We all have our own Christmas traditions, but how has this festive day been celebrated by different civilisations across different eras? Read on as HistoryAnswers takes you on a journey from the Roman Saturnalia to the famous Christmas Truce of 1914.
Prior to the Christianisation of the Empire in 312, the Romans celebrated a festival known as Saturnalia. Dedicated to the god Saturn, it was both a holy and a partying day, with feasting, drinking, gambling and even people dancing naked in the streets of Rome. Anything went at the festival; there are even stories of masters serving their slaves food and drink. Perhaps the most popular holiday in the Roman calendar, it took place in mid-winter, usually on dates between 17-23 December.
In the Middle Ages, the Church had a firm grip on society, and this was reflected in Christmas celebrations. It was a truly religious holiday and not just a simple knees up for the peasants. In quite a bizarre event, boys throughout Europe were given control of entire villages on 28 December as they were promoted to the rank of bishop for just one day. This crazy idea celebrated the memory of King Herod, who ordered children under age of two to be killed under his kingship. The commemoration was taken a bit too literally in some parts of England where children were beaten to remind them of Herod’s cruelty.
The classic Christmas meal was different in the Medieval period. Turkey was not on the menu, as the bird wouldn’t be brought over to Europe until the 15th century. Instead, the wealthy would eat goose, swan or even venison while the poor would fork out a day’s wages for some poultry or fowl. Mince pies and Christmas puddings were eaten, but served differently. The pies were baked with shredded meat and served as one large bake while the pudding was more of a thick spicy porridge.
Turkey had reached European shores by the Tudor period, but swan and goose remained the top Christmas main dish. Christmas puddings had taken a turn for the weird, though, and were wrapped in the gut of a pig, cooked in a sausage shape and served with a boar’s head. The Medieval recipe sounded better. All this eating meant that in 1541, Henry VIII passed the Unlawful Games Act, which prohibited the playing of all sports except archery.
The Tudor era started to look a lot more like the Christmas we know today with the singing of carols and the lighting of candles. Oliver Cromwell’s regime in the mid-17th century cracked down on Christmas being a rowdy celebration of eating and drinking and centered it more towards its religious roots. These new measures were so strict that decorations we see as traditional today, like holly, were banned, and people were forbidden to eat extravagant foods, such as goose. Soldiers would even patrol the streets to make sure the Lord Protector’s words were heeded.
The Victorian era was the first period in which Christmas celebrations began to look like the traditions we have today. The Industrial Revolution influenced great works of literature such as Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in 1843 as characters like Ebenezer Scrooge were born. The income from factory wages and time off from work allowed middle-class families to now celebrate two days: Christmas Day and Boxing Day. The Industrial Revolution was also instrumental in a new wave of present giving. Mass production from factories allowed games, dolls, books and other toys to be bought for Christmas, although the lower classes still had to make do with just a stocking full of apples, oranges and nuts.
Father Christmas or Santa Claus came to prominence during Queen Victoria’s reign and the giving of Christmas cards also became a popular pastime with the introduction of cross-country railway services and a halfpenny postage rate. The dinner table staple, crackers, were also invented in 1846 when London sweet maker Tom Smith made the decision to wrap sweets in coloured paper and add notes or small toys into the mix. Last but not least was the introduction of the Christmas tree into British households. The tradition dates back to the days of George III but only became widespread when Prince Albert re-introduced them in the 1840s.
The enduring image of wartime Christmases will always be the Christmas truce of 1914. Taking place on the Western Front, British and German soldiers put down their weapons and agreed on a day-long ceasefire. However, this didn’t happen all across the front, and in many areas, the war continued like any other day. The truces were unofficial and High Command was very sceptical of the rival soldiers bantering over the top of the trench parapets. There were even reports of candles and trees being put up on the front line. Many believed there wasn’t an organised football match, but there may have been some small-scale kickabouts as some soldiers did hop over the top and share gifts with the enemy. Sadly, these acts of peace were not repeated in the following Christmases during the war, and on Boxing Day 1914, the sound of guns filled the air once again. As well as the Western Front, the Eastern Front played host to a truce between Austrian and Russian troops, a moment that is often forgotten. Back home, 2.5 million letters and 460,000 parcels were sent to the front as Britain adjusted to a wartime Christmas.
In World War II, rationing and shortages wrecked familiar festive rituals. Men were away fighting, women were busy working in munitions factories and children were evacuated to the country. When a family Christmas did happen, gifts were homemade to save on costs and materials and there might even have been an American GI joining in on the celebrations as many were hosted by British families prior to service on the front.
Merry Christmas everyone from All About History and History of War!