Christmas traditions – part two!

I have found it quite fascinating looking into what we think of as the ‘traditions’ of Christmas, so here’s a second helping for you.

Wreaths

The wreath has always been used as a symbol of power and strength. In Rome and Greece, kings and emperors often wore laurel wreathes as crowns. Harvest wreathes – the predecessors to our modern decorations – were used in rituals for good harvests, and predate written history. Ancient Europeans often used evergreen in their wreathes to symbolise strength and fortitude as an evergreen will live through even the harshest of winters. Wreaths have been used as a decorative sign of Christmas for hundreds of years. The wreath has significant meaning for the season with its circular shape representing eternity as it has no beginning and no end. From a Christian perspective, it represents an unending circle of life.

Carolling

Christmas carols grew out of the first Christmas hymns, which developed in fourth century Rome. While these Latin hymns were sung in church for generations, the first true carols developed in France, Germany, and Italy in the 13th century. These carols, written in the language of the area where they were composed, were enthusiastically sung at community events and festivals. They were not composed specifically as Christmas carols, but rather as holiday songs that were sung at many separate festivals and celebrations. Later on, the songs would become associated primarily with Christmas. The modern practice of going door-to-door carolling probably has something to do with the root word for carol, “carole” or “carula” which mean a circular dance, so going ‘round the houses’!

Mistletoe

Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that perches on a tree branch and absorbs nutrients from the trunk – hardly one of the most romantic forms of life! Celtic legend says the plant can bring good luck, heal wounds, increase fertility and ward off evil spirits. While it’s hard to say what (if any) truth lies in these legends of yore, at the very least, it provides an excuse to sidle up and kiss someone! The tradition of smooching underneath the mistletoe began (of course!) in the Victorian era and was once believed to inevitably lead to marriage. But it seems to have lost a little of that power. Now, when someone kisses you it might just mean they’ve had a few too many sips of holiday punch!

What ever your thoughts on carols or mistletoe, I hope you have a fabulous Christmas!

 

 

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Christmas past…

I was having a pleasant wallow on social media and came across… annuals! Do you know, I had completely forgotten about them and yet they used to be such an important part of my Christmas, right up there alongside the advent calendar and what was hidden in the toe of my Christmas stocking.

I used to be so excited at the prospect of receiving a ‘Bunty’ annual every Christmas. In my childhood, these were big, hardback books with comic-strip stories, none of the trendy ‘photo strips’ that came later. Bunty was full of hearty girls who played hockey or were generally just ‘jolly good sorts’ – so innocent! I had to really work hard to ration myself to only reading one story at a time and not race through the entire annual in one sitting.

Another very popular present for me was ‘The Guinness Book of Records’. I used to pore over it, fascinated by the more extreme records and would even go and dig out the previous year’s to check what had changed. Ah, the simple pleasures of life pre-internet, when we actually had to look things up in books.

Something else we have lost is the big Christmas TV attraction. I can remember when Morecambe and Wise used to get 24 million viewers for their Christmas special, yet last year no TV shown on Christmas day got more than 10 million viewers. Oh, I did love Morecambe and Wise, in fact the re-runs still make me laugh now! It was strange, but when so many people had seen the same programme it created a wonderful sort of camaraderie and I can remember overhearing people discussing sketches that had particularly amused them, or what they’d thought of Shirley Bassey’s dress or Penelope Keith’s dance routine, such fun!

So what else did we have in Christmas past and no longer have, or rarely see, today?

Angel Hair
That dreadful white spun stuff that we used to drape over the Christmas tree and get fibre glass splinters everywhere – who ever came up with that idea? And why?

Paper chains
Do people still make paper chains? I haven’t seen any for ages, but I clearly remember making yards of them at school and thinking my tongue would be permanently stuck to the roof of my mouth!

Christmas drinks
Oh, how I used to aspire to a Babycham! I loved the adverts with the sweet little deer… but I remember it being something of a disappointment when I finally tried it, rather sweet and sickly! And who remembers a Snowball? Advocaat and lemonade, usually with a cherry on the top, the height of sophistication in the 1960s.

Woolworths
Goodness, many a last minute present was bought in Woolies! I can remember clutching a few old pennies in my mittened hands and trying to find something suitable for an aunt, cousin or school friend.

January sales
Cheating really as they were after Christmas – but in my youth, the January sales began in January (not Boxing Day as now) and it was a huge source of excitement! I can remember as a teenager, fighting my way past a huge crowd to grab a green polo neck angora jumper that they had been advertising in the window for the week before the sale –  £20.00 down to £2 – I loved that jumper for years!

So, what are your memories of Christmas past? What do you miss? Or what do you enjoy now that makes it so much better? Do share!

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The traditions of Christmas, or not…!

I was thinking about Christmas stockings for my family and started wondering about how this slightly strange practice came to be, and then I thought – aha, perhaps that’s an idea for a blog. I checked back and saw that I wrote about some of the origins of what we think of as ‘traditional’ Christmas practices THREE years ago! My goodness, I’ve written a lot of blogs and articles since then! Anyway, here are some interesting facts that I didn’t cover last time…

Christmas Stockings

As with so many of these traditions, I have come across various explanations as to how the practice of stocking-stuffing came about and it owes more to myth than fact. We know, thanks to the poem ‘T’was the Night Before Christmas’, that hanging stockings by the chimney with care dates back at least to the poem’s 1823 publication. But the story of how stockings came to be hung by the fire is a hazy one. Legend says the original Saint Nicholas, who travelled around bringing gifts and cheer to the poor, came upon a small village one year and heard of a family in need. An impoverished widower could not afford to provide a dowry for his three daughters. St. Nick knew the man was too proud to accept money, so he simply dropped some gold coins down the chimney, which landed in the girl’s stockings, hung by the fireplace to dry, so the tale goes. And so, the modern tradition was born.

