Ghosts of Christmas Past
Have you ever wondered how Santa Claus, Christmas trees, Rudolph & the Reindeers, Mistletoe, Christmas pudding, and other Christmas oddities became part of our established traditions?
I have been researching how the Georgian(1714-1837) and Victorian era( 1837 to 1901) pioneers of the North Shore of Sydney, would have celebrated Christmas – and the results were surprising, to say the least....
Many people who lived and died on the North side of the harbour, tended to be the ‘movers and shakers’ of the Colony. As a result – we know a fair bit about them. They really got into Christmas in a big way!
I discovered that many of the popular Christmas traditions that continue to this day, have their origins in Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert - who brought with him, amongst many things, the German tradition of Christmas trees.. Christmas trees have been a German tradition since as early as the 17th century, but many ancient civilizations held evergreens to be a symbol of life during the long winter months and decorated trees as a symbol of eternal life. In 1841 Prince Albert, German husband of Queen Victoria, introduced the charming custom to the royal family. In 1850 a tinted etching of a decorated tree at Windsor Castle was published and the Tannenbaum became a necessity for every fashionable Victorian home. It was a tradition quickly embraced by Victorian England. Live trees were set up for the Christmas seasondecorated with lighted candles, draped with tinsel, ribbon, paper chains, cookies and candies.
The exchange of Christmas Presents, of ancient origin, symbolized the good luck, prosperity, and happiness wished for friends. The Victorians began planning their presents many months ahead. The most cherished presents were handmade, needlework, or something useful. People exchanged remembrances with family and friends. Children made their gifts as well. Although the Victorian idea of Christmas was not commercial, having more to do with food, and the exchange of handmade gifts, entrepreneurs soon saw the commercial advantages of a holiday full of the exchange of gifts. In America, by the 1880's New York’s Macy's department store's windows were filled with wonderful dolls and toys from Germany, France, Austria, and Switzerland. Another window boasted scenes with steam driven moveable parts. This pattern was quickly copied around the world. Homemade cornucopias of paper filled with fruit, nuts, candy, and popcorn were hung from branches of trees in Australia, America and England. Beautiful shaped cookies were hung for treats on Christmas day. Often the gifts were also wrapped and hung from branches.With the growing popularity of Christmas trees manufacturers began producing ornaments around 1870. Also popular were molded wax figures of angels and children. Many ornaments were made of cotton-wool wrapped around an armature of metal or wood and trimmed with embossed paper faces, buttons, gold paper wings and "diamond dust", actually powdered glass.In Victorian era Australia – a lot of things were literally bought by catalogue, and sent from main cities, or even overseas, by mail – even by people living on the North Shore of Sydney. So planning for Christmas started early, and had to take into consideration mail delays – some things never change!!!!
The “ Fairy lights” that you see on Modern Christmas trees, and the fairy lights we hang around the home, were originally candles…..In this case, modern technology has been a life-saver – literally! Lit candles on trees, particularly in the Australian summer, were a safety nightmare. (One of the gravestones on the North Sydney Ghost tour is actually of a little girl that lived in Lane Cove in the late 1860’s, who died from a house fire, and a resulting bushfire that wiped out hundreds of acres of land on Sydney’s lower north shore, from an accident with a lit candle on a Christmas tree,,,)
Christmas Holidays. Once apon a time – there was no such thing as Christmas holidays! The wealth generated by the new factories and industries of the Victorian age allowed middle class families in England and Wales to take time off work and celebrate over two days, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Boxing Day, December 26th, earned its name as the day servants and working people opened the boxes in which they had collected gifts of money . Those new fangled inventions, the railways, allowed the country folk who had moved into the towns and cities in search of work, to return home for a family Christmas. Hence – the start of the great Christmas Exodus!!!The Scots have always preferred to postpone the celebrations for a few days to welcome in the New Year, in the style that is Hogmanay. Christmas Day did not become a holiday in Scotland until many years after Queen Victoria's reign and it has only been within the last 40 years that this has been extended to include Boxing Day. In Australia –as our summer holidays coincide with Christmas – we get more time to celebrate Christmas than nearly everywhere else in the world. After watching the Eurostar train between the UK and France snowed under, and speaking with friends in Utah and Illinois in the USA who are digging their cars out of snow every morning, and off to work again on December 27th – personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way!!!
Christmas Tinsel, Mistletoe, Holly and the Christmas Garlands we decorate our homes with today had their origins in the greenery that people used to decorate their homes with in Victorian times. Greenery in northern European cultures during winter was a symbol of continuing life. Christmas decorations began appearing well before the holiday for many. The favourite plants were the berried evergreens, mistletoe, holly and ivy. During the Roman Solstice Ceremony known as "Saturnalia" holly was exchanged as it was believed the red berries would ward off lightning and evil spirits. It had to be carried in the house by a male, as the berries are only on the male plant. Ivy was twined in the holly as a symbol of the 2 halves of divinity.
