Christmas story, customs and traditions in Great Britain, Ireland, and London by English-culture blog plus other links to our posts on Christmas festival.
In the old days, it was not called the Holiday Season; the Christians called it ‘Christmas’ and went to church; the Jews called it ‘Hanukkah’ and went to synagogue; the atheists went to parties and drank. People passing each other on the street would say ‘Merry Christmas!’ or ‘Happy Hanukkah!’ or (to the atheists) ‘Look out for the wall!’.
Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveller, thousands of miles away, back to his own fire-side and his quiet home!
Were I a philosopher, I should write a philosophy of toys, showing that nothing else in life need to be taken seriously, and that Christmas Day in the company of children is one of the few occasions on which men become entirely alive.
The name Christ itself was borrowed into Old English from Latin Christus, which in turn came from Greek Khristós. This meant literally ‘anointed’, and came from the verb khríein ‘anoint’. It was a direct translation of Hebrew meshiah (source of English messiah), which also meant literally ‘anointed’.
Christian is derived, of course, from the name of Christ. It is a surprisingly recent word, having been introduced in the 16th century from Latin Christianus, replacing the existing English adjective christen, which came from Old English cristen. The latter was the basis of the Old English verb cristnian, from which we get modern English christen.
Christmas” is a shortened form of “Christ’s mass”. It is derived from the Middle English Cristemasse, which is from Old English Cristesmæsse, a phrase first recorded in 1038 followed by the word Cristes-messe in 1131. Crist (genitive Cristes) is from Greek Khristos, a translation of Hebrew “Messiah”, meaning “anointed”; and mæsse is from Latin missa, the celebration of the Eucharist.
Christmas: “Church festival observed annually in memory of the birth of Christ,” late Old English Cristes mæsse, from Christ (and retaining the original vowel sound) + mass. Written as one word from mid-14c. As a verb, “to celebrate Christmas,” from 1590s. Father Christmas first attested in a carol attributed to Richard Smart, Rector of Plymtree (Devon) from 1435-77. Christmas-tree in modern sense first attested 1835 in American English, from German Weihnachtsbaum. Christmas cards were first designed 1843, popular by 1860s; the phrase Christmas-card was in use by 1850. Christmas-present is from 1769. Christmas Eve is Middle English Cristenmesse Even (c. 1300).
The Christmas Story in a Nutshell Jesus in Manger. Wise men bring first Christmas gifts
It all started with the Angel Gabriel just over 2000 years ago. The Angel Gabriel proclaimed that Mary would have a very special baby and that the newborn would called Jesus.
If we move forward to Bethlehem, Mary and her husband Joseph, went to town to pay their taxes. Unfortunately, there was nowhere for them to stay, so they took shelter in a stable. There in Bethlehem, in a manger, the baby Jesus was born.
A bright star in the East guided wise men to the stable. They brought with them gifts Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. This informal ceremony has extended to the celebration of Christmas as we know it today.
The Christmas Story – The Version from the King James Bible. Matthew Chapter 2. Jesus in Manger. Wise men bring first Christmas gifts
1. Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
2. Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
3. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
4. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
5. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,
6. And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.
7. Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
8. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also
9. When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
10. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
11. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh. 12. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
SAINT NICHOLAS (Santa Claus) ON CHRISTMAS EVE (December 24th)
He comes to visit every child on the night before Christmas. The children hang stockings on the end of their beds and Santa Claus (or Father Christmas, as he is often called) fills them with toys. Santa comes from Greenland in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, he lands on the roofs of houses and comes down the chimney to bring presents for the children. The children write letters to Santa Claus a few weeks before Christmas and leave them in the fireplace.
In Britain December 31st is called New Year’s Eve and January 1st, which is a public holiday, is New Year’s Day. The Scots have another name for the New Year holiday, it is called Hogmanay- and in Scotland it is the most important holiday in the year. Friends and relations meet and have parties to see the new Year in. They eat and drink and sometimes dance and sing. At midnight they have a drink and wish each other “A happy new year”. In Scotland, and in many parts of England, people visit their friends after midnight, this is called “first-footing”. If your first visitor after twelve o’clock is a tall, dark man with a piece of coal and sometimes a herring in his hand, you will be lucky for the whole year! The day after Christmas is called Boxing Day and January 6th is called Twelth Night.
CHRISTMAS DAY December 25th
It is 1.30 on Christmas Day and the Browns are eating their Christmas dinner. Mrs Brown’s father is carving the turkey and Mrs Brown is serving …
Mrs Brown: I hope the turkey’s cooked properly, Father.
