred occasion. The seasonal cards, as well as the Christmas tree are often attributed to the Queen and the fanatical following by many of the Royal family.
There was also a revival during the Victorian era in ancient music, which led to many early carols being collected together and set to music for the very first time. These would have been sung, along with modern secular Christmas songs around the piano in the well-to-do Victorian household.
Greeting cards for New Year and Valentine's Day had been popular in Europe and in Britain since the 1550s. British children were also often set the task of designing 'Christmas Pieces' for their parents at the end of the school winter term in order to show off their won careful handwriting with a tutored message of Christmas love. But it took over 30 years in the Victorian era for the commercial Christmas card to develop into a new yuletide tradition.
Sir Henry Cole, founder of the Victoria & Albert Museum and a boundlessly enthusiast could not face the prospect of sending hundreds of hand-written letters to a huge circle of family, friends and acquaintances every Christmas. In 1843 Cole commissioned RA member John Horsley to design a Christmas card for him. The commercial Christmas card had arrived.
The first Cole card had at its centrepiece a cheerful family scene, clearly about to swallow a large quantity alcohol. With their huge glasses raised in a Christmas toast, the written message states; 'A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You', a wording that has stayed with us ever since and it is of no coincidence that the word 'merry' has gradually come to mean intoxication.
The first Christmas cards were sold at 12 Old Bond Street in London and were priced a shilling each but the project was a complete flop and was considered by many to be in very bad taste. By the 1860s postage was cheaper and printing techniques had advanced making it possible to offer the Christmas card at a much lower price.
In 1870, a special rate of half-rate postal charges was introduced - the halfpenny card stamp. Cards became elaborate affairs with lace, seaweed and the new science of photography all taking their turn in Christmas card-vogue.
Many of the early Christmas cards produced would seem inappropriate to Christmas consumers today with spring flowers, insects and nudes placed on the front as well as sprigs of holly, ivy Christmas roses, religious scenes and Father Christmas.
Welsh language Christmas cards quickly appeared with a large collection of these early cards held at the Museum of Welsh Life. The Urdd Gobaith Cymru magazine 'Cymru'r Plant' urged its young readers to send out Welsh language Christmas cards in 1933 with a disgruntled article that many in Wales, including famous Welshmen, prefer to send their cards in English as the language was deemed to be 'posh' or 'nicer'. Welsh language cards are now produced by most major charities and publishers with a booming cottage industry in hand-made cards.
During the nineteenth century Father Christmas took on his present form. Father Christmas and Santa Claus are, to most twenty first century eyes the same person, but it was only during the last century that these 2 entirely different traditions have merged into one image, with an interchangeable name.
Father Christmas has been known in England since medieval times and was sometimes known as simply Christmas o Mr Christmas. A personification of good will rather than a gift bearer, he could have derived from the Norse god Odin, who wore a blue-hooded cloak and had a white beard.
In contrast, S Nicholas has a much more defined story. A Bishop from the town of Myra in Turkey, St Nicholas has many legends associated with his name, but most famously he's known for giving away his wealth to the poor and his benevolence and protection to children.
Much loved all over Europe, St Nicholas has been closely associated with Holland. On the eve of his Saint's Day which is the 6 December, children would put shoes or clogs filled with straw by the fire, as fodder for St Nicholas's white horse. For this, provided they had been good, they were rewarded with sweets. Those who had been naughty were left with straw and a birch rod was found next to their shoes as a reminder...
Santa Claus is the Dutch-American descendant of St Nicholas. Settling in New England, St Nicholas (Sint Nicolass) became, colloquially, Sinterklaas, which was later anglicised into Santa Claus.
Clement Clarke Moore, in his poem 'A Visit From St Nicholas', which he wrote for his own children in 1822, has become the enduring image or Santa Claus that we still love today:
'He was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot
And his clothes were all blackened with ashes and soot...
His eyes how they twinkled! His dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry...
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I was him, in spite of myself'.
It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that Santa's red garb became the norm. In 1931, Haddon Sundblom started to produce a yearly depiction of Santa in bright red for the American soft drink giant Coca-Cola, using the shade of the bottle's label...
Today, 7 million children leave mince pies and a drink for Santa on Christmas Eve.
By the beginning of the 20th century, manufacturers and shops began to realise the true commercial potential of Christmas with even the poorest households giving some form of gifts to each other on Christmas day.
The stocking had made its first appearance in England during the middle of the 19th century and was an American adaptation of the putting out of shoes for St Nicholas.
Stockings soon left the hearth and found their way to the end of children's beds. By now, most children in Britain have huge plastic stockings or bin bags as replacements to the old stockings that were filled with fruit, nuts and usually a pocket knife and a tin whistle.
Christmas crackers made their first appearance in 1847 when they were invented by Tom Smith, a confectioner's apprentice. Based on the French bon-bon sweets which were brightly wrapped in twists of coloured paper, the cracker failed to make a bang until 1860 when Smith added a strip of saltpetre.
During the early years of the 20th century, evergreen foliage, gathered to decorate the home, was gradually replaced by artificial decorations, especially in urban areas. With less access to woodlands and smaller gardens, buying greenery from a florist or market seemed an expensive option next to a box of artificial paper garlands and tinsel that could be stored and used annually.
The fairy that sits on top of the tree has its origins in the 17th century German tradition of placing small wax or wooden effigies of the Infant Jesus all over Christmas Trees. Eventually, one large effigy called the Tin-gold Angel was developed and by the nineteenth century doll-makers converted him into a Christmas angel-doll made from wax or porcelain.
After Christmas, children would dress the Tin-gold Angel as a doll and at some time during the Victorian era he also changed sex.
The Good Fairy of the Christmas pantomime has her origins in the change from the Infant Jesus to the female doll-fairy, beloved of children in the early part of the twentieth century.
The roots of the Christmas pantomime lie in the all-male Christmas mummers that toured the great houses of Britain in medieval times. Often street performers, the Mummers Plays had a strong moralistic story where good would always defeat evil.
In the early 18th century the arrival of the Italian Harlequinade in London changed street theatre to involve a romance with a hero and a heroine, with an added clown element. Together with the Mummers plays, these basic components formed the basics for the quintessential British pantomime.
The first true British pantomime was staged by actor John Rich in 1717 at the Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre in London. Pantomime became the rage of London and fairytale mythology and fantasy were soon added to the plot. The mimed harlequin element became more and more reduced until it gradually disappeared altogether.
Vaudeville, burlesque and music-hall all added to the great hotchpotch of the pantomime until the fairytale became the noisy spectacular that is still enjoyed by million in Britain today.
It was not until the 1930s that electric fairy lights became popular, with little figure lamps of Santa and snowmen, fairies and animals selling well in the urban towns of Britain and North America.
Paper chains became extremely popular between the wars which were either the more expensive concertina tissue paper variety, or the cheaper coloured strips of paper, bought for around a penny and then glued together by children.
Although wrapping presents had been popular in France since the mid-eighteenth century, it became fashionable in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. Presents were left under the tree, unwrapped until this period.
Rationing, and the daily fear of bombing permanently changed Christmas with members of the community and of extended family getting together for the day, whether they liked it or not!
In the 1950s, cocktail parties and party nibbles became fashionable with the advent of new women's drinks such as Martini, Babycham or a Snowball.
The notorious office party has it's origins in the Roman festival of Saturnalia when members of all ranks and classes of society momentarily let their guard down in an orgy of drink and debauchery.
'Like all intelligent people, I greatly dislike Christmas'. George Bernard Shaw
'I will hold Christmas in my heart, to keep it all the year'. Charles Dickens.