Christmas is packed with traditions, but most aren’t actually particularly old – in fact many date from the Victorian era.
Christmas cards, Christmas crackers and actually giving gifts all became fashionable during Queen Victoria’s reign – and Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer was in fact dreamed up by an advertising copywriter just before World War II.
In fact, the history of Christmas is littered with odd facts:
SANTA USED TO BE ‘CAPTAIN CHRISTMAS’
In Tudor times, a Father Christmas-like figure presided over feasts in aristocratic houses – and was called ‘Captain Christmas’ or ‘Prince Christmas’.
He was depicted wearing a fur-lined robe in illustrations – and was a descendant of older traditions such as the Saxon ‘King Winter’.
Some maintain that Santa’s ability to ‘know when you’ve been bad or good’ is due to the absorption of ideas about the Norse God Odin into the figure of Father Christmas.
CHRISTIANS ONCE BANNED CHRISTMAS – FOR 25 YEARS
In England under Oliver Cromwell, Parliament actually banned Christmas celebrations, for being over-boisterous and associated with Catholicism.
Satirist John Taylor wrote at the time, ‘thus are the merry lords of misrule suppressed by the mad lords of bad rule at Westminster.’
Cromwell was executed in 1649, and Christmas was restored in 1686.
RUDOLPH WAS NEARLY CALLED ‘REGINALD’
You might think that Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer was an ancient part of Christmas – but he was actually dreamt up for a 1939 ad campaign for an American mail order catalogue.
Copywriter Robert L May toyed with a few ideas for the reindeer’s name – including ‘Rollo’ and ‘Reginald’.
PEOPLE USED TO GIVE PRESENTS TO THE POOR, NOT EACH OTHER
Giving food to the poor or the sick has been a Christmas tradition for centuries – long before the idea of giving presents to each other popped up in Victorian times.
In the Middle Ages, people known as ‘hogglers’ would collect food and gifts for the poor – and poor women and children would go door to door asking for gifts, a tradition known as ‘mumping’.
SCOTS DIDN’T GET CHRISTMAS DAY OFF UNTIL QUITE RECENTLY
In Scotland, New Year’s Eve – or Hogmanay – was a far bigger deal than Christmas until relatively recently.
In fact, it only became a public holiday in Scotland in 1958 – and people didn’t get Boxing Day off until 1974.
PEOPLE USED TO WORSHIP CHRISTMAS TREES
The tradition of bringing the branches of evergreen trees inside people’s houses predates Christianity by a long way – and was a custom among not only the Romans but ancient Egyptians and Chinese.
It’s widely believed that the Christian tradition of decorating trees is a hangover from pagan traditions – where trees were worshipped.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica says, ‘Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmas time.’