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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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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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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‘tis Poldark country!

Poldark fever gripped the nation earlier this year… and I confess I was one of those gripped. Well, I mean to say, there was a lot to be gripped by! Apart from the rather delightful sight of the hero himself (remember the bit of shirtless scything – goodness!) there was also the stunning scenery that contributed so much to the series. Poldark, written by Winston Graham, is set in Cornwall. As I expect some of you might be heading this way for your summer holidays I thought you might like to go and look at the magnificent scenery yourselves. Sadly, I cannot arrange for actor Aidan Turner to be on hand to add to the view, but still…

Charlestown
Top to bottom: Charlestown, Church Cove – Gunwallow, Porthgwarra, St Agnes Head.Charlestown near St Austell, famed for its collection of ships and traditional appearance, often plays the role of the principal town. As you wander along the side of the original Grade II Listed harbour complete with tall ships, you can almost imagine that you’ve been cast as an extra or have been transported to Winston Graham’s 18th Century setting.

Church Cove, Gunwallow
Church Cove Gunwallow on The Lizard re-lived its smugglings past when Aidan Turner and a hoard of other cast members descended to film night-time ship wrecking scenes. In reality, it is an attractive sandy cove overlooked by the tiny church of St Wynwallow.

Porthgwarra
Once a thriving fishing cove, the beautiful Porthgwarra sits at the heart of St Aubyn Estates and boasts a peaceful existence with its days surrounded by wildflowers and birdlife. The tunnel cut through the rock makes it perfect for swimming and rock pooling while the South West Coast Path offers unsurpassed views

Bodmin Moor
The cast and crew found themselves on Bodmin Moor for a large part of their time in Cornwall. Scenes featuring the exterior of Ross Poldark’s cottage, Nampara, were shot there.  With a rugged character and wild streak, Bodmin Moor provides the perfect backdrop to Poldark’s plot of passion and family dramatics.

Botallack to Levant
Location managers couldn’t resist the rich mining heritage of the stretch of west Cornwall coast linking Botallack and Levant. Cameras rolled with Levant Mine playing the role of the fictional Tressiders Rolling Mill while Owles and Crowns near Botallack starred as Wheal Leisure.

Padstow area
For some of the cliff scenes the filming action moved to the Padstow area. Fans of north Cornwall will recognise the spectacular views across the Camel Estuary and Tregirls beach, while the beauty of the wide sandy beach of Porthcothan is hard to miss in the scenes featuring Poldark’s fictional Nampara Cove.

St Agnes Head
Another area that enjoyed a taste of Hollywood is St Agnes Head where iconic engine houses perch serenely on the cliff-tops offering a silent reminder of Cornwall’s mining heyday. A natural location choice, it doubles as Nampara Valley in the series.

I am old enough to have fond memories of the original series, starring Robin Ellis and I wasn’t too sure I’d warm to this remake… but I did! What were your thoughts – original Poldark, or 2015 Poldark? Which gets your vote.

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Ladybird, ladybird…

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for ladybirds. I can’t remember now whether I just enjoyed seeing their bright shiny toy-like bodies on plants in the garden when I was a child, or whether I was influenced by my beloved Ladybird book collection – probably a bit of both!

Ladybirds are generally considered useful insects – nature’s own ‘pest’ controllers – and far more effective than poisonous chemicals. A few species feed on plants or mildew but most ladybirds eat aphids, like greenfly, or scale insects. Both are garden pests and this is why gardeners love to see ladybirds. The seven-spot ladybird can eat 5000 aphids during its year-long lifespan – not bad! 

Their bright colour and pattern not only make them attractive visitors to the garden, but also help to protect them by warning potential predators of their distastefulness. Their colouring is a reminder to any animals that have tried to eat their kind before: ‘I taste foul’.

They come in a range of colours, most commonly yellow, orange, or scarlet with small black spots on their wing covers. There are 2-spot, 5-spot, 7-spot… and so on right up to 24-spot! One does have to wonder, with so many spots whether there is any room left for any non-spotty bits and it just actually a black ladybird! And then, of course, not all ladybirds have spots – some are striped. There are heather ladybirds and pine ladybirds and the rather wonderful sounding Adonis ladybird, and many more…

A 7-spot ladybirdThe most common species of ladybird in Britain is the 7-spot ladybird. This bright red ladybird has seven spots (of course) and is thought to have inspired the name ladybird: ‘Lady’ referring to the Virgin Mary (Our lady) who in early paintings is seen wearing a red cloak; the seven spots are symbolic of the seven joys and seven sorrows of Mary.

They have many regional names, sadly now mostly lost, such as lady-cows, may-bug, golden-knop and golden-bugs. I must remember to casually remark that I have just seen a lady-cow in the garden and see if Richard runs out with a broom to shoo it away – no, perhaps not. 

A common myth is that the number of spots on the insect’s back indicates its age, it doesn’t. Throughout the world, superstition states that it is unlucky to kill a ladybird and there are myths surrounding their good fortune… which is odd when you recall the nursery rhyme that many of us learnt as children: 

‘Ladybird, ladybird,
Fly away home,
Your house is on fire
And your children all gone;
All except one
And that’s little Ann,
And she has crept under
The warming pan.’ 

… which wasn’t very lucky for the poor old ladybird!

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