History of Leith, Edinburgh

December 24, 2004

HISTORIC CHRISTMAS FACTS FROM www.history.uk.com

…great for Christmas quizzes or pass them on to your friends!

Mid-winter festivals were observed in Britain long before Christianity reached our shores. In ancient Britain, the Winter Solstice (near December 22) was seen as a turning point in the cold dark months. Rituals were held to encourage the return of the sun and banish evil spirits believed to lurk in the bleakest days. On the last day of winter, also called Yule, a huge log was added to a bonfire and people gathered round to summon the sun by singing and dancing. Houses were decorated with green plants, particularly mistletoe and holly, as a symbol of fertility and rebirth the new season would bring.

Saturnalia, a very popular Roman festival, was held in mid-December. It was celebrated in countries across the Empire, including Britain which was occupied by the Romans from 43 to the early part of the fifth century. The week long party was held in honour of the Roman God Saturn. Revellers enjoyed feasting, visiting family and sharing gifts. The festival offered temporary social freedom for slaves who were excused from work and allowed privileges, such as the right to gamble.

In 596, St. Augustine undertook a mission to bring Christianity to the Anglo Saxons. He and his monks introduced the Christian calendar to Britain, including the Christmas date. The Christian church decreed Christ’s birthday be celebrated on December 25, a decision made by the Pope in 336. As Christianity spread across Britain, pagan celebrations were mainly engulfed by or assimilated in to Christmas ritual.

Varied Christmas activities were adopted across Britain.

In England, people ate frumenty (a type of porridge made from corn) on Christmas morning. The recipe changed over time and eggs, fruit, spice, lumps of meat and dried plums were added. The whole mixture was wrapped in a cloth and boiled. This is the origin of plum pudding.

By English tradition, the day after Christmas is called Boxing Day. On December 26, servants and traders called on their employers for tips of money. They would collect their tips in clay boxes and when the boxes were full, they broke them open and spent the contents.

Christmas festivities in Ireland last from Christmas Eve to the feast of the Epiphany on 6th January, which is referred to as Little Christmas. Many Irish women bake a seed cake for each person in the house. It is also Irish tradition to bake three puddings, one for each key day of the Epiphany – Christmas, New Year’s Day and the Twelfth Night.

In Scotland, Christmas has traditionally been celebrated very quietly because the Presbyterian Church places no great emphasis on the date. The season is however enjoyed by many Scots. A popular Scottish festive party involved the building of big bonfires which people could gather round for warmth, dancing and to play bagpipes. A time-honoured Scottish Christmas treat is Bannock cakes made of oatmeal.

In Wales, music was vital to the festive celebrations. Christmas morning between 3am and dawn men gathered at churches to sing carols until the cockerel crowed. This was called Plygrain.

Taffy making on Christmas Eve was one of the most important festive traditions of the Welsh. Taffy is a special kind of chewy toffee made from brown sugar and butter. It is boiled and then pulled until it becomes lovely and glossy.

Britain today is home to many different cultures and mid-winter is, as it always has been, a time for diverse cultural celebration.

Merry Christmas from all at www.history.uk.com

For hundreds more fascinating historical facts, visit www.history.uk.com, the world’s largest free-to-use database of British history.

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