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December 2023 Meeting Report

The History of Christmas, by Dr Sean Lang

The speaker at the December meeting was Dr Sean Lang of Anglia Ruskin University and a Sawston resident. His illustrated talk looked at the way Christmas traditions originated and have evolved.

The Christian church celebrated the nativity of Christ in mid-winter to replace heathen celebrations such as the Roman Saturnalia and to bring some cheer to a cold time of the year. The Gospel stories relied of the evidence of the Virgin Mary and have no references to animals at the manger or to kings, simply wise men from the East. Medieval tradition turned them into kings and one was depicted as coming from Africa.

The census carried out under Tiberius and the massacre of children by Herod the Great give the stories some historical context. Germanic Europe celebrated Yule and Saint Boniface saw people worshipping at an oak tree and promptly cut it down and a fir tree grew in its place, a symbol of eternity being an evergreen tree. In the Middle Ages Christmas had a key role in Mystery Plays, while the Tudors marked the festival with major feasts often featuring mince pies which originally contained meat. The lords might serve their tenants and a Lord of Misrule be appointed. Mummers could perform and be rewarded with a bowl of wassail.

In the mid-seventeenth century Parliament banned Christmas celebrations, seeing them as Popish and so undesirable and even wicked and likely to lead participants to hell. In 1660 Christmas was restored and carols featured, firstly as dances and then to be sung, led by singers and players in the west end gallery of churches and followed by a visit to the local pub. The earliest carol is While Shepherds Watched, which was allowed as its words are based on biblical texts. By the nineteenth century Christmas carols were sung more often to organs.

Dr Lang then showed how the influence of German consorts and Charles Dickens shaped Christmas, along with Henry Cole, the originator of Christmas cards, and the well-known Victorian poem, Christmas Day in the Workhouse. He also noted that Father Christmas could wear any colour, but his association with red was supposedly derived from a Coca-Cola advert featuring him, and that T’was the Night before Christmas also influenced how he is seen. He concluded with a reference to the origins of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s and some examples of Victorian Christmas cards.

Festive refreshments and a Christmas raffle were then enjoyed by members.

Mary Dicken

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