Russian Woman Journal

Friday 19 December  2008

DOUG R. (England)

What is a British Christmas?


ChristmasModern Britain has evolved into its present multi-cultural society from the rigid Protestant State established by the English King Henry the Eighth five hundred years ago.
His all-powerful kingdom where one religion dominated and destroyed all others, is no more.

Today’s Christmas in Britain means different things to different people.
Our many cultures have different dates for their own similar significant equivalents to the British Christian Christmas festival.

Common to All.
Notice how most cultures include the concept of this being a special time for
Spoiling loved ones, giving presents, sharing food and reinforcing family ties.

Spoiling loved ones usually implies spoiling children.
Giving implies making or buying something suitable for the recipient.
Sharing food has always been a way of demonstrating love for another.
Reinforcing family ties means sharing your time with your parents and other elderly relatives.

Most cultures agree this is the time of year to forgive and forget.

What is a British Christmas?
The date of 25 December is our agreed date for when Jesus was born.

Although British families enjoy a special Christmas meal together, the days before are filled with specific activities, mainly centred on children and neighbours.

They post Christmas cards to their friends.
Children take part in school ‘nativity’ and other plays.
In the days immediately before, they join with others to make a group visiting neighbours, singing Christmas carols, receiving mulled wine and ‘mince pies’ for reward.

Mince Pies
Small round pastry tart filled with a mix of sultanas, dried fruit and spices.

Traditional British church practice prepares their congregation for the great day in a gradual anticipation process, over the weeks of Advent- the Arrival of Jesus.
This building up process starts on the Sunday nearest to 30 November, the first of four Sundays preceding Christmas Day.
You may see special calendars on sale with ‘windows’ to be opened in turn helping the feelings of anticipation.

Special time for Children.
British children are absorbed by schools’ programmes of ‘Nativity’ plays and end of term concerts. Months of work by dedicated teachers. Rehearsals follow rehearsals. Stress follows stress while children learn and forget their lines.

On the great day of The Performance, nervous parents enjoy their nervous child’s display.
Some parents are pleasantly surprised by their offspring’s talents.
It makes a good start to the Christmas holiday break.


Celtic Origins
As with most British religious celebrations, our Celtic ancestors held similar festivals well before Jesus was born. Evergreen foliage reminded them of the approaching Spring.

In Celtic tradition the Sun stops moving towards the end of December.
This is why the days get shorter and the Sun weaker.
Here was a potentially serious problem for lives reliant on natural events.
Springtime and the natural rebirth re-growing process are vital to their future.
Something had to be done.

The Celts decided to provoke the Sun into moving again.
They used the trick of burning a giant log on 25 December.
Would keeping it alight for 12 days and nights provoke the Sun into behaving properly and reminding it of its obligation to keep moving?

Yes, and it has worked very well ever since.
Hence our modern ‘Yule Log.’

Christmas Trees
Much ‘British tradition’ seems to have arrived in the mid 1850s.
Our Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, brought several customs and habits with him from his native Germany, including the Christmas tree.

Providing a temporary focus in the house for the short season, trees are illuminated with special small ‘fairy lights, and a ‘fairy queen’ or special star at the top.
Wrapped presents are piled at the foot of the tree ready for distribution after ‘Christmas Dinner.’


Christmas Cards
Originated around 1843 with an idea of a Sir Henry Cole.
Usually he wrote Christmas letters to his friends and business contacts, wishing them ‘the compliments of the season.’ But had left it too late.
‘He didn’t have the time.’ Sound familiar?

He persuaded his friend, John Hardy a graphic artist, to design a card wishing his friends a Happy Christmas from him, which he could post to all of them.
He was delighted with the result and arranged to print another thousand which were successfully sold to the public.

Today an average British family post 50 cards.

An original can be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
The last one offered in open auction was sold in 2005 for £9000.

Christmas Crackers
A simple cardboard tube inside coloured paper, twisted to seal off the ends.

Inside should be a single paper strip in two halves joined by a chemical which ‘bangs or cracks’ when the halves are separated.
Also inside should be a small toy, a paper hat, a paper with a joke written on it, and some other simple article such as a cheap tape measure or felt tip pen or some such.

When seated and ready to eat, everyone picks up their cracker in their right hand, grasps their neighbours’ cracker with their left hand and all together pull.

Something to talk about, something to break down social barriers. Cracker contents are compared. A festive seasonal atmosphere arrives when all have put on their paper hats and look universally silly. Any thoughts of dignity vanish.

The idea of crackers was originated by Thomas Smith around 1846.
He manufactured ‘bon-bons’ a sweet made of sugar almond dipped in tissue paper.
He found he could only sell these at Christmas time.
He added a piece of paper written with some simple motto or love poem.
His bon-bons were often given by young men to their sweethearts.
He added the banger strip to give the characteristic opening crack, hence the name.


