Many of our modern-day Christmas traditions are famously attributed to the Victorian period and the influence of Prince Albert, who bought German customs and festive celebrations to the UK. This new way of marking the Christmas period saw the introduction of many festive traditions we continue to enjoy today, from elaborate decorations to gingerbread, lavish Christmas menus, and even greetings cards! However many of the customs popularised during the Victorian period have roots in much earlier Pagan traditions and Winter Solstice celebrations.
Largely responsible for the introduction of these modern-day Christmas traditions, Prince Albert is most commonly associated with bringing the Christmas tree into the Victorian home. However prior to this, the decorating of homes with mistletoe and holly was commonplace, and has roots in much earlier pagan traditions. Festivities marking the winter solstice, or Yule, hark back to a time when the changing of the seasons was celebrated with great importance as people’s lives were so dependent on nature and the weather that affected hunting and farming.
The Winter Solstice falls on the shortest day of the year (21st December) and, although named after the Roman god, Saturn, it was celebrated in Britain long before the arrival of the Romans and Christianity itself. Druids would cut the mistletoe that grew on sacred oak trees and give it as a blessing, as the winter fruit of the mistletoe was a symbol of life in the dark winter months. The custom of bringing evergreens indoors is clearly of great antiquity, but after gaining popularity once again in the Victorian period, the tradition has survived to become a common modern-day practice.
The Christmas card is also of Victorian origin, with the first one said to have been specifically designed and made by W C T Dobson in 1844, when he drew a family group assembled around a festive table, toasting absent friends. The first commercially produced card was attempted by writer and art critic Sir Henry Cole, and J C Horsley in 1846. Causing controversy at the time, the card depicted a family group enjoying festive activities with a glass of wine, which Temperance followers did not take too kindly to! Despite such early examples, large scale production of Christmas cards did not kick off until 1870, with productions by Tucks art printers. The introduction of colour and embossed printing techniques meant that the cards became extremely elaborate, a sign of the printers’ skill and the owners’ wealth. Many of these early Christmas cards that survive are beautiful works of art in themselves.
Another Christmas tradition with pre-Christian origins is the practice of carol singing which dates back, once again, to Winter Solstice celebrations. Although early Christian hymns and carols were sung in Latin, St. Francis of Assisi changed this when, in 1223, he started Nativity Plays, singing songs or ‘canticles’ that told the story in the language that the audience could understand. This new form of Christmas carol spread to France, Spain, Germany and other European countries.
West Sussex has its own special links with Christmas carols, as John Mason Neale, who wrote Good King Wenceslas, and O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, was warden of Sackville College in East Grinstead. He wrote 72 hymns in total, and was interested in old legends, with Good King Wenceslas apparently being inspired by his daughter Agnes’s fondness for the story of King Wenceslas of Bohemia. The story of this errand of mercy was popular with the Victorians, and in 1853 Neale published Carols for Christmastide, leading to a revival of singing carols.