Ghosts of Christmas Past
I am not making this up. The celebration of Christmas was forbidden in Boston from 1659-1681? Anyone displaying the slightest bit of Christmas spirit could expect to be fined 5 shillings! Clearly, the Puritans were in no mood for tidings of comfort or joy.
Even before that, Mr. Grinch was alive and well in England. In 1645, Cromwell cancelled Christmas, because the holiday was considered decadent. To be honest, we’d hardly recognize Christmas as it used to be observed. After an obligatory trip to church, revelers would crown of a Lord of Misrule in a drunken carnival-type atmosphere. It smacked strongly of the ancient mid-winter holidays, Saturnalia and Yule.
When Charles II was restored to the British throne, the celebration of Christmas returned with him. But Christmas didn’t really come into its own until the Victorian era. Charles Dickens did his part to popularize the holiday with the publication of A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Christmas became a time to share with others and realize that “mankind should be our business.”
In 1848, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert celebrated by decorating a Christmas tree and sending out cards with an etching of them and their children enjoying a tender family time around the festive greenery. The tannenbaum (Christmas tree) was a German custom, but the Victorians, with their typical lavish excess, brought it to full glory. It quickly replaced the “kissing bough” of the Regency era in popularity. (If you’re interested in Regency Christmas traditions, be sure to drop by my blog throughout the month of December for more holiday fun!)
The Victorian tree was trimmed with edible treats–marzipan and gingerbread men, real fruit embellished with gold leaf, popcorn and cranberry garlands. Intricate folded paper cornucopias held nuts, dried fruit and hard candy. Small gifts could be found embedded in the greenery–pencil cases, mittens, tops, and toy soldiers. A little girl might find the dolly of her dreams peeking from the evergreen boughs.
The tree was topped by an angel, a nod to the heavenly host who announced the birth of Christ. Slim tapers on the boughs provided illumination (and an extreme fire hazard!) so the tree was only lit for a short period of time on Christmas Eve.
The women and girls in the family spent a good deal of time making the ornaments. They gilded walnuts after hiding “fortunes” inside the shells. They sewed little silk pouches festooned with feathers and filled them with candy. Later in the Victorian era, glass ornaments in the shape of icicles were produced in Germany and because they were expensive, they soared to the height of popularity as the ornament to have.
My favorite Christmas ornament is a little old St. Nicholas that belonged to my father–a gift for his very first Christmas. His plastic face was smooshed long before I got him. His red felt coat is decidedly shabby and his painted black boots are much scuffed. Fortunately, even though they’re the same age, my dad is in better shape that this old Santa, but I still enjoy seeing the little St. Nick each year and finding the perfect spot for him on my tree.
Do you have a favorite Christmas ornament or tradition you’d like to share? I’d love to hear about it. Merry Christmas!