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The lights are up, Noddy Holder’s voice is ringing in your ears and you’ve already eaten all your advent chocolate in a gluttonous frenzy. Yes it’s Christmas; that time of year reserved for frantic last-minute shopping, burnt turkeys and half-drunk carols in the front room. It’s also the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth, of course: and even that bears more than a passing similarity to the ancient god Mithra.
So where did some of the Christmas traditions we take for granted actually come from? The truth stretches back a lot longer than you might think. Here are ten yuletide customs born in the ancient world.

1. Christmas Trees

Our Christmas Tree We might curse the fact that we’re still picking pine needles out of our toes come spring, but the idea of decorating your house with greenery at winter goes back thousands of years. King Tut may never have seen the multicoloured mess we put up with nowadays, but he would have had date palm leaves scattered around his royal abodes on the winter solstice.Evergreens were celebrated in Egypt as a reminder that, though the winter was harsh and yielded little, spring would come just as inevitably. The palm also spawned a shoot each month, meaning that by December (as it would become known) Egyptians weilded the leaves to show that the year was over. They’d have decorated with entire forests if they ever saw a European winter.

Soon Egypt’s tree-hugging tradition spread north to Italy, during the height of the Roman Empire. Palms were substituted for firs and other native species, on which tapers would be lit and burned in honour of Saturn, god of agriculture and justice, during the notoriously raucous Saturnalia festival. The custom migrated north to Germany and Scandinavia during the Middle Ages, resulting in today’s obsession.

2. Christmas Carols

 

Carol Singing Whether you enjoy strangers caterwauling on your doorstep or not, you can thank ancient pagans and their joyous celebrations of the stars. Song and dance were commonplace at the earliest stone circles of Europe: some think even Stonehenge was built with acoustics in mind.

As with the trees, special songs would be created for the winter solstice. In fact songs would be sung for each of the seasons, but the Christmas tradition stuck with the newly-created Christian faith, eager to commemorate Jesus Christ.

The first ‘proper’ Christmas carol can be dated back to ancient Rome in 129 AD, when a Roman bishop decreed that a song called ‘Angel’s Hymn’ should be sung during the Christmas service at Rome. Fast forward a few hundred years, and a Greek Orthodox Priest named Cosmas of Jerusalem (or Maiuma) wrote another famous hymn. Soon, the whole of Europe was singing at Christmas. Incidentally the tradition of singing to people whether they want to or not was invented some time around the 17th century. If someone had shown Cosmas he might not have bothered.

3. Santa 

 Santa ClausMillions of people still think Santa owes his current scarlet clobber to canny ad men at Coca-Cola. But it’s a belief that should have been consigned to the ‘urban myth’ bin many moons ago. The western world’s enduring image of a red-and-white-robed Santa owes more to his ancient ecclesiastical roots then a syrupy soft drink. Saint Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra, an Ancient Greek town of Lycia, modern Turkey, during the 4th century AD. Popular throughout the Christian world, he’s also known as ‘Nicholas the Wonderworker’ thanks to the large number of miracles attributed to him.

Nicholas’ association with the reindeer-propelled giver of gifts we all know today stems from his propensity for leaving coins in the shoes of those who gave to him (see stockings story below). This grew into a European Catholic tradition, whereby the poor would leave their shoes in church overnight. Coins would then be donated by rich patrons in a homage to Saint Nick’s generosity. Present-hungry kids also can thank Nicholas’ status as the patron saint of children when they’re maniacally tearing open a box of badly-rendered plastic rubbish.

 The name ‘Santa Claus’, incidentally, didn’t come until the 19th century, as an evolution of the Dutch colloquialism Sinterklass. His name may have changed, but Santa still kept the ceremonial red robes of his ancient forebear. However many think the clothing may be an amalgam of Saint Nicholas’ and those of the Norman god of misrule, a red-robed character who would go about causing havoc during the winter solstice period. Santa didn’t always use reindeer to power him from house to house, either: many believe they are an evolution of the eight-legged grey horse of the Norse god Odin called Sleipnir, who could leap huge distances. Middle Ages children would leave out food for Sleipnir, a custom which continues to this day.

