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DECK THE HOLIDAY'S: TEN AGES OF CHRISTMAS, PART I !

Monday, November 30, 2015

TEN AGES OF CHRISTMAS, PART I !

   Some of the celebrations we associate with Christmas today began way before Christianity developed, so that by medieval times traditions of mid-winter feasting were long established. Later the Puritans banned some festivities, but other 'holyday' pleasures still survived. It was not until the reign of Queen Victoria that many of today's customs - such as decorating fir trees - really took off.





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Medieval

Fire, light and evergreens

   Pre-Christian, northern societies used to enliven the dark days of the winter solstice with a celebration of fire, light and jollity, to create relief in the season of nature's dormancy and to hurry along the renewal of springtime. Christmas, as the celebration of the birth of Christ, was also a winter festival which gradually incorporated many pagan traditions, one of which was the burning of fires to ward away dark and evil spirits.
   The tradition of decorating the home with native evergreens is a truly ancient one. Since pagan times evergreens have been valued for their ability to retain signs of life in the middle of winter - even in some instances producing berries and flowers.
   Early Christians displayed evergreen plants in the home to symbolise everlasting life. Holly, ivy and evergreen herbs such as bay and rosemary were the most commonly used, all with symbolic meanings that were familiar to our ancestors. Rosemary, for remembrance, and bay, for valour, are still well known. Holly and ivy were a particularly popular combination, the holly traditionally thought to be masculine and ivy feminine, giving stability to the home.
    A kissing-bough was often hung from the ceiling. This would consist of a round ball of twigs and greenery, decorated with seasonal fruit, such as apples. It was the precursor to the bunch of mistletoe, under which no lady could refuse a kiss. Mistletoe was sacred to the Druids and was once called 'All Heal'. It was thought to bring good luck and fertility, and to offer protection from witchcraft.
   In the medieval period, the Yule log was ceremoniously carried into the house on Christmas Eve, and put in the fireplace of the main communal room. Often decorated with greenery and ribbon, it was lit with the saved end of the previous year's log and then burnt continuously for the Twelve Days of Christmas, providing much needed light and warmth.





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Elizabethan

The banqueting course

'Sugar, spice and everything nice ...'

   The exhortation to 'eat, drink and be merry' epitomised Christmas in Elizabethan England. A highlight of the season was the Christmas feast, which, in those households that could afford it, culminated in a 'banqueting course' of sweet and colourful delicacies.
   A banquet, or sweetmeat, course allowed the host to display his wealth and status. It also provided its creator, often the lady of the house, an opportunity to show her culinary and artistic skills. Sugar, very expensive at the time and considered to have medicinal properties, was the key ingredient of most of the elaborate dishes.
   They were prepared and displayed to dazzle the guests with their beauty, delicacy and wit. The latter was provided by the creation of whimsical foods designed to deceive the eye. 'Collops of bacon', made from ground almonds and sugar, were a great favourite, as were walnuts, eggs and other items made from sugar-plate, a substance of egg, sugar and gelatine which could be moulded successfully into almost any form the cook might conceive. Another popular sweetmeat was 'leech', a milk-based sweet made with sugar and rosewater, which was cut into cubes and served plain or gilded, arranged as a chequerboard.
   Spectacle was of great importance, with pride of place going to a marchpane - a round piece of almond paste which was iced and elaborately decorated, sometimes with figures made of sugar. Crystallised fruits added colour. Gold leaf was used to gild lemons and other fruits and also gingerbread, which added to the rich and splendid appearance of the banquet.
    All of this would be accompanied by hot drinks, including 'lambswool'. This was made from hot cider, sherry or ale, spices and apples, which when hot exploded, to create a white 'woolly' top. Spiced wines and syllabubs were also popular. Guests were flattered and impressed by such extravagant expenditure.





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Restoration

The restrained restoration of Christmas

'More mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides ... What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used ... to the great dishonour of God and the impoverishing of the realm.'

