Christmas through the ages: from wassailing to wonderlands

Christmas was not always about gifts, Santa Claus and family traditions. In the past Christmas has been celebrated in very different ways. Here we explore Christmas through four separate periods in time:

Warding off bad spirits

During the medieval era, Christmas was more about warding off evil spirits in pagan festivals than about giving gifts and feasting. Villages would be decorated with evergreens like holly to symbolise everlasting life and traditions like wassailing. This tradition was intended to awake the cider apple trees and ward off evil spirits on 5th January.

Eating, drinking and being merry

The Elizabethans are mostly responsible for the feasting, drinking and merry-making we know and love at Christmas time. In Elizabethan times, people started to use Christmas as a chance to show off their wealth with culinary delights and sugars that were very expensive at the time.

The 12 days of Christmas

In Georgian times (1714-1837), Christmas was developed to incorporate the 12 days of Christmas with the 12th night being of particular importance. The 12th night fell on 5th January (the pagan wassailing night) and kick-started the gift-giving tradition with the 12th night cake. This celebration cake was baked and shared with the household, including with the servants on the 12th day of Christmas. Starting as a dried pea and dried bean cake, this quickly developed into an extravagant cake, often with gold leafing and icing, by the end of the period. The Georgians also started giving gifts including jewellery and pretty trinkets to their loved ones at Christmas.

Oh Christmas tree

The Victorians introduced one of the most iconic images of Christmas to the UK, decorating the tree with lights in thanks to Queen Victoria. The popularity of the tree began in royal circles and quickly spread throughout the gentry and into society. Christmas crackers were also first produced in the Victorian era along with the tradition of giving Christmas cards. It was also in the Victorian era that Sinterklass was introduced to America by the Dutch, eventually developing into the Santa Claus we know today.