Greetings: Merry Christmas or “Happy Christmas” and Happy Holidays!
England gave the world the first Christmas card, the tradition of caroling and Christmas crackers. Before Queen Victoria’s reign in 1837 the British had not heard of Santa Claus, Christmas crackers or Christmas cards. During her reign, the industrial revolution, new technologies and the wealth it generated changed the way Christmas would be celebrated forever. Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” encouraged the wealthy to share their fortunes by giving to the poor. These ideals soon spread throughout society. Families in England and Wales were soon able to begin taking time off to celebrate the holidays due to this new found wealth.
At the beginning of Victoria’s reign, children’s toys were handmade and expensive giving only the rich the ability to buy them. Factories began mass production and with it came games, books, dolls and other toys at affordable prices. The middle class could now buy toys for their children but the poor could only afford a Christmas stocking with apples, oranges and a few nuts.
The road to the Christmas card tradition was paved by penny postage required to get a letter or card anywhere in Britain. Later Sir Henry Cole printed a thousand cards for sale at his shop. The popularity of sending cards caught on quickly and was boosted by the half penny rate introduced because of new railway efficiencies. In the 1830’s Englishman John Calcott Horsley, began making small cards featuring festive scenes and pre-written greetings. He is credited with the production and mailing of the first Christmas card. At about the same time R.H. Pease in Albany, New York and Louis Prang, a German immigrant, were making similar cards.
Christmas crackers were invented by Tom Smith, a London confectioner, as a development of his bon-bon sweets which were sold in a twist of paper. When sales of bon bons slumped, Smith worked on new promotional ideas. He first inserted mottos into wrappers which met with limited success. Smith added the “crackle” element after being inspired by the crackle of a log he’d put on the fire. He increased the size of the paper, incorporated the banger mechanism, dropped the sweet and included a small gift instead. Later his son, Walter Smith, introduced gifts, paper hats and varied designs as a way of distinguishing the company from copycats.
Today Christmas is a very festive time in the UK. It’s a time for families and friends to open presents together. Most homes have a Christmas tree and mistletoe, holly and ivy are often used to decorate. Nativity plays and carols sung by candlelight in churches are popular. The tradition of caroling grew out of wandering musicians traveling from town to town visiting castles and homes of the wealthy hoping to receive a hot meal or money for their musical performances.
Children in the UK believe in Father Christmas. Like Santa he wears a red robe, lives near the North Pole and carries a large sack with toys on his sleigh pulled by reindeer. They write letters to Father Christmas and sometimes put them in the fireplace to be carried up the chimney where he reads the smoke. Father Christmas was originally part of an old English mid-winter festival and dressed in green as a sign or spring coming again. The story of Sinter Klass was brought to America by Dutch settlers and eventually became Santa Claus in Britain. It is not clear how the system of travel through the sky being led by reindeer and riding in a sleigh came about.
On Christmas Day, a mid-day feast brings family and friends together. Everyone will have a delightful Christmas cracker next their plate to be opened by pulling the end tabs. When the tabs are pulled a large cracking noise is heard and inside there will be small trinket. The Queen delivers the annual Christmas message which can often be heard around the time of afternoon tea.
December 26th is Boxing Day. The name comes from the long ago tradition of people filling alms boxes with donations for the poor. The day after Christmas the boxes were distributed. Today people give small gifts of money to service people, news vendors and others to whom they are grateful for their service throughout the year.
Many families enjoy pantomime performances on Boxing Day. Pantomimes traditionally performed plays or entertained using only movement and no words. Now pantomime is a catchall name for plays performed during the Christmas season.
Christmas Day did not become a holiday in Scotland until years after Queen Victoria’s reign. Only in recent decades was this extended to include Boxing Day. In Scotland New Year’s Eve is the most anxiously awaited celebration day of the year. This day is called Hogmanay which was traditionally a kind of oat cake given to children on this day.
In Scotland It is believed that the first person to enter a house on New Year’s Day has a big impact on the resident’s fortune. Strangers bring good luck. This tradition is known as “first footing.”
A traditional dinner in the UK might include roast goose but turkey is common today. It will be served with roast potatoes, stuffing, brussel sprouts, pigs in blankets, apple sauce and cranberry sauce. Christmas pudding is a long standing dessert tradition.