How did our ancestors celebrate Christmas?

The carols, the weather, the lights, the shopping for presents and the endless meals with the loved ones. Yes, Christmas is back!

It seems strange that, not too long ago, Christmas was seen in a very different light compared to what this festive season has become today. One could even say that Christmas is a “modern” festivity. Naturally, it depended on where your relatives lived and what faith they adhered to -unlike the world of today, where globalisation and growing agnosticism have made Christmas an international celebration.

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Our Christmas tree – photo by Dawsr.

Two hundred years ago, my English ancestors would have celebrated Christmas like anyone else (i.e., in a very “quiet” way). By the start of the 19th century, Christmas was not that important; in fact, many shops were kept open on 25th December because owners simply did not consider it a holiday -the first ever Christmas card was designed as late as 1843! But after Queen Victoria married Albert of Saxe-Coburg in 1840, many German traditions -such as the setting of a Tannenbaum or Christmas tree– were introduced to British society. In 1848 the Illustrated London News ran a sketch of the Queen, the Prince Consort and their small children standing around a fir-like tree which was decorated with glowing candles and small ornaments like sweets, gifts and fruit; this seemed trendy, and it simply caught on. Households were also elaborately decorated, not with evergreens and twigs -a Medieval custom-, but with paper, candles and other hand-made ornaments.

Another quintessentially British tradition at Christmas which began with the Victorians, that of pulling apart Christmas crackers, began when a confectioner called Tom Smith travelled to Paris. It was in the French capital that he first saw bon-bons (a type of sugared almonds wrapped in twists of glossy paper). Having substituted the sweets for paper hats and trinkets, Smith’s adaptation has turned crackers into a typically British Christmas element.

The exchanging of gifts was a tradition that already existed by the dawn of Victorian England, but it usually took place on New Year’s Eve; it gradually shifted towards 25th December as Christmas gained adepts every year. Gifts were initially hung from the newly-introduced Christmas tree, but as presents became larger and bulkier, they were soon placed under the tree itself.

Our turkey, ready for the oven!

Our turkey, ready for the oven!

Eating turkey on Christmas day was also a Victorian invention; in fact, people ate goose or beef until then. Mince pies were eaten in December since Tudor times, but originally contained meat. Christmas carols were also exploited during the 19th century, only this time they tended to adapt old songs and lyrics to new tunes -which incidentally became a huge success. Christmas pudding, on the other hand, is a Medieval creation adapted -yet again- by the Victorians, and was initially intended to be made of 13 ingredients, representing Christ and the Twelve Apostles.

Naturally, those less favoured by their economic situation had fewer privileges than the rich, even at Christmas. But they still enjoyed the odd celebration or two, usually with the blessing of their employers. Servants had a lot to do in large country houses, where large dinners would take place to celebrate the Yuletide. I can imagine all my ancestors who were in service working terribly hard on a day like today. Thus, they were given the day after Christmas, 26th December, as their day off, and usually received small boxes containing gifts from their lord and master. The term boxing day may derive from this tradition, though its etymology remains disputed. For my English grandmother, Boxing Day must have been a rather significant date -after all, she too was in service for a while- and so she decided to get married on Boxing Day, 1939, with the Second World War already raging.

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In Spain, the birth of Jesus Christ is still held as the main purpose of celebrating Christmas – photo by Dawsr.

On the other hand, my Spanish ancestors would have celebrated Christmas very differently from their English contemporaries. In traditionally-Catholic Spain, Christmas was seen as a very important holiday, as it celebrates the birth of Christ. A tradition carried on by many people even today was to attend mass at midnight on Christmas Eve, followed by another mass at dawn on Christmas day.

Food is also central during Christmas in Spain, but turkey has never been part of the Christmas menu. Instead, in coastal areas like Galicia people prefer to eat fish (such as cod and cauliflower) on Christmas Eve. Then, on Christmas day, capón (stuffed chicken) was served if the family’s economy allowed; otherwise plain chicken, which was considered a luxury in times of hardship, followed by a tray of marzipan and Spanish nougat (turrón) for dessert, was served.

Our crib - photo by Dawsr.

Our crib – photo by Dawsr.

There was never a Christmas tree in sight a few years ago in Spain. Instead, people would set up a crib and sing carols celebrating the birth of Jesus. On Christmas Day, presents were never or rarely given; this was actually carried out on 6th January, after Twelfth Night, to celebrate the arrival of the Three Wise Men to Baby Jesus’s side. Children who misbehaved were warned that they would get coal instead of presents, which popularised the idea of selling a black, coal-like type of sweet (carbón). On 6th January, after lunch, families eat roscón, a large, doughnut-like dessert decorated with candied fruits and containing small toys or -even better- coins! So mind how you chew! The celebration over, the next task is to take down the Christmas decorations, including the crib… but that’s another story.

Wherever you are, and whichever way you celebrate Christmas, I hope you have a Merry Christmas!

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