Mistletoe was not allowed in churches because of it's pagan origins. In ancient times, Druid priests harvested it from sacred oaks on the fifth day after the new moon following the winter solstice. Norse warriors who met under the mistletoe declared a truce for that day. The Victorians used mistletoe suspended from the ceiling. Those who met under it could claim a kiss. The number of kisses allowed under each plant depended on the number of berries. Each time a kiss was given, a berry was taken off. No more berries, no more kisses! In Australia – we improvised! Without access to English plants, our pioneer’s homes used Gum nuts, cones, paint, sweets, fruits, nuts, Christmas bush and ferns to decorate at Christmas.....
Christmas caroling – and Carols by Candlelight - comes from a purely English tradition that was almost wiped out in Puritan England. In Oliver Cromwell’s time, after the deposing of King Charles 1st , it was associated with Catholicism, the sworn enemies of the Puritan movement, and the Church of England. It was quite ruthlessly put down, along with many other forms of Christmas celebration, such as the Christmas feast, drinking, and other enjoyable activities, as somehow” immoral”. Singing Christmas carols in the wrong person’s hearing in those times could land you in Jail!!!. It was largely revived in Georgian and the Victorian times, when Carols we would recognize like:.
1843 - O Come all ye Faithful
1848 - Once in Royal David's City
1851 - See Amid the Winters Snow
1868 - O Little Town of Bethlehem
1883 - Away in a Manger were all written.
In cities of Victorian times, the approaching holiday season was marked by strolling carolers, usually in groups of three, one caroler to play violin, one to sing, and one to sell sheet music. Holiday shoppers would pause to purchase music, joining in the trio for a few stanzas, before hurrying homeward. Carolers would stop at houses to sing, hoping to be invited in for a warm drink. Not surprising when you think about it considering one of the stanza’s of “We wish you a Merry Christmas” is:
“Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer”!!!!!
So, when you think about it – our modern “Carols by Candlelight” events in parks in Australian summertime – is a tribute to – busking!!!!!
Christmas Pudding, or Plum pudding is an English dish dating back to the Middle Ages. In these days prior to refrigeration, seasonal fruits were dried to preserve them for later use, Suet, flour, sugar, raisins, nuts, and spices are tied loosely in cloth and boiled until the ingredients are "plum," meaning they have enlarged enough to fill the cloth. It is then unwrapped, and to crisp the outside of it, is soaked in rum or a similar spirit, and set on fire. It is then sliced like cake, and topped with cream. Essentially – it was intended to warm you from the inside! In a cold European winter that feels like a God-send. Egg Nog, being a mixture of cream and spirits invented in early North American winter , had a similar intent.
Christmas Crackers were invented by Tom Smith, a London sweet maker in 1846. The original idea was to wrap his sweets in a twist of fancy coloured paper, but this developed and sold much better when he added love notes (motto's), jokes, paper hats, small toys and made them go BANG!
Christmas cards, were a direct result of the first Postal service being put in place during Victorian times. The "Penny Post" was first introduced in Britain in 1840 by Rowland Hill. The idea was simple, a penny stamp paid for the postage of a letter or card to anywhere in Britain. This simple idea paved the way for the sending of the first Christmas cards. Sir Henry Cole tested the water in 1843 by printing a thousand cards for sale in his art shop in London at one shilling each. The popularity of sending cards was helped along when in 1870 a halfpenny postage rate was introduced as a result of the efficiencies brought about by those new fangled railways.
Christmas stockings, came from children hanging stockings ( socks) on their bedpost or near a fireplace on Christmas Eve, hoping that it will be filled with treats while they sleep. In Scandinavia, similar-minded children leave their shoes on the hearth. This tradition can be traced to legends about Saint Nicholas
Saint Nicholas, a Christian saint, which in Dutch is called “Sinter Klaas”, became what we now call “ Santa Claus”. Much admired for his piety and kindness, St. Nicholas became the subject of many legends. It is said that he gave away all of his inherited wealth and travelled the countryside helping the poor and sick. One of the best known of the St. Nicholas stories is that he saved three poor sisters from being sold into slavery or prostitution by their father by providing them with a dowry so that they could be married. St. Nick left each of the three sisters gifts of gold coins. One went down the chimney and landed in a pair of shoes that had been left on the hearth. Another went into a window and into a pair of stockings left hanging by the fire to dry.Over the course of many years, Nicholas's popularity spread and he became known as the protector of children and sailors. His feast day is celebrated on the anniversary of his death, December 6. This was traditionally considered a lucky day to make large purchases or to get married. By the Renaissance, St. Nicholas was the most popular saint in Europe. Even after the Protestant Reformation, when the veneration of saints began to be discouraged, St. Nicholas maintained a positive reputation, especially in Holland.
Santa, his reindeer, and his sleigh became part of our popular culture as we would recognise him now, largely from this poem:
THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS
by Dr Clement Clarke Moore
'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a long winter's nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes -- how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night."
Merry Christmas to you and your family, from William the Weimaraner, and all of the team at SydneyGhostTour.Com!
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