They’re the essential bits of Christmas. Squeezing a fir tree into your living room. Eating an odd-looking bird. Welcoming an intruder who breaks in by coming down the chimney. Gazing at your fifth mince pie of the day and finally wondering what on Earth might be in it.
How many of us stop to think how it all began? Dennis Ellam did… and today he explains where our festive traditions come from and about the origin of Santa Claus.
History of Christmas
What is the Christmas story?
Why people kiss under the mistletoe
Different countries still have their own variations on the theme, but that fat bloke in a red suit has pushed them all to the cultural margins.
What about Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer? Debt-ridden shopworker Robert Mays invented him in 1947 as the hero of a bestselling book that made him a fortune. The song, written by an adman and a professional composer, came two years later. Who says Christmas isn’t magical?
Why we have Christmas trees?
So who DID suggest cutting down a huge piece of shrubbery, dragging it into the house, covering it with lights, then sticking a model fairy on top? Then leaving it there until it drops needles all over the floor.
Blame a German. The Romans had hung up the odd bit of green branch, but it was evangelist Martin Luther from Saxony who first decorated a whole fir tree.
When is the best time to put Christmas decorations up and where to buy a Christmas tree?
That was in 1510. The idea finally spread to Britain during Queen Victoria’s reign when her German-born husband Prince Albert had one sent over to remind him of his own childhood Christmases.
A drawing of the Royals and their children standing around their perfect tree appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1846 – and next year there was a rush to copy them.
Artificial trees were invented in the 1930s, by the Addis Company, who turned them out using spare machines in their, er, toilet-brush factory.
Where did Father Christmas come from?
Red robes, white beard, waist-slapping jollity and booming ho-ho-hos. He’s been around forever, hasn’t he?
Well, actually only since 1935, when Haddon Sundblo, a Madison Avenue advertising man, created Santa Claus for a Coca-Cola campaign.
In previous lives he was thinner and paler, a character based on a 4th Century Asian bishop called Nicholas, who became the patron saint of children in most of Europe.
It was in Holland, where they called him Sinterklaas, that he earned his reputation for giving stuff away. A small pair of wooden shoes would be left by the fireplace and he would fill them with sweets. No question of trying to fit in a fashionable bodkin, let alone a Nintendo Wii.