The festive season of Christmas is here again, and soon friends and family will gather to share the much loved traditions passed down over the centuries. Family recipes for christmas cake, mince pies and delicious mulled wine will be used.
For weeks and weeks rehearsals have taken place for Pantomines, Carol Concerts and Nativity plays in schools and churches. By this time, towns and villages are lit up, letters to Santa written and Christmas Greetings cards posted. In Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, calendars are opened, candles lit and trees and decorations are displayed in homes throughout the nation.
This month we look back at the origins of a traditional family christmas, from Victorian times, through the frugal celebrations during the first and second war, leading up to the present day, we conclude with personal and nostalgic memories from some of our readers.
The traditional christmas tree originated in Germany, and was introduced into England by Queen Charlotte, German wife of George III in the 1790’s. The tree was made popular by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1848 when a photograph was printed showing the royal couple with their children celebrating around a christmas tree. The popularity of christmas fir trees quickly spread throughout the nation. The imported German tree Spingel baum was used, and generally displayed in pots on tables with gifts placed around it. The tree was decorated with wax candles, sweets and fruit. In the 1880’s the larger Norway Spruce became available, and people began placing the trees on the floor.
In 1843, civil servant Sir Henry Cole felt too busy to write individual festive messages to family and friends, and had the idea of sending a standard christmas “card” instead. He asked the well-known artist John Calcott Horsley to design a card with a message he could send to people. This was the first commercial christmas card, and was posted to people using the new penny postage stamp.
The christmas cracker was invented by Tom Smith a London Confectioner’s apprentice. Smith visited Paris and saw bon-bons wrapped in coloured tissue paper, and had the idea of developing something more exciting! One evening in front of a crackling log fire Smith decide to make a bon-bon with a popping noise when the tissue paper was pulled apart. He added a strip of paper impregnated with chemicals, which when rubbed together created enough friction to produce a bang to excite the children, and added amusing mottoes and poems for the adults. The sweets were replaced with small gifts and paper hats, much as christmas crackers remain today.
Gift giving usually took place at New Year, but as Christmas became more important to the Victorians, the tradition of giving gifts changed to Christmastime. Originally gifts were quite modest – fruit, nuts, sweets and small handmade trinkets (usually hung on the tree), as gifts became bigger they were moved to under the tree.
The Victorians started the Christmas Dinner we know today, with a centrepiece of Beef or Goose.
The larger Turkey was added by more wealthy families, and became the dominant dish in the early 20th century. Mince pies were originally made with meat, and were changed to the sweeter version we eat today.
Four months after the outbreak of war, the winter of 1914 was dire. It was very cold with rain and snow, many of the British trenches were continually flooded, exposing troops to frost bite and “trench foot”. On Christmas Eve the rain stopped and the sky cleared, lifting the spirits of troops on both sides.
Parcels had arrived from home, every British soldier received a metal box from Princess Mary daughter of King George V. The boxes contained a picture card of the Princess with a message from George V – “May God protect you and bring you safe home”. The boxes were filled with chocolate, butterscotch, cigarettes and tobacco.
On the frontline the enemy was between 30-70 yards away, both sides agreed to put down their weapons and extend the hand of goodwill, peace and christmas cheer, this became known as the Christmas Truce. The British and German High Command did not agree with the truce, believing that to meet the enemy would be bad for the troop’s morale, they were ignored and the truce went ahead.
On Christmas Eve soldiers from both sides met in no man’s land. A joint burial service took place for dead soldiers with British and German bodies buried next to each other. They sang christmas carols like Silent Night (Stille Nacht in German) and exchanged gifts mostly food – the Germans gave sauerkraut and sausages, the British gave chocolates and cigarettes. Former barbers gave free haircuts, souveniers were exchanged and family photographs shown.
The British and Germans went hunting together for Hare to have fresh meat on Christmas Day.
An informal game of football took place with the Germans winning 3-2.
The truce ended at midnight and fighting resumed, however, in other areas on the frontline the truce lasted until New Year.
Christmas Royal Broadcast
The first broadcast was delivered in 1932 by the Queen’s grandfather King George V, and has since evolved as an important part of the nation’s Christmas Day.
The idea of a Christmas speech by the Sovereign came from Sir John Reith, founder of the BBC.
The time chosen was 3.00pm, the best time for reaching most of the countries in the Empire by short waves from the transmitters in Britain. The text of the first speech was written by poet and writer Rudyard Kipling. During World War 2 the speeches boosted morale, and over the decades since have reinforced the sentiments of unity and continuity.
The Queen’s first message took place in 1952, and the first on television was broadcast in 1957.
Christmastime In World War II
Christmas spirit remained strong during wartime, although celebrations were greatly reduced. The most difficult part of Christmas during the war was being separated from loved ones. Most men were in the forces or prisoners of war, women were busy working on the homefront, and lots of children were sent away from home as evacuees. Many families had to spend some of Christmas in an air-raid shelter during bombing raids, often singing to pass the time.
Due to food shortages, Christmas Dinner would be a home-reared chicken or rabbit with home-grown vegetables.
To conserve paper, only food stuff was wrapped, so Christmas gifts were given without wrapping paper. Children were given home-made toys carved from wood or knitted and sewn from leftover fabric and wool. People would brighten up their homes with home-made decorations such as paper chains, and an artificial tree with tinsel and paper decorations.
The nation was encouraged to buy National Savings Certificates and War Bonds to support the war effort.
Children’s Toys And Gifts
During the first half of the 20th century, children’s toys included rocking horses, wooden farmyard animals, board games, crayons, picture books and stuffed toys such as Teddy Bears.
Boys were given meccano, train sets and toy soldiers, girls were given dolls, doll’s houses and skipping ropes.
Christmas stockings were hung up by the fireplace or left at the end of children’s beds, crammed full of small treats such as sweets, oranges, almonds and raisins.
In 1950 Lego became popular. Clockwork racing cars Scalex appeared in 1952 and developed into Scalextric in 1957.
The following year 1958 saw the introduction of the Skateboard. The iconic Barbie doll arrived in 1959 with boyfriend Ken added in 1961. Action Man arrived in 1966 for the boys.
The 1970’s saw the trend for space hoppers and clackers, and the family game twister.
Possibly the biggest seller of all time was the addictive and equally frustrating Rubik’s Cube in 1974 (invented by Hungarian – Erno Rubik).
Cabbage Patch Dolls, Transformers and My Little Pony were the must-have toys of the 1980’s.
The following decade the 1990’s saw the arrival of Buzz Lightyear, Furby and Beanie Babies.
Bringing us to the new millenium with Bratz Dolls, Zhu Zhu Pets and Mindflex.
Top Toys For Christmas 2014
Waw Wee Robot MiP
Xeno, The Cheeky Interactive Baby Monster
My Friend Cayla Doll
Barbie Colour Change Bag
Kiddizoom Smart Watch
Frozen: Ice Skating Dolls
Doh Vinci Vanity Box
Leapfrog Leap TV
Transformers Chomp and Stomp Grimlock
Boom Co Rapid Madness Blaster