   So wrote the strict protestant, Philip Stubbes, in the late 16th century, expressing the Puritan view that Christmas was a dangerous excuse for excessive drinking, eating, gambling and generally bad behaviour.
   This view was made law in 1644, when an Act of Parliament banned Christmas celebrations. Viewed by the Puritans as superfluous, not to mention threatening, to core Christian beliefs, all activities to do with Christmas, both domestic and religious, including attending church, were forbidden. The ban, however, was unpopular and many people continued to celebrate privately, albeit in a far more restrained manner than in Elizabethan times.
   A more openly festive, if slightly subdued, spirit returned following the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. Old customs were revived, and Christmas as both a religious and social festival was celebrated throughout society. The writings of Samuel Pepys provide a fascinating insight into Christmas in London during the decade following the Restoration.
   A civil servant best known today for his diaries, Pepys' observations about Christmas give us a feeling for what the season was like for Londoners at the time. In common with his contemporaries, Pepys worked on Christmas Eve, and often for part of Christmas Day itself. He attended church without fail on Christmas Day and, in 1660 and 1664, he went to both morning and evening services.
   The Christmas meal was also an important part of the day. Pepys noted with pleasure, or otherwise, what he ate each Christmas. In 1662, he made do with 'a mess of brave plum porridge and a roasted pullet ...', a rather frugal meal owing to his wife's illness. This was supplemented by a bought, rather than home-made, mince pie.
    In other years he enjoyed richer food, including a 'shoulder of mutton', and in 1666 'some good ribs of beef roasted and mince pies ... and plenty of good wine'. For entertainment, Pepys attended theatrical productions when possible, and read and played music at home. Visiting with friends and family was frequently mentioned.




Georgian and Regency


Georgian and Regency

Twelfth Night

   Twelfth Night, the 5th of January, has been celebrated as the end of the Christmas season since the Middle Ages. One of the most important days in the Christian calendar, Twelfth Night also marked the Feast of the Epiphany, when the three wise men, or Magi, arrived in Bethlehem to behold the Christ child.
   The word 'epiphany' comes from the Greek word for manifestation, and was chosen because this was the night on which the Christ child, called 'the King of the Jews', was manifested to the Gentiles.
   Most ancient writers agreed that there were three wise men. Over time they became known as the Three Kings - Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. Caspar was thought to have brought the Christ child frankincense for divinity, Melchior gold for kingship and Balthazar myrrh for humanity.
   The custom of offering these things as Epiphany gifts was common for centuries. In 1756, The Gentleman's Magazine reported that: 'His Majesty, attended by the principal officers at Court ... went to the Chapel Royal at St James' and offered gold, myrrh and frankincense'.
   It is easy to see how kings and queens thus became the characters that traditionally represented Twelfth Night. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Twelfth Night parties were popular and usually involved games-playing, drinking and eating. A special Twelfth Cake, the forerunner of today's Christmas cake, was the centrepiece of the party, and a slice was given to all members of the household.
   Traditionally, it contained both a dried bean and a dried pea. The man whose slice contained the bean was elected King for the night; a Queen was found with a pea. For the rest of the evening, they ruled supreme. Even if they were normally servants, their temporarily exalted position was recognised by all, including their masters.
   By the early 19th century, the cake itself had become very elaborate, with sugar frosting and gilded paper trimmings, often decorated with delicate figures made of plaster of Paris or sugar paste. It remained the centrepiece of the party, although the bean and pea of earlier times were usually omitted.
   Twelfth Night was popular until the late 19th century. As the antiquarian William Sandys then observed, 'Twelfth Night ... is probably the most popular day throughout the Christmas, thanks to Twelfth Cake and other amusements'.




Early Victorian

Early Victorian

The Christmas tree

   The image of a glittering fir tree, with its lush dark-green branches illuminated by twinkling lights, at the centre of a happy domestic scene is today one of the most powerful and recognisable images of a 'traditional' Christmas. For many, the Christmas tree is also firmly associated with the Victorians, and indeed with those great advocates of Christmas, Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert.
   The custom, which originated in Germany, was introduced into England during the Georgian period. Queen Charlotte, German wife of George III, is known to have had a decorated tree for her family as early as the 1790s, and there is also a record of a tree at a children's party given by a member of Queen Caroline's court in 1821. Queen Victoria herself remembered such trees in the 1830s, happily describing potted trees placed on round tables 'hung with lights and sugar ornaments'.
   So, although Prince Albert is generally given credit for introducing the Christmas tree to England, he in fact simply popularised and made fashionable an already existing custom. Victoria and Albert shared a heart-felt enthusiasm for Christmas and each year of their marriage, decorated trees provided a focal point for their domestic celebrations.
   In 1848, a print showing the Royal couple with their children was published in the Illustrated London News. From this time onwards, the popularity of decorated fir trees spread beyond Royal circles and throughout society. Charles Dickens referred to the Christmas tree as that 'new German toy'.
   Trees were generally displayed on tables in pots, with gifts placed unwrapped underneath. The tree was decorated with wax candles, baskets of sweets, flags and little ornaments and gifts. The imported German Springelbaum was the tree of choice until the 1880s, at which time the home-grown Norway Spruce became available. This made a larger tree more affordable, and people began placing trees on the floor.

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