 4. Yule Log

  Yule LogLike most things associated with Yule, a pagan festival largely attributed to the Germanic peoples of the medieval period, the yule loge can trace its roots back through some of the world’s most successful ancient civilisations. Today the burning of the yule log has become a marginalised affair, and can be carried out pretty much any time leading up to Christmas Day. Yet the log began its life as a yuletide tradition thousands of years back, in the earliest cities of Sumer and Egypt.

Egyptians believed that the winter solstice period marked the death and rebirth of their national god Horus, the god of the sky and the sun. Thus light was shed to celebrate him, and since Egypt was about 5,000 years from electricity a log would be burned for 12 days. This tradition carried into the cities of Sumer and Mesopotamia via the winter festival of Zagmuk, and would later become one of the features of the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, when a yule-style log was burned for ten days to usher in the strength of Mithra.

Saxons and Visigoths would latch onto the log as a symbol of good, or light prevailing over darkness, or evil. Ashes were prized for their supposed magical powers. Christians, most likely taking their lines from the Romans, would later adopt the log as a symbol for the light of Christ bringing the world from darkness.

5. Christmas Cards

 

Christmas cardsChristmas cards may only have come into European vogue during the 15th century (thanks to the Germans, again). But their origins go back thousands of years before, to the greetings given in Ancient Egypt via ornately decorated papyrus. Related or not, the ancient Chinese are thought to be some of the greetings card’s earliest fans, exchanging simple messages to celebrate the New Year.

The invention of printing, and the west’s popularising of card-giving, wouldn’t arrive for another 1,500 years or so. You might expect the Chinese, with their longstanding obsession with fireworks (and blowing things up in general) to have invented the Christmas cracker too. Not so: desperate London sweet-seller Tom Smith invented it as an explosive panacea to his ailing bonbon trade, in 1847.

6. Mistletoe

  When Tara from IT starts waving mistletoe at you from across the office fix023with one suggestive eye on the stationery cupboard, you can thank ancient pagans for the group email the next day. Druids, to be precise: the ancient mystics saw the herb as having magical powers thanks to its evergreenness. Amongst its miraculous characteristics – curing illness, countering poison etc – mistletoe was thought to enhance virility.

Kissing under the mistletoe may date all the way back to the ancient Greeks; no strangers to free lovin’. Traditionally, kissing beneath the magical mistletoe would ensure a couple stayed happy. It was even used as a sort of natural proposal, and hung at marital ceremonies. Saxons then took on the mantle, associating the plant with Freya, goddess of love, beauty and fertility. Men could kiss any woman who found herself beneath a sprig of mistletoe, plucking a berry with each kiss. When the berries had all gone, the kissing was over. One suspects mistletoe was never in short supply at Saxon parties.

7. Presents

  For retailers at least, Christmas is the biggest gift of all: whether we want Oxford Street Xmasto or not (boo to those in the latter category) we’ll all be trapsing the high street in search of something we can pass off as thoughtful, with more than half an eye on our wallets. Yet as much as the world hasn’t always been obsessed with Furbies, novelty ties and shaving kits, we’ve been giving and receiving gifts since the beginnings of society. Archaeologists have found evidence of personal decoration as far back as 70,000 years ago – and French anthropologist Marcel Israel Mauss establishes social bonds which establish respect and interdependence – key to social cohesion.

Fast forward a few thousand years, and gift-giving was a key part of Saturnalia, when masters would ceremoniously be ruled over by their slaves. Gifts were also seen as an important way to keep up good spirits during the long, cold winter. Of course Christians point to the Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh given to baby Jesus by the three wise men, though it’s worlds away from the capitalist scrums of today. The idea of presents being stuffed down the chimney pot may also have derived from ancient times. Germanic tribes would throw gifts onto fires as sacrifices for the gods. Thankfully my slippers stayed flame-free last year.

8. Feasting

 It wouldn’t be Christmas without unholy doses of Turkey (or Goose, or Christmas Dinnernuts), bread sauce, potatoes and, of course, the only batch of Brussels sprouts you’ll eat all year. But, like most Christmas customs, feasting to see in the day has its roots in the earliest civilisations on the planet. The Mesopotamian festival of Zagmuk would traditionally involve great feasting, as the height of the winter ended, days became longer and farming could continue once more. Food was one way to usher in the sun, as was the case in Egypt with Horus – and later became part of the Saturnalia festival, a Roman middle-finger to the harsh European winter.

