Five Christmas traditions: where do they come from?

PUBLISHED: 10:56 23 December 2018

Christmas traditions: pantomime, Christmas cards, crackers and Christmas trees. Pictures: Getty/Norwich Theatre Royal

Christmas traditions: pantomime, Christmas cards, crackers and Christmas trees. Pictures: Getty/Norwich Theatre Royal


Think of Christmas and it is a fair bet you’ll conjure up images of at these some of these festive favourites: traditional ways to celebrate the season of good cheer. But how did they come to be associated with Christmas and what do they mean?

Christmas trees — The evergreen fir tree has been used to celebrate winter festivals (pagan and Christian) for thousands of years. Pagans used branches of it to decorate their homes during the winter solstice. The first documented use of an evergreen tree at Christmas and New Year celebrations is in the Latvian capital Riga in 1510. The first Christmas Trees came to Britain sometime in the 1830s. They became very popular in 1841, when Prince Albert had one set up in Windsor Castle. In Victorian times, the tree would have been decorated with candles to represent stars. Because of the danger of fire, in 1895 Ralph Morris, an American telephonist, invented the electric Christmas lights.

Christmas cards — The custom of sending cards was started in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole, a civil servant who was very interested in the new Post Office and wondered how it could be used more by ordinary people. Sir Henry had the idea of Christmas cards, and with his friend John Horsley who was an artist, they designed the first cards and sold them for 1 shilling each. As printing methods improved, Christmas cards became more popular and were produced in large numbers from about the 1860s onwards.

Christmas crackers — Crackers were first made in 1850 by a London sweet maker called Tom Smith, who, while sitting in front of his log fire, thought what a fun idea it would be if his sweets and toys could be opened with a bang when their fancy wrappers were pulled in half. The largest Cracker ever made was 181’ 11” long and was made in 1998 at a shopping mall in Sydney, Australia.

Panto — Pantomime really first came to Britain in the 18th century from the ‘commedia dell’arte’, the Italian tradition of improvised theatre. The stories had many ‘stock’ characters in them such as clowns and jesters and a baddie. Traditional plots got mixed up with fairy stories, folk tales, or tales from the Arabian Nights. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the plots were changed quite a lot by the popularity of the music hall entertainment.

Boxing Day — Started about 800 years ago, it was the day when the alms box were opened in Parish churches so that the contents could be distributed to the poor. A lot of churches still have these boxes and open them on December 26.

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