All Yule Need to Know

In the first of our seasonal blogs, Katy Gardner explores the origins of some Christmas traditions.

Ah, Christmas – a celebration, a chance to spend time with family and friends, a reason to buy gifts for people we love and carte blanche to eat until we burst. Wherever you go, it’s almost impossible to escape the festive cheer. But as I prepare to untangle the Christmas lights, break out my party dress and write my Christmas list, my thoughts turn to some of the traditions of the festive period. From eating turkey to kissing under the mistletoe, here is a light-hearted look at some of my favourites:

Eating turkey

I love roast Turkey – and 76% of us will enjoy the festive bird this Christmas. But the tradition of serving turkey at Christmas has not always been the norm. Before turkey consumption became more widespread in the 1950s, goose, peacock, swan and even boar’s head were among the dishes of choice, even though turkeys had arrived in Britain as early as 1526, when enterprising William Strickland – having bought six birds from Native American traders on his travels – sold them in Bristol for tuppence.


Hanging stockings by the fire

This tradition stems from the tale of St Nicholas who, to alleviate the despair of one destitute family, dropped bags of gold down the chimney of their home. As the story has it, the gold landed, improbably enough, in stockings drying on the fireplace below.

Nowadays, children all over the world hang stockings by the fire on Christmas Eve hoping Santa will fill them with treats – so long as they have been good, of course. But while the sentiment is similar in most countries, in some both the vessel and its location differ. In France, children place shoes by the fireplace instead of stockings; in Hungary, children put a boot or a shoe near a door or window sill. Meanwhile, Italian children leave their shoes out on the night before Epiphany (5 January), but for La Befana, a ‘good witch’, instead of Santa.

Mistletoe

The bane of the office party, mistletoe is a parasite of the plant world, attaching itself to hosts and living off their nutrients. While it may seem strange that this has become one of the symbols of Christmas, the act of hanging mistletoe has its origins in the days of the druids. Because of its evergreen colour, the plant was thought to possess mystical powers; its presence in the house would ward off evil spirits and bring the residents good luck.

The custom of kissing beneath the mistletoe most likely comes from Norse mythology, as the plant played a key role in the story of Frigga, the goddess of love and marriage. According to references in nineteenth-century English literature such as Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, tradition held that a young lady standing under a ball of mistletoe must be kissed or otherwise remain unmarried the following year.

Despite these associations, mistletoe’s etymology is less of an aphrodisiac, derived as it is from two Anglo Saxon words: mistel translates to ‘dung’ while tan means ‘stick’. A romantic word combination indeed.

Christmas trees

Finally, the greatest Christmas tradition of all is the tree. Real or fake, there’s nothing more welcoming than a great big Christmas tree adorned with baubles and twinkling lights. While it is difficult to imagine Christmas without a tree, the act of decorating a fir tree as part of the festive ritual didn’t take root in Britain until the mid-1800s; in America, it was the early 1900s. Now these colourful, adorned trees are seen all over the world. And some are colossal: the world’s largest Christmas tree can be seen in Mexico City and stands at an eye-wateringly high 362 feet, weighing 330 tons.

While I look fondly on all these Christmas traditions, there is one that I would happily see abolished: begone, Mr Brussels Sprout!

Merry Christmas!

Katy Gardner

5 December 2014