Goose had been used since ancient Egyptian times as the meat of choice for Winter Solsticers, a tradition which continued in Britain until the 16th century. Some credit Henry VIII with having introduced turkeys to our Christmas platters. The Spanish allegedly took on the turkey mantle from their conquered Aztec subjects, who had long domesticated the far juicier bird.

The Romans frequently ate Christmas ham, a custom still followed in many countries today, to celebrate the life of Adonis, god of rebirth and vegetation, who was killed by the tusks of a wild boar sent either by Artemis or Ares. A boar’s head is still roasted ceremonially each year at Oxford University. Though fruits, berries and spices had been used to make cakes in ancient times, the Christmas Pud we all know and love (and hate in equal measure) didn’t enter the annals of history until the 15th century.

9. Stockings

 There are no steadfast stories as to the origin of the Christmas stocking, Stockings for Allbut one apocryphal tale has stood the test of time, true or not. And unsurprisingly it comes courtesy of Saint Nicholas’ legendary generosity. A poor man in Myra lost his wife, and was left to bring up his three young daughters alone. He became poor, and worried that he would not have enough money to pay any of his daughters’ dowries, as was the custom back then.

Enter Saint Nick, who, knowing the father would be too proud to accept money for his daughters, surreptitiously threw coins into his house, beside the hearth over a few nights. The family were drying their clothes by the fire at the time, so each day each daughter would wake up to receive a coin in their shoe or stockings. Some stories even say Nicholas chucked coins down the chimney; another reason why we have Santa throwing presents down the chimney nowadays.

10. The Nativity

 Pushing the boundaries of ‘ancient’ somewhat, you can thank Saint Francis of Assisi for that heart-in-mouth moment you forgot your one and only line, ‘Sorry no room’, in front of over a hundred parents armed with cameras and pitiful expressions (or was that just me?). The famous Catholic deacon set up a living tableau in memory of Christ’s birth, using the accounts in the Gospels of Luke and John, in Greccio, near Rome, in 1223.

The tradition spread fast, leading to the annual humiliation of children that occurs in nearly every school in the western world, if not more. Catholics in Spain and Latin America also celebrate Las Posadas, a ritual re-enactment of the tribulations Mary and Joseph enduring before giving birth to Jesus. This can take place on any day from the 16th to the 24th of December.

Link: http://heritage-key.com

 Happy Christmas everyone………

The Best Tours during the Festive Period
HisTOURies UK – Magical Landscape, Mystical Tours

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A TRADITION dating back 5,000 years is to be recreated in Amesbury to mark the mid-winter solstice.

Stonehenge Winter Solstice

Stonehenge Winter Solstice

The town is holding its first lantern parade for centuries and hundreds of people are expected to take part.

The procession will take place on Wednesday, December 21 and walkers will set off from Stonehenge as the sun sets at about 4pm.

Carrying glowing lanterns, they will follow the original processional route of the Avenue away from the stones and walk across farmland before entering Amesbury and arriving in the town centre at 5.30pm.

Mulled wine, mince pies, craft stalls and plenty of festive cheer will be there to greet the walkers as they arrive.

Art students at Avon Valley College have teamed up with Amesbury based A&R Metalcraft to produce a lantern to lead the procession.

The lantern, which will be carried by a Solstice Fairy, will be kept burning through the night before being retured to Stonehenge at sunrise on the mid winter solstice.

It will then go on show at the Forge Gallery in Amesbury where people will be able to display their photographs, poems and pictures of the lantern parade in a large community collage.

“It’s going to be wonderful,” said Michelle Topps from the gallery. “Salisbury has its cathedral, Bath its waters and Amesbury has its ancestors.

“By remembering them we can establish a real sense of place for both locals and visitors alike. People have settled in Amesbury for 8,000 years and their influence is everywhere”. Mayor Andy Rhind-Tutt said: “This is a fantastic opportunity for our community to come together for this magical experience, recreating a 5,000 year old tradition and especially during the build up to the Olympics, when we will see the real torch travel through our town. I hope this will create a legacy for the future at this festive time of year and as many people as possible join in.”

