I have been doing just that the past few days and I thought it would be fun to share with you what I've learned.
Sit back, grab a cup of coffee or tea and come along with me as I take you on a journey through the Christmas traditions starting in the medieval times all the way through World War II and Post War. We're going to England.....of course. :)
Early Christians displayed evergreen plants in the home to symbolise everlasting life. Holly, ivy and evergreen herbs such as bay and rosemary were the most commonly used, all with symbolic meanings that were familiar to our ancestors. Rosemary, for remembrance, and bay, for valour, are still well known. Holly and ivy were a particularly popular combination, the holly traditionally thought to be masculine and ivy feminine, giving stability to the home.
A kissing-bough was often hung from the ceiling. This would consist of a round ball of twigs and greenery, decorated with seasonal fruit, such as apples. It was the precursor to the bunch of mistletoe, under which no lady could refuse a kiss.
In the medieval period, the Yule log was ceremoniously carried into the house on Christmas Eve, and put in the fireplace of the main communal room. Often decorated with greenery and ribbon, it was lit with the saved end of the previous year's log and then burnt continuously for the Twelve Days of Christmas, providing much needed light and warmth.
The exhortation to 'eat, drink and be merry' epitomised Christmas in Elizabethan England. A highlight of the season was the Christmas feast, which, in those households that could afford it, culminated in a 'banqueting course' of sweet and colourful delicacies.
A banquet, or sweetmeat, course allowed the host to display his wealth and status. It also provided its creator, often the lady of the house, an opportunity to show her culinary and artistic skills. Sugar, very expensive at the time and considered to have medicinal properties, was the key ingredient of most of the elaborate dishes.
They were prepared and displayed to dazzle the guests with their beauty, delicacy and wit. The latter was provided by the creation of whimsical foods designed to deceive the eye. 'Collops of bacon', made from ground almonds and sugar, were a great favourite, as were walnuts, eggs and other items made from sugar-plate, a substance of egg, sugar and gelatine which could be moulded successfully into almost any form the cook might conceive. Another popular sweetmeat was 'leech', a milk-based sweet made with sugar and rosewater, which was cut into cubes and served plain or gilded, arranged as a chequerboard.
Georgian and Regency
The Regency Christmas was not celebrated with the same grandeur as it is today; there was no Santa and no stockings, and Christmas trees and cards did not become widespread until the Victorian era decades later. It was a time of charity and goodwill.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, Twelfth Night parties were popular and usually involved games-playing, drinking and eating. A special Twelfth Cake, the forerunner of today's Christmas cake, was the centrepiece of the party, and a slice was given to all members of the household.
Traditionally, it contained both a dried bean and a dried pea. The man whose slice contained the bean was elected King for the night; a Queen was found with a pea. For the rest of the evening, they ruled supreme. Even if they were normally servants, their temporarily exalted position was recognised by all, including their masters.
The Christmas tree custom, which originated in Germany, was introduced into England during the Georgian period. Queen Charlotte, German wife of George III, is known to have had a decorated tree for her family as early as the 1790s, and there is also a record of a tree at a children's party given by a member of Queen Caroline's court in 1821. Queen Victoria herself remembered such trees in the 1830s, happily describing potted trees placed on round tables 'hung with lights and sugar ornaments'.
So, although Prince Albert is generally given credit for introducing the Christmas tree to England, he in fact simply popularised and made fashionable an already existing custom. Victoria and Albert shared a heart-felt enthusiasm for Christmas and each year of their marriage, decorated trees provided a focal point for their domestic celebrations.
Trees were generally displayed on tables in pots, with gifts placed unwrapped underneath. The tree was decorated with wax candles, baskets of sweets, flags and little ornaments and gifts. The imported German Springelbaum was the tree of choice until the 1880s, at which time the home-grown Norway Spruce became available. This made a larger tree more affordable, and people began placing trees on the floor.
Early 20th Century
By the early 20th century, the availability of a huge range of gifts for both children and adults had increased dramatically. The streets of London thronged with shoppers in the days up to Christmas, and the shops were open and ablaze with a riot of light and colour even on Christmas Eve.
Manufacturers and shopkeepers both large and small were keen to capitalise on the commercial potential of Christmas. Gamages, a vast department store in Holborn, offered nearly 500 pages of gifts in their Christmas Bazaar catalogue of 1913.
Some of these gifts were left under the Christmas tree, but small treats could be left in a stocking to be filled by Father Christmas. This custom was derived from a Dutch tradition, whereby children fill their shoes with straw as a gift for Saint Nicholas's horse, in the hope that sweets will be left as a reward for their thoughtfulness. If they were deemed to have been naughty, they received nothing.
Stockings were generally hung by the fireplace but were also left at the end of beds.
World War II
the Blitz did disrupt both Christmas celebrations and seasonal travel. Travel to family gatherings and even short shopping trips could be difficult. Rationing and the general lack of both luxury goods and daily foodstuffs meant that food preparation required patience and imagination. Sugar, butter, and eggs could only be acquired in small quantities, so substitutions, such as using grated carrots instead of sugar to sweeten cakes, were made.
Home-made decorations, such as paper-chains, and any available artificial decorations were used to enliven the home and offer cheer - despite the constant threat of bombing. A small artificial tree was a great asset, as it could be easily transported to the bomb shelter as required. One East End family had one made of goose feathers, which could be decorated with tinsel and paper decorations.
For Christmas, practical gifts were in vogue - gardening tools, books, bottling jars, seeds.
The image of the housewife as 'happy homemaker' was powerful in the 1950s, and at no time was she under more pressure than at Christmas. The pressure to produce not only a perfect Christmas dinner but also several days' worth of festive meals and snacks was enormous. Advice came from all quarters: 'helpful' parents and in-laws, household manuals and popular magazines.
Magazines such as Ideal Home and Good Housekeeping suggested ways to save money, short-cuts designed to enable the hostess to cut down on preparation time, and ideas for making entertaining both more exciting and easier. Despite this, playing the perfect hostess on top of other domestic duties was, it seems, a strain and the hostess often spent most of the party in the kitchen and most of the holidays exhausted!
'... study recipe books. Not half an hour before a meal, but study them in odd moments just for pleasure and ideas. Look out for two or three culinary masterpieces to add an inspired, professional touch to your meal planning.' - encouraged by Good Housekeeping
I think that no matter how you choose to celebrate Christmas, as long as you remember the real reason for the Season, that's what is important. At least for me and my family.
So I'm celebrating Christmas in a simpler way this year, it's just us four, and it will be a quiet day with a simple meal and some special treats. I'm also keeping the decorating simple and one thing I'm doing is making crochet ornaments for my little artificial tree in the bedroom.
And even though Christmas is literally right around the corner, I have a few more on the crochet hook. I plan on starting a new tradition of making my kids a new ornament every year, that way when they leave home they can take the ornaments they have chosen (we buy them a new one every year), plus the ones I have made them with my own two hands :)