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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The origin of sayings…

Have you ever thought about the expressions people use on a daily basis and wonder how they became such an accepted part of the English language? I often stop and think – now where on earth did THAT come from?! I have had a quick Google to see if I can get to the bottom of some of them…

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater
Meaning: Don’t throw valuable things out by mistake!
History: During the 1500s, most people bathed once a year – ugh! Even when they did bathe, the entire family used the same tub of water. The man of the house bathed first, followed by other males, then females, and finally the babies. You can imagine how thick and cloudy the water became by that time, so the infants’ mothers had to take care not to throw them out with the bathwater when they emptied the tub.

Eating humble pie
Meaning: Making an apology and suffering humiliation along with it.
History: During the Middle Ages, the lord of a manor would hold a feast after hunting. He would receive the finest cut of meat at the feast, but those of a lower standing were served a pie filled with the entrails and innards, known as ‘umbles’. So, if you were given ‘umble pie’ it was humiliating as it informed others in attendance of the guest’s lower status.

Too many to shake a stick at?More than you can shake a stick at
I love the history of this one!
Meaning: Having more of something than you need.
History: Farmers controlled their sheep by shaking their staffs to indicate where the animals should go. When farmers had more sheep than they could control, it was said they had ‘more than you can shake a stick at’ and chaos ensued!

Given the cold shoulder
This is an interesting one, as its meaning has actually reversed!
Meaning: A rude way of telling someone they aren’t welcome.
History: Although giving someone the cold shoulder today is considered rude, it was actually regarded as a polite gesture in medieval England. After a feast, the host would let his guests know it was time to leave by giving them a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of beef, mutton, or pork.

A selection of cold shoulders!Rule of thumb
Like so many old sayings, this is one with an awful origin.
Meaning: A common benchmark
History: Legend has it that 17th century English Judge Sir Francis Buller ruled it was permissible for a husband to beat his wife with a stick, given that the stick was no wider than his thumb. Must make sure this is a saying I avoid in future!

Sleep tight
Meaning: Sleep well.
History: During Shakespeare’s time, mattresses were secured on bed frames by ropes. In order to make the bed firmer, one had to pull the ropes to tighten the mattress.

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Happy anniversary WI!

It seems to be a good year for anniversaries. Not only has the Queen just become our longest reigning monarch and ‘Alice in Wonderland’ celebrated 150 years since publication… but the Women’s Institute is 100 years old this week!

There’s been a great deal of publicity for this institution’s centenary – and yet for many years, it was seen as distinctly fuddy-duddy and very much for the ‘older’ woman. Today it is riding high, gaining new members and is regarded as pretty trendy. I can’t help but think a lot of this resurgence is due to those clever ladies of Rylstone Women’s Institute who came up with the ‘2000 Alternative WI Calendar’ of slightly risqué photos of nude ladies tastefully hidden by cakes and flowers. It was, of course, made into the film ‘Calendar Girls’ with the calendar itself going on to raise over £3 million for Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research. What a wonderful achievement. 

And what a far cry from the beginnings of the WI! The first WI meeting in the UK was held in Llanfairpwll on Anglesey, Wales, on 16 September 1915. Since then, the organisation has grown to become the largest women’s voluntary organisation in the UK with over 212,000 members in 6,600 WIs.

The WI was originally established to educate rural women and to encourage countrywomen to get involved in growing and preserving food to help to increase the supply of food to a war-torn nation. Education and the sharing of skills have always been at the heart of the organisation, and they still are. 

While the meeting venues might have changed from the local village hall to the local café, the ethos of the WI remains the same, and women join now to meet new friends, learn new skills and make a difference on matters that are important to them now, just as fellow members did back in 1915.

There has been a resurgence of interest in baking (The Great British Bake Off) and in traditional pursuits such as knitting and quilting, making the WI even more relevant today. Look at their website and you’ll be amazed at what they offer – and what their members get up to!

Here’s what they have to say about craft: “Craft has always been treasured within the WI. The making of a crafted artefact tells and records stories; protecting heritage and traditional skills. Making can have a positive impact on our lives. It can create space to socialise, and allow for the learning of new skills and sharing of ideas. Craft brings together communities, generations and cultures. It can also be the perfect medium to discuss issues that affect women. However, the most inspiring thing about craft is its democracy; everyone can make something no matter if you are a beginner of a more experienced maker. Craft can change lives!”

I thought that was rather profound! Well done the Women’s Institute and congratulations on your 100 years, may you enjoy many more!

Are you a WI member? If so, what do you enjoy about it?

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