Everyone is invited to take part in the parade and lantern kits and vouchers are available from the Bowman Centre, community shop or the Forge Gallery for £5 from Wednesday, December 7.

The voucher will entitle you to a lift to Stonehenge from Amesbury town centre on a Wilts & Dorset bus and refreshments after the parade. They are available to buy separately for £2 if people already have a lantern.

Full article: http://www.salisburyjournal.co.uk

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The main Christmas customs were those that were common throughout

Morris Dancers

Morris Dancers

the country and which came from a time when farm labourers worked most days of the year, and often on Christmas Day morning. Mummers plays were a favourite and would normally be performed in the evenings in the big houses and farmhouses of the area. The performers would be rewarded with food and drink and, sometimes, with money. Most villages had a group of men who were the mummers and both words and actions of the play and costumes and props would be handed down from one generation to the next. Places from which mummers’ plays are remembered include, Stourton, Cricklade, Limpley Stoke, Amesbury, Maiden Bradley, Horningsham, Wootton Rivers, Woodford, Quidhampton, Stockton and Winterslow. Around Swindon in the 1830s, when it was still a small market town, they are recorded as going from door to door and, more especially, from pub to pub.

Carol singers were often groups of boys, or sometimes the church choir, who would visit the big houses of the neighbourhood collecting money. As with carol singers until the 1970s, these always gave good value by singing the full carol. At the larger houses they might sing two or three. There were some local carols, most of which have been lost, and some of these were original while others were adaptations of well known carols. At Berwick St. James it was the custom to wake up householders on Christmas morn by singing carols, which were learned by one generation from the preceding one.

An earlier tradition was wassail. Originally a fertility rite with live animals this later degenerated into processing around the streets, singing and collecting money in the wassail bowl. This happened at Cricklade where a live ox was once involved; by the 19yth century this had become a withey frame covered with a cured ox hide. In a few parts of the county, such as Everleigh, the parson organised a Christmas Ale for his parishioners, where instead of money being raised for the church the participants were provided with bread, cheese and beer. These seem to have died out in the early 17th century.

(Source: http://www.wiltshire.gov.uk/community/getfaq.php?id=194 and http://www.wiltshirefolkarts.org.uk/wfmummers.htm, A Wiltshire Christmas, by John Chandler. Alan Sutton, The Folklore of Wiltshire, by Ralph Whitlock. Batsford)

Stonehenge Tour Guide
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Had to share a few Wessex snowy pictures with you………

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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, 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.
Victorian Christmas Celebration

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.

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.

Thankyou for all your Christmas wishes.  Have a wonderful Christmas from all the Histouries UK team.

External Links:
http://www.welcome2london.org.uk/christmas-xmas-festive-new-year-london-tours-uk.htm
http://www.visitlondon.com/events/christmas/
http://www.christmasinlondon.net/

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Us Brits love Christmas. Our ancient streets come alive as thousands of shoppers and party-goers make their way past carol singers and chestnut vendors under a canopy of shimmering festive lights. The shops are overflowing with gifts, decorations and delicious food, and there are thousands of seasonal events from carol services to wild parties as the holiday spirit takes hold

Why is England a good place to visit at Christmas time?
Christmas is Britain’s most popular holiday and is characterised by traditions that date back hundreds of years. Many Christmas customs that originated in Britain have been adopted in the United States. There is nothing more magical than wandering through a British garden on a crisp, clear winter day: the sun, low in the sky, sparkling on elegant branches; the satisfying crunch of early morning frost underfoot; the delicate scent of winter-flowering shrubs. Holly berries bring a splash of colour to the festive season. Shortly after New Year, snowdrops poke their heads through the earth. Hints of spring arrive in late February as buds begin to appear on trees and the petals of early daffodils unfold.