Father Christmas
Children describe their ‘most wanted’ gift on a piece of paper which is thrown on the fire and wafted up the chimney with the smoke, just before bedtime on Christmas Eve.

Santa Claus, also known as Father Christmas, delivers presents to deserving children by popping down the house chimney putting gifts in their stockings.
He travels by sleigh pulled by a team of reindeer. The leader of the team is called Rudolph. He has a red nose, presumably to guide him at night.

Charles Dickens in his book ‘A Christmas Carol’ in 1864, describes Father Christmas as
‘A large man with a red beard and moustache, wearing a green fur coat.’
The green coat represented the future springtime.

It seems to have turned red under American influence at the end of the nineteenth century.

Stocking Fillers
Santa Claus probably originated in the Netherlands with a St Nicholas.
This rich shy retiring man wished to help the local poor by giving them money without their knowing who gave it.
The story goes he was on someone’s roof when he accidentally dropped his purse down the chimney. It fell into stockings being dried by the fire…...
Ever since, children have laid out large stockings at the foot of their bed hoping to find something nice had dropped in during the night.
They now expect to find a soft toy, a colouring book with pens, chocolate (‘money chocolate’) and, without question, a tangerine.




The Christmas Day
Not all families follow all these procedures. But this is a guide.

The first formality of Christmas Day is to attend a special midnight service anticipating forthcoming events.
Around dawn, excited children wake up to check on the contents of their stockings.
They rush to show these to the (tired and sleeping) parents.

Some families attend an early morning service. This is usually over by 10 in the morning. Some church communities offer coffee and cakes after the service.
Some families enjoy their own communal family breakfast.

Someone must begin cooking the traditional turkey -otherwise it won’t be cooked in time.
Hopefully this was done before going to church!

Children are usually persuaded to go out for a walk, or play with friends when stocking fillings can be compared, or just go away so parents can have some peace.

In the corner stands the Christmas tree with wrapped presents surrounding the base. Tempting to explore but strictly forbidden. Self restraint is needed.

General food preparations take up most of the morning. Perhaps a glass of sherry helps the time to pass. Friends may call in. Since the event is special, food and chosen drinks are also special.

Eventually all is ready and ‘dinner is served.’ It is usually much later in the day than planned.

Families normally invite close family members such as elderly aunts and uncles as well as grandparents. The whole makes a substantial group of mixed ages around the table.

Each seating will have one ‘Christmas cracker’. These will be ‘pulled’ by all members together. The contents provide a starting point for a festive atmosphere.

This is not the place to give a cookery lesson. But the meal should consist of at least some sliced turkey, sliced ham, streaky bacon, bread sauce, apple stuffing, pork chipolata sausages, roast potatoes, carrots, parsnips, brussels sprouts, (the only time my kids would condescend to eat these hated vegetables)


Christmas Pudding.
These are best made during September or so, which gives time for the various ingredients to mix with each other. Based on old plum pudding recipes they have unusual and rich ingredients, including spices. dried fruit and alcohol.
Christmas puddings are usually served with brandy or brandy sauce, or brandy butter.
In these days of central heating it is easy to forget how food was designed to be stodgy and filling just to keep the winter out.
In the days of silver coins, one or two small denomination coins were incorporated into the mix. Copper based modern coins do not attract much interest and the habit is vanishing.
One way to make sure you chewed your food properly?

Presents Opening Ceremony
After the main meal comes ‘Opening Presents’ time.
Someone is delegated as Chief Picker. They pick up one wrapped present at random, call out the recipients’ name and hands it to them. Everyone can share other’s pleasure as each pack is opened.

After such a meal younger family members investigate and compare their presents.
Anyone older falls asleep.

Retailers promote.
Be prepared for a surge in their efforts. This special time of the year has traditionally been ‘boom time’ for many retailers. One famous name expects to make a profit only during the three months leading up to Christmas.
Food retailers are under particular stress with so many possibilities of things to go wrong.
A family disappointed by their Christmas dinner turkey will never forget it, nor forgive the supplier.

Maybe as a reaction from ubiquitous supermarkets or desire for something different, there has been a substantial growth of local Christmas Markets.
These give a temporary wide new range particularly of unusual food items.
Exotic unheard-of items tempt excited shoppers.


Why Christmas or Xmas?
In the Greek alphabet the letter X is the letter for chi.
This is the first letter of the word Christ in Greek.

Don’t Forget the Reason

Our modern world sees commerce replacing religion.

The promotional build-up to Christmas causes extreme stress for some.
Giving presents requires scarce cash to pay for them.
Providing food for many new people requires careful preparation.
Difficulties seem to appear out of nowhere.
Where will your visitors sleep?

2000 years ago someone had the same problem. Or had you forgotten?


DOUG R. (England)

Photos by Olga Born (Germany)


Recent articles of Doug R.:


Published in Woman's Magazine Russian Woman Journal  www.russianwomanjournal.com -   19 December 2008


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