Father: It looks fine to me.
Mrs Brown: Will you have ham and sausages with your turkey, Barbara?
Barbara: Yes, please, Mum. Mrs Brown: And bread sauce?
Mrs Brown: And chestnut stuffing?
Barbara: Oh yes – I’ll have everything.
Mrs Brown: Here you are then.
Barbara: It looks delicious. Pass the gravy, please, David.
Mrs Brown: Don’t wait for us, Barbara. Start yours or it’ll get cold. Now, David, what’ll you have? …
And after the main course the Browns had Christmas pudding with brandy butter, mince pies with cream followed by nuts and fruit and coffee. Then they all pulled crackers. Inside each cracker there was a coloured paper hat, a joke and a small toy – a whistle or a doll perhaps.
(A Christmas cracker is a cardboard, very thick paper that is used for making boxes, tube covered in coloured paper and containing a small present. Crackers are pulled apart by two people, each holding one end, at Christmas parties. They make a loud noise as they break.
After such a large meal – and a lot of washing up – they all settled down to watch the Queen on television. In the evening they went carol singing with the church choir and visited an old people’s home. This is one of the Carols they sang.
I saw three ships come sailing in on Christmas Day, on Christmas Day. I saw three ships come sailing in on Christmas Day in the morning.
And what was in those ships all three, on Christmas Day, on Christmas Day? And what was in those ships all three, on Christmas Day in the morning?
Our Saviour Christ and His lady, on Christmas Day, on Christmas Day; Our Saviour Christ and His lady, on Christmas Day in the morning.
BOXING DAY December 26th
It’s the day after Christmas – a Bank holiday – and David is sitting in the stalls of the Palladium Theatre with his Aunt Kate and his little cousin, Emma. They are watching the pantomime, Babes in the Wood. It’s the first time Emma’s been to a pantomime and so she’s asking a lot of questions.
Emma: Why’s that man dressed as a woman, Mummy?
Aunt Kate: It’s just funnier that way. There’s always a man like that – usually he’s somebody famous – that’s Arthur Askey and he’s pretending to be the children’s mother.
Emma: He’s rather ugly, isn’t he? … And why are there two men inside that horse? Can’t they get a real one?
David: Well, it would be a bit difficult to have a real horse on the stage – it might get frightened by all the noise.
Emma: Why did the man leave the children in the wood?
Aunt Kate: What a lot of questions you ask! Now, shh! Watch. Arthur Askey’s going to take the children to Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest …
Customs, story and traditions
St Nicholas was the bishop of the Italian town Bari. He was a very good and generous man. He died in December and parents started giving gifts’ to their children on the anniversary of his death, in order to remind them of the saint’s generosity. At the end of the Roman Era and during the Middle Ages, Europe was far more united than we can imagine: pilgrims’ travelled to sanctuaries, scholars’ went from one university to another – and so St Nicholas, or Nicolaus , became known all over Europe. And in northern Europe Santa Claus, who brings gifts during the Christmas period, is still St Nicholas from Bari with his new northern name.
Yet, in the original Celtic tradition there were two other people who brought gifts during winter. Of course you know them. One is the Italian Befana, who is a good witch on her way back from the witches’ Sabbath. The others were the tiny’ gnomes from northern Europe, who lived in old trees in the forests. They also wore a big red hood’. A little girl who spoke to wolves’ and walked in the forest wearing a red hood and carrying gifts is no doubt known to you: Little Red Riding Hood.
All over Britain, around Christmas time, children are taken out for a special treat – a pantomime or a circus. A pantomime is a kind of comedy play with singing and dancing, based on a well-known fairy story or folk-tale such as Aladdin, Cinderella or Babes in the Wood. Sometimes one story is mixed with another. The Babes in the Wood that Emma saw took place in Sherwood Forest and Robin Hood had to save the children from the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Pantomimes have certain traditions. There is usually a ‘Principal Boy’ or hero, who is actually a woman dressed in men’s clothes – except that ‘he’ doesn’t wear trousers, but stockings and high heels instead! There is a “Dame” – an old woman acted by a man dressed in women’s clothes. There is always a villain (a man or a woman who tries to harm the hero) and often there is a comic animal played by one or two men.
The audience is often asked to join in It sings popular songs, it hisses or boos t e villain, and it tries to warn the hero or the Dame when something bad is going to happen. However, all pantomimes have a happy ending – usually a beautiful and romantic wedding scene.
Why is December 26th called “Boxing” Day? In the old days, servants, shopkeepers and other people who performed a service for the rich used to come to their houses with a box and be given presents and sometimes money. The custom still continues in a way, but only with people who deliver things or take them away – like milkmen, postmen, newsmen, newspaper boys and dustmen.