Bath Christmas Market

Bath Christmas Market

 

1. Christmas Traditions • Pantomimes • Crackers • Dinner • Decorations • Mistletoe
2. Father Christmas
3. Queens Speech
4. Boxing Day

1: (Pantomines) In the UK, the word ‘Pantomine’ means a form of entertainment, generally performed during the Christmas season. Most cities throughout UK have a form of pantomine at this time of year. The origins of British pantomine, or ‘Panto’ as they are know as today, date back to the middle ages. Panto is generally aimed at children however adults from all ages thoughly enjoy this show. Pantos are based on childrens fairy tales and legends (Aladdin, Cinderalla, Jack and the Bean Stalk). It is traditional for the audience to join in with the panto – cheering the hero or heroine and hissing at the villains. Many phrases to be learnt before seeing a panto are “He’s behind you!” and “Oh yes he is!”, although this may seem strange to be reading all will become clear when watching a British pantomine.
(Cracker) The pulling of Christmas crackers often accompanies food on Christmas Day. Invented by a London baker in 1846, a cracker is a brightly coloured paper tube, twisted at both ends, which contains a party hat, riddle and toy or other trinket. When it is pulled by two people it gives out a crack as its contents are dispersed.
(Dinner) Christmas Day sees the opening of presents and many families attend Christmas services at church. Christmas dinner consists traditionally of a roast turkey, goose or chicken with stuffing and roast potatoes. This is followed by mince pies and Christmas pudding flaming with brandy, which might contain coins or lucky charms for children. (The pudding is usually prepared weeks beforehand and is customarily stirred by each member of the family as a wish is made.) Later in the day, a Christmas cake may be served – a rich baked fruit cake with marzipan, icing and sugar frosting.
(Decorations) Christmas decorations in general have early origins. Holly, ivy and mistletoe are associated with rituals going back beyond the Dark Ages. (The custom of kissing beneath a sprig of mistletoe is derived from an ancient pagan tradition.) The Christmas tree was popularised by Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, who introduced one to the Royal Household in 1840. Since 1947, the country of Norway has presented Britain annually with a large Christmas tree which stands in Trafalgar Square in commemoration of Anglo-Norwegian cooperation during the Second World War.
(Mistletoe) Mistletoe, considered sacred by the British Druids, was believed to have many miraculous powers. Among the Romans, it was symbol of peace, and, it was said that when enemies met under it, they discarded their arms and declared a truce. From this comes our custom of kissing under the mistletoe. England was the first country to use it during the Christmas season. 2.
2. (Father Christmas) The English gift giver is called Father Christmas. He wears a long red or green robe, and leaves presents in stockings on Christmas Eve. However, the gifts are not usually opened until the following afternoon. Father Christmas delivers them during the night before Christmas. The Children leave an empty stocking or pillowcase hanging at the end of the bed. In the morning they hope it will be full of presents.
3. (Queens Speech) Another traditional feature of Christmas afternoon is the Queen’s Christmas Message to the nation, broadcast on radio and television. This normally occurs in the mid afternoon after most people have eaten their Christmas Dinner. The Queen summaries the events of the year past and looks to the future. 4. (Boxing Day) Christmas day is followed by Boxing day (26th December). which takes its name from a former custom of giving a Christmas Box – a gift of money or food inside a box – to the deliverymen and trades people who called regularly during the year. This tradition survives in the custom of tipping the milkman, postman, dustmen and other callers of good service at Christmas time normally on the run up to Christmas.

A Christmas Market Christmas Markets are loved by everyone – the little wooden chalets selling all sorts of goodies and the magical atmosphere created by special Christmas fragrances of pine branches and incense and of course the hot mulled wine to keep you warm! The stalls filled with wooden smoking men, Christmas pyramids, music boxes, straw stars, angels and all manner of wooden decorations. Then you have the stalls with the lebkuchen, stollen and fresh sugared almonds – tempting you with Christmas aromas. Friends and family meet up to enjoy the day together and everyone gets absorbed in the excitement of Christmas.

Bath Christmas Market – A very traditional style English Christmas Market will be runnning every day from December 2nd – 11th selling a a wide variety of original hand crafted gifts, decorations, cards and toys. With the famous Bath Abbey and Roman Baths providing an amazing backdrop to this event, you will know that the festive season has really arrived in Bath. You will have plenty of time on tour for some Christmas shopping!
Windsor Christmas Market – A traditional German market which will be running throughout December. There will be individual wooden chalets each offering a variety of hand-made goods or sumptuous fare! Perfect for Christmas shopping!

More historical Chrismas facts coming soon. 
External Links:
Welcome2London – Christmas in the Capital

Wiltshire Tour Guide
HisTOURies UK – The Best Tours at Christmas time

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