Grumpy Santa and Yule log burning... Where festive traditions came from

A Victorian Christmas at the former Red House Museum in Gomersal
A Victorian Christmas at the former Red House Museum in Gomersal

OUR traditional Christmas owes much to the Victorians, though it has been celebrated by the Church since the 4th century. Originally a pagan festival took place around December 25, and the Romans had riotous feasts called Saturnalia.The Church incorporated many pagan customs into Christmas.

Jesus was probably born sometime between April and November in what is now the Middle East but there was little celebration of Christ’s birth until about 250 to 300 AD. In 625 AD the Christian Church in Rome decided on December 25.

The idea of Victorian Christmas being a time of great merriment, tables groaning with exotic foods, largely applied to the middle and upper classes. In the first half of Queen Victoria’s reign, there was a great deal of poverty and substandard housing. Bradford had many filthy yards with a few privies shared by numerous inhabitants, and houses were damp, cold and infested. In 1840 the average age of death of a labourer was 19. In Bradford, from 1859-1863, one in five of the population died of disease such as scarlet fever, typhus and diarrhoea, and half the children died before their fifth birthday. Against this poverty, it’s difficult to see how many people could enjoy Christmas. But they tried to make something of it, even if it was only a drink in the ale-house after church on Christmas Day.

It was observed in the 1860s that inmates in workhouses such as Bradford, and Otley were better fed on Christmas Day. Tenants and neighbours of a squire or gentleman could be invited to the hall to sample Christmas fayre: strong beer, capons, turkeys, geese, plum puddings. Yorkshire farmhouses might provide a ‘Christmas pot’: a piece of spice cake or Yule cake, with cheese and mulled ale. It was traditional to serve frumenty, a pepper-cake and mince pies.

Most working-class families didn’t have facilities to cook a large turkey, goose or joint of beef. Those who could afford them would queue on Christmas morning outside a bakery and pay to use ovens.

The Christmas tree was imported from Germany, made popular in England by Prince Albert who put up a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in 1841. The first Christmas card was sent by Henry Cole in 1843. It had a bird on the front. Early cards weren’t particularly religious but had birds or flowers on them with laced edges. In 1894 there were over 200,000 designs. Victorians displayed in scrapbooks, many are now collectors’ items. The Penny Post was introduced in 1840, and cards were posted in special boxes.

The tradition of Santa Claus originates from St Nicholas, 4th century Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor, now Turkey. By all accounts he had a bad temper but was kind, and he was patron saint of children. The Rev Clement Moore in 1822 based a story on St Nick and his image resembled a sleigh driver who rode him home from work. In the 1950s Coca Cola adopted an artist’s impression from Moore’s account, so the jolly, portly figure became the Santa we know today.

In the 19th century the custom of giving presents on Christmas Day was established. Until then they were given on New Year’s Day. From Medieval times alms boxes were opened on St Stephen’s Day (December 26) and the money distributed among the poor, hence Boxing Day. Mistletoe was hung in Victorian homes to bring happiness. Those who kissed under it had good luck. This superstition dates back to the Celts and Romans; when mistletoe was found on an oak it was cut with a golden knife, if it touched the ground it was regarded as a sign of evil. This is probably why it was hung up high. Sprigs of holly were a symbol of good cheer. Yule log burning was another custom Victorians adopted.

In many homes spiced ale was drunk from a bowl, passed round in the Wassail Cup, from the Saxon, ‘Wass Hael’ meaning ‘to your health’. Carol singing became popular in Victorian times after the Methodist and Evangelical revival when many carols were written. As a child in the 1950s I went to houses in the street singing carols. At the end we’d sing: ‘We wish you a happy Christmas and Happy New Year, A big fat pig and a barrel full of beer, To last you all the year.’

By the latter part of Victoria’s reign, the standard of living began to improve, enabling more people to partake in Christmas merriment. In 1887 Simeon Rayner, writing about Pudsey, wrote: “Christmas was both a merry and a sad time, there being so much drunkeness. We should not wonder if some heathen visiting Pudsey on Christmas Day had asked if their Christ had lived and died a drunkard, that made them honour his birthday in such a way.”

By 1875 there were more than 10,000 public houses in Yorkshire. Some workers were paid in them on Saturday nights and with few restrictions on opening times in the first half of the 19th century, some could be seen staggering around on Sunday morning, to complaints from church-goers. There was a growth in the Temperance movement and temperance hotels and Gladstone’s Government introduced a Licensing Act in 1872, ordering pubs in towns to close at midnight, and 11pm in the countryside. Brewers opposed it and many people felt it was a violation of liberty. The Liberal Government’s good intentions led to it losing the 1874 election to the Conservatives, brought down in “a torrent of beer.”