The traditional species of Christmas tree is the Norway Spruce, which was native to the British Isles before the last Ice Age and was reintroduced into the country sometime prior to the 1500s. Children go caroling on Christmas Eve...or even several evenings before...and stockings are hung by the fireplace or at the foot of the bed to be filled with toys and treats by Father Christmas. Children write letters to Father Christmas, listing their requests, but instead of dropping them in the mailbox, they are tossed into the fireplace where the draught carries the notes up the chimney and Father Christmas reads the smoke. Family presents are placed beneath the Christmas tree. Many primary school children perform Nativity plays for the parents and local people. Many years ago, live animals, including an ox and an ass, would have been used in the cast but today, such beasts are portrayed by children dressed in costume. The plays recreate the stable scene and center around the Christ Child...usually a doll placed in a crib of wood. The remainder of the cast, including Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the Wise Men are all played by the children. Many children also make "Christingles" (for an explanation of this tradition, see the "Czechoslovakia" section) in their classrooms and gather together to light them in a church service which raises money for the Church of England Children's Society.
December 26th is the Feast of Saint Stephen and the British call the this day after Christmas "Boxing Day." It is when most families give gifts, also known as a "Christmas Boxes," in the form of money or food to tradespeople, such as milkmen or postmen or others who have served them during the year. This custom is unique to Great Britain. Traditionally, it was on December 26th that the alms boxes in English churches were opened and their contents distributed to the poor. It was also the day when indentured servants were given the day off to celebrate with their families. Thus, it became traditional for working people to open their "Christmas Boxes" on December 26th. The ancient roots of the Boxing Day custom are unknown.
Christmas in England began in 596 A.D., when Saint Augustine and his monks landed, bringing Christianity to the Anglo Saxons. The old medieval type of English Christmas dinner would include brawn (headcheese), roast peacock, boar's head and mutton pie (from which the modern mince pie developed). English cooks originally baked pies in the shape of a manger. Modern Christmas dinners consist of a roast turkey, goose or chicken with stuffing and roast potatoes, followed by mince pies. The pulling of Christmas crackers containing a party hat, riddle and toy (or other tiny trinket) often accompanies the Christmas meal. Later, Christmas cake may be served...a richly baked fruit cake decorated with marzipan, icing and sugar frosting. Another traditional feature of Christmas Day afternoon is the Queen's Christmas Message to the nation, broadcast on radio and television.
During the late 1400s, King Henry VII introduced the "wassail bowl" to England from Scandinavia. Originally, the bowl contained a mixture of hot mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, sugar, eggs and spices (such as cloves, ginger and nutmeg). It was served from huge bowls, often made of silver or pewter, for the purpose of enhancing the general merriment of the season. "Wassail" derives from the Old English words "waes hael," which mean "be thou well" or "good health." Legend states that a beautiful Saxon maid named Rowena presented Prince Vortigen with a bowl of wine while toasting him with this greeting. Over the centuries, a great deal of ceremony developed around the custom of drinking wassail and the bowl was carried into a room with great fanfare. A traditional carol was sung to honor the drink and, finally, the steaming hot beverage was served.
The first ever Christmas card was posted in England during the 1840s but the decorations, in general, have much earlier origins...many associated with pagan rituals predating the Dark Ages. The English were also the first nation to use mistletoe as a decoration during the Christmas season. Each year since 1947, the country of Norway has presented Great Britain with a large Christmas tree which is erected in Trafalgar Square and commemorates Anglo-Norwegian cooperation during the Second World War.
A tradition which survives from the Middle Ages is "mumming," when people known as "mummers" donned masks and acted out Christmas plays which were performed in towns and villages. Its descendant is the popular form of Christmas entertainment for children called a pantomime...a song and dance dramatization, usually comedic in nature, of a well-known fairy tale...which encourages audience participation. Traditionally, the "principal boy" in a pantomime is played by a female and the "evil witch" or "ugly sister" or "wicked stepmother" character is portrayed by a male.
In Ireland, where Christmas celebrations are more religious in nature than a time for parties, trees are bought throughout the month of December and decorated with colored lights, tinsel and baubles. Some Irish people favor an angel on the top of the tree...others, the star. The house is adorned with garlands, candles, holly and ivy. Wreaths and mistletoe are hung on the door. Lighted candles are placed in windows on Christmas Eve. Usually red in color and decorated with holly, these candles serve as a guide that Joseph and Mary might be looking for shelter. Seed cakes are baked for each member of the household and three puddings are prepared...one for Christmas, one for New Year's Day and one for Twelfth Night. After the Christmas evening meal, bread and milk are left out and the door unlatched as a symbol of hospitality.