Christmas Meals in the United Kingdom & Ireland. What is now regarded as the traditional meal consists of roast turkey, served with roast potatoes and parsnips and other vegetables, followed by Christmas pudding, a heavy steamed pudding made with dried fruit, suet, and very little flour. Other roast meats may be served, and in the nineteenth century the traditional roast was goose. The same carries over to Ireland with some variations.
From glittering Christmas lights and ice skating to traditional markets and Christmas shows, London is a Christmas wonderland. After a festive meal, where better to burn off energy gliding around the Christmas tree at the Natural History Museum’s magical ice rink. London has plenty of other rinks to pirouette upon, including Skylight’s rooftop rink, with impressive city views, or cutting your crystal in the rink of the Tower of London, outside the Queen’s jewels. London rinks sell hot chocolate to warm hands and cockles after whizzing around the ice.
You can see the beautiful Oxford Street Christmas lights shimmer in the skies above the world-famous shopping district and check out one of the quirkiest London Christmas lights displays, glowing across the 13 streets of cool Carnaby. Admire the gorgeous mistletoe chandeliers at Covent Garden, and explore the magical Christmas lights in nearby Seven Dials. See the luxurious area of Bond Street sparkle with magnificent Christmas lights or marvel at more than 300,000 Christmas lights and 16 glowing spirits glittering above Regent Street.
You can also sing along to carols around Trafalgar Square’s world-famous Christmas tree and support your favourite furry friends at the Battersea Cats and Dogs Home Carol Concert. You may also be part of traditional Christmas carols at the historic St Paul’s Cathedral. Or join in with carols by candlelight at the Royal Albert Hall and enjoy carols and concerts at St Martin-in-the-Fields Church.
Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus. The word nativity comes from the latin word ‘natal’ which means birth (and is also where we get the word ‘native’ from). It is traditional in the UK for Primary (Elementary) schools to perform Nativity Play for the parents and local people associated with the school. The Nativity Play recreates the scene of Jesus’ Birth and tells of how Mary and Joseph were visited by the Shepherds and Wise Men. The parts of Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds and the Wise Men are played by children. If the school is attached to a Church, the play often takes place in the Church. Sunday Schools in Churches also sometimes put on Nativity Plays.
In the past, it was common for live animals including an ox and donkey and other farm animals (but not pigs) to be used in the plays. Sometimes they still are, but it is now more common for children to dress up as the animals in costumes or to have animal props. The first Nativity Play was not performed by Children in the UK, but in a cave by Monks in Italy! St. Francis of Assisi and his followers acted in the first play in 1223 to remind the local population that Jesus was born for them, as he was born into a poor family like theirs and not to a rich family.
St. Francis told the part of each character in the story himself using wooden figures in the play. After a couple of years, the play had become so popular that real people played the parts of the characters in the story. Songs were sung by the people taking part and they became what we call Christmas carols today!
Now cribs are used in Churches all over the world and even in some homes (we have a wooden one in my house) to remind people of the story. Sometimes religious pictures and statues are called icons. Some Catholic and Orthodox Christians have icons of Mary and the baby Jesus in their homes. In some countries such as Italy and Malta, and many South American countries, the crib is the most important Christmas decoration. The city of Naples, in Italy, has used cribs to decorate houses and Churches since the 1020s! That’s even before St. Francis of Assisi put on his play. Naples is also the home to the world’s largest nativity crib scene. It’s in the ‘Museo Nazionale di S. Martino’ and has 162 people, 80 animals, angels, and about 450 other smaller objects. Find out more about Nativity cribs in Naples in Italy.
Nativity Scenes called ‘Pessebres’ are popular in the Catalonia region of Spain. Cribs also have a long tradition and importance in Malta, where they are called ‘Presepju’. There’s a special society that keep the tradition alive. Find out more about Nativity cribs in Malta.
And now enjoy some proverbsw on Christmas:
Christmas comes, but once a year is enough.
Christmas has been talked of so long that it has come at last.
A green Christmas makes a fat churchyard.
A turkey never voted for an early Christmas.
After Christmas comes Lent.
Another year will bring another Christmas.
If the ice will bear a maman before Christmas, it will not bear a goose after.
It is good to be priest at Easter, child in Lent, peasant at Christmas, and foal in harvest-time.
Green Christmas, a white Easter.
The devil makes his Christmas pies of lawyers’ tongues and clerk’s fingers.
Read also our other posts on Christmas