How Christmas Became Christmas

Ever wondered how some of our favourite festive traditions came to be? Here’s some trivia to share over Christmas dinner…



Displaying evergreens during the depths of winter is a custom that goes back thousands of years. A notable example is the use of decorous foliage during Saturnalia - a hedonistic, free-wheeling Roman festival that would take place each December, with feasting and merry-making for servants and masters alike.

Christmas trees as we know them today originated in Germany several centuries ago, and eventually became an upper-class status symbol in Britain. In the 1840s, the popularity of Christmas trees among the masses was boosted when an image of Queen Victoria's tree was printed in a popular journal, and before long trees became a widely-known symbol of the festive season.


The first commercially produced Christmas card was the brainwave of a Victorian mover-and-shaker called Sir Henry Cole. A pioneer in more ways than one, Cole played a key part in establishing the Post Office, and would help form much-loved institutions like London's Victoria & Albert Museum.

In 1843, Cole commissioned an artist called John Callcott Horsley to come up with the design, which showed a big happy family giving the recipient a festive toast. The card was a hit, although it did prove a little bit controversial at the time, as one of the family members raising a big glass of red wine was clearly a young child...

The famous Nativity scene.

The famous Nativity scene.


Whether acted out by school children or depicted by flimsy sculptures in shopping centres, the familiar Nativity scene may sometimes seem like a slightly tacky staple of the Christmas season, but it was actually invented by a towering religious figure: St Francis of Assisi.

While visiting an Italian village in 1223, he had the idea of inspiring Christian fervour in the local citizens by physically depicting the birth of Christ. He prepared a manger, filled it with hay, and even brought in animals as live props while he recounted the Nativity story to the assembled locals. The show proved so popular that similar scenes were staged throughout Italy and, later, the world.


The evolution of the dense, dark, boozy cannonball we know as Christmas pudding is still a bit a hazy. Its distant ancestor seems to be a rich medieval dish called "plum pottage" - a slurry of boiled meats, dried fruits and old English spices, which was traditionally served up at the start of a meal.

The meat component eventually diminished over time, and by the early 18th Century the plum pottage had morphed into the firmer pudding variation that somehow became linked with Christmas. The first definitive mention of "Christmas pudding" can be found in Eliza Acton's trailblazing cookbook of 1845.


Christmas crackers owe their origin to sugared almonds. It was in the mid-19th Century that London confectioner Tom Smith saw the delicacies on a trip to Paris, and noted how they were wrapped in tissue paper with twisted ends. He began selling his own variation in Britain, and - as the story goes - was further inspired by the crackles and sparks given off by his log fire one evening.

This gave him the idea to create a treat which would "snap" when opened. Eventually, the "crackers" were filled with trinkets, mottoes and paper hats, and commemorated not just Christmas but every major public event. There were themed crackers for war heroes, crackers for suffragettes, crackers for Freemasons, and even crackers to celebrate the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb.


The idea of a "merry Christmas", as opposed to a merely happy one, goes back a long time. The phrase appeared on the very first Christmas card, which we mentioned earlier, and that was in 1843. That same year saw the publication of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, which popularised the phrase even more.

Yet one of the earliest known uses of "merry Christmas" was made in strikingly un-merry circumstances, in the year 1534. A bishop named John Fisher was imprisoned for refusing to accept Henry VIII's position as the head of the church, and wrote a desperate letter to Thomas Cromwell for help, wishing him a merry Christmas at the end. Fisher was executed several months later.