In Scotland, Christmas is traditionally celebrated in quiet fashion because the Church of Scotland, Presbyterian in nature, has never placed any great emphasis upon the Christmas festival. Any customs which are observed are similar to those of the English. Merry-making is saved for the Scottish New Year's Eve known as "Hogmanay," a word derived from a type of oat cake traditionally given to children on New Year's Eve. Scottish bakers use griddles to bake oatmeal cookies known as "bannock cakes," which are served at Christmastime, as well as on other occasions. In Wales, the customs observed are again similar to those of the English. The Welsh, however, ae particularly fond of their Christmas carols.
Of course, no traditional English Christmas dinner would be complete
without the flaming plum pudding. To read more about this a once-a-year treat
and customary end to the Christmas meal, please click on the link below.
On Christmas Eve, carols are usually sung by small boys to the beating of drums and the tinkling of triangles. They go from house to house and are rewarded with dried figs, almonds, walnuts, sweets and, sometimes, small gifts. Very few presents are exchanged between friends and family during Christmas. Instead, small gifts are given to hospitals and orphanages. Priests sometimes visit homes sprinkling holy water around in order to dispel any bad spirits which may be hiding in the houses. Most Greek families decorate their tress with tinsel and a topmost star. Any gifts which are exchanged are done so on January 1st, Saint Basil's Day. On Christmas Eve, groups of people gather around the holiday table to feast upon figs which have been dried on rooftops, served with spicy, goden Chrisopsomo bread, and such sweets as kourambiethe, a Greek nut cookie. During the twelve days of Christmas, there is a tradition called kallikantzeri when, it is believed, mischievious goblins appear from below the earth.
Christmas trees are decorated with candles and bright ornaments. However, such trees have to be imported since none grow this far north.
Christmas in the land where Christ is believed to have been born is often full of travelers who come to celebrate the holidays in this area of the world. In a certain grotto, there is a 14-pointed silver star upon the floor where the birth is said to have taken place. There are three Christmas Eves in the Holy Land. One occurs on December 24th and is celebrated by the Protestant and Catholic Churches. The second is for the Greek Orthodox, Coptic (or Egyptian) and Syrian Churches and the third is for the Armenian Church. All three services are conducted at the same time, but in different parts of the churches, as well as in different languages. For lunch, a meal of turkey (spiced with pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg) is served with rice, pine nuts and almonds. During the early evening, members of Protestant church groups travel the streets singing carols. On Christmas morning, children open presents before breakfast, after which the Protestants go to church and then call upon friends and relatives, while the Catholic priests visit homes in order to bless the water, from which all family members take a sip. to members of the Greek Othodox church, Epiphany holds great importance. They hold a special church service during which a cross is dipped into water and blessed. People then take the hallowed water home with them and drink three sips before eating anything.
The main celebrations take place on Christmas Eve. The evening is known as Szent-este, or "Holy Evening." Prior to attending Midnight Mass, families gather around the Christmas tree to sing carols and open presents left by Baby Jesus and the Angels. On December 6th, the children receive a visit from Mikulas (Saint Nicholas), who arrives wearing the robes of a bishop with a red mitre on his head, a staff in one hand and a sack full of small gifts in the other. He is accompanied by a boy in black costume, complete with horns and a long tail. This boy carries a switch made of dry twigs with which to smack any naughty children. Each child receives a small present...usually a tiny toy or sweets...from Mikulas. The presenting of a Nativity play is an important part of Hungarian Christmas tradition. Performed by groups of children or adults, these plays are often combined with puppets and are accompanied by songs and musical instruments. Often, dancing is also part of the performance.
The Poinsettia is the favored Christmas flower and the churches are usually decorated with this brilliant bloom for the Midnight Mass. In Southern India, Christians place small clay lamps on the rooftops and wall of their houses at Christmas...a tradition similar to that of the Hindus during their festival known as Diwalli.
In Iran, the land where the Wise Men are believed to have originated, the people call Christmas "The Little Feast." During the first 24 days of December, Christians in Iran eat no meat or eggs and drink no milk. In Syria, it is believed that the trees bow their heads on the Eve of Epiphany in reverence to the Christ Child.