Gift giving

Christmas’s gift-giving tradition has its roots in the Three Kings’ offerings to the infant Jesus. Romans traded gifts during Saturnalia, and 13th century French nuns distributed presents to the poor on St. Nicholas’ Eve. However, gift-giving did not become the central Christmas tradition it is today until our friends the Victorians got to grips with it! Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who also gave us the Christmas tree, also popularised the whole present giving ritual.

The X in Xmas

I know a lot of people don’t like to see Christmas abbreviated to Xmas, seeing it as rather disrespectful, but the true origins have a strong basis in Christianity. In the abbreviation, the X stands for the Greek letter Chi, the first letter of the Greek word for Christ. I was amazed to discover that the term X-mas has been used since the 16th century, and became widely used in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the modern world, X has been taken to be used as an abbreviation for any word with the “krys” sound in it. Chrysanthemum, for example, is sometime shortened to “xant” on florist’s signs, and crystal has sometimes been abbreviated as “xtal”. Hmmm…

I’ve got a few more thoughts on our Christmas traditions that I’ll share with you later in the month…

 

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A picture paints a thousand words…

The other day I was reading about a portrait being removed from the National Portrait Gallery because the person in the picture had ‘fallen from grace’. That set me thinking about who gets their portraits painted – the great and the good and the wealthy generally speaking. And then that set me thinking about what it must have been like before photography came along…

Imagine if you didn’t have your photo albums, or your pictures stored on your laptop, tablet or phone, would you feel lost? I know I would. I often look at the photos of my family (especially my gorgeous granddaughter Grace) and they are inspiring, comforting and often poignant when it is a photo of someone who is no longer with us.

So imagine life before the photograph. Unless you were wealthy enough to have had a portrait painted, or were lucky enough to know someone talented who could sketch a likeness… you would have no record of your loved one. I find that very hard to think about as we have all grown up with photographs creating ‘instant’ images and knowing we can look back and savour an event, or a person.

Photography really began in the first half of the 1800s, but didn’t become commonplace until the second half of that century. So, carrying around an image of your loved one is a relatively recent thing. I am guessing that is why people had locks of hair and other mementoes stored in lockets and the like – there was nothing else they could do.

And so, back to portraits… and of course one of the fascinating things about them is that they are the ‘likeness’ created by the painter and may not be all that accurate. I always smile when I see portraits from certain eras when it seems all women were endowed with incredibly sloping shoulders (sweaters would have simply slipped to the floor!), or swan-like long necks that would have looked ridiculous in real life.

We don’t really know what Jane Austen looked like, but there are enough portraits of people powerful or famous in their day – like Oliver Cromwell for example – to know that he really was a bit of a warty old thing! We know that King Henry VIII had red hair and was a pretty stout chap, but of course no-one who wanted to live a full life was going to portray him as fat and balding, now were they?!

So, we are lucky today in that the arrival of digital photography means we can pretty much take photos any time and any place we like. But are we that lucky? There is, of course, the issue that most of us do not print our photos out, just as we rarely write letters in ink on paper, trusting everything to technology. If disaster ever strikes and the internet fails or we run out of electricity, we would lose everything. The National Portrait Gallery will still be there and libraries and archives of letters will still exist. But perhaps after all, it is the memories we retain in our minds that really count as they stay with us for ever.

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Grassy triangles and other unusual wild spaces!

Recently, as I was trying to turn out of a tricky junction on one of the narrow and winding lanes near my Devon home, I wondered why there are so often mounded triangles of grass at road junctions? How did these not entirely convenient features come to be?

When I looked into it there is, of course, a perfectly logical reason. As horses and carts, farm animals, carriages and eventually cars, turned left or right over the years, a wide splay often formed at the junction of country roads. Between the turning curves, undisturbed by traffic, grassy triangles were often left untouched when the roads started to be covered with tarmacadam. And so, these little oases of green are often home to all sorts of plants and wildlife – a mini nature reserve. 

I find it so interesting to see how nature makes the best of things in often the most hostile surroundings created by man. I recently sat transfixed for 10 minutes in a motorway service station watching the thriving wildlife in a scrubby hedgerow at the side of the parking area. A blackbird was busy feeding her young, two robins were having a punch up, and I even saw a tiny mouse skitter past. All around were fumes and noise and litter but they carried on with their lives perfectly happily.

Roundabouts are also havens for all sorts of wildlife too. Obviously when I am a passenger and not driving (she says hastily) I have caught sight of gorgeous wildflowers, butterlies and glimpses of wildlife too, slap bang in the middle of a very busy road system. Their inaccessibility to man is their saving grace.

To me, the most unexpected area for flora and fauna has to be motorway verges. Now that many have been established for decades, they have truly become nature reserves. Often covering quite large areas, these are inhospitable places for man, but they are often smothered in wildflowers and I have often seen merlins, and other birds of prey, hovering overhead their beady eyes fixed on a rabbit or other mammal happily hopping around in the vegetation below. How quickly nature adapts and accepts and then conquers these remote places. It gives me great pleasure to know that, given just the slightest chance, nature will always overcome in the end…

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