Christmas Traditions Through the Ages

My grandmother recently told me a story which gave me the idea for this post.  In rural Quebec of the 1930s and 40s, Christmas was celebrated in large family gatherings, with relatives from all over making the trip to her parents’ home.  Since the roads were not always cleared of snow like they are now, those who couldn’t make it sent letters with well-wishes and news about themselves and family members.  After breakfast on Christmas Day, everyone would sit around the table and listen as the letters were read aloud, something that has been lost but was central to her experience of Christmas. This inspired me to explore the theme of where the traditions we associate with Christmas originated and what influences shaped the holiday into how it is celebrated today.

Throughout the centuries, traditions from many surprising origins have woven themselves into its Christian roots.  At its core, there is of course the celebration of the birth of Jesus (hence Christ’s Mass).  On the other hand, a book like Pagan Christmas: the plants, spirits, and rituals at the origins of Yuletide explores the pre-Christian origins of many of the traditions we now associate with Christmas and New Year celebrations. The Christmas tree, gift-giving, and even the tradition of singing carols outside can be traced back to Roman times, around the Saturnalia festival (which happened to coincide with the week of December 25th), while also borrowing from Scandinavian mythology and even Druidic practices. The book goes into great details about pagan rituals and beliefs, many I had never heard of before like the origins of certain foods and flowers associated with present-day cooking and decorations. It even provides recipes for smudges and incense used in shamanic rituals!  Recommended for readers looking for something different.

Much of how we celebrate Christmas today owes a great debt to Victorian England of the 1850s. Due to the Puritan era of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Christmas had become quite austere, and in fact was hardly celebrated at all. Kissing beneath the mistletoe, Santa Claus, exchanging gifts, caroling, Christmas cards were all introduced or re-introduced in large part due to the royal family bringing them back into fashion. Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol offers a portrait of how the day was celebrated in this era, and the fact that it still feels and look familiar to us despite a century’s passing is proof of their endurance.

Another example of the growing “Victorian Christmas” fiction genre is a sequel to the Jane Austen classic Pride and Prejudice written a couple of years ago, Christmas at Pemberley by Regina Jeffers, with all the familiar characters spending the Christmas season at Darcy’s estate.  The plot revolves around the Darcy and Bennet clans’ efforts to weather not only unresolved family tensions, but also a blizzard that forces several unannounced guests to seek refuge at Pemberly.

Christmas crafts for both kids and adults have been around for a long time and under many forms.  Have yourself a very vintage Christmas: crafts, decorating tips, and recipes, 1920s-1960s by Susan Waggoner offers vintage craft projects organized by decades.  From quick and simple decorations, personalised greeting cards and gifts to classic candy recipes, this title is recommended for fans of the do-it-yourself personal vintage touch for the holidays.  One particular idea that stood out for me: the Marabou Treat Cup from the 60s section.

Another tradition that has been around for over a century is Christmas light displays.  We see them on trees, in city streets, shop displays and notably on houses.  Bright, colourful and cheery, light decorations allows us to transform our home into a public expression of the holiday spirit for all to see. At least that’s the theory. Human nature has also injected an element of competitiveness to the process! Christmas houses is a small but very colourful book that provides a catalogue of some of the most memorable projects in the British Isles, with examples ranging from creative and tasteful to tacky and often humorously disastrous.

Finally I had to mention Tis the season TV: the encyclopedia of Christmas-themed episodes, specials and made-for-TV movies by Joanna Wilson, not only because watching Christmas movies/cartoons/shows has been part of my personal Christmas experience as far back as I can remember (always with relatives and friends), but because I was impressed that such an exhaustive encyclopedia  existed. From The Addams Family to Yogi Bear specials, from Treme to Doctor Who this book has all the plot details, trivia, and special casting information, and serves as a wonderful trip down memory lane.

What are your personal holiday traditions?

Louis-Philippe

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