Are Christmas traditions rooted in our rural ancestry?

There's nothing quite as idyllic as a rural Christmas cottage scene - snow covered branches, boughs of holly and stockings hung above an open fire.

Sadly, for most of us in the UK, white Christmases are few and far between, the holly is artificial and the majority of houses don't have chimneys for Father Christmas to descend...and yet our traditions live on.

So, where did they come from and why are they so rooted in our seasonal celebrations?

Hanging stockings

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'Twas the night before Christmas...

Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash

"It's said that Saint Nicholas wanted to give to the poor but people were too proud to take handouts, so he would drop coins down the chimney and they would land in the stockings hanging by the fireplace to dry," explains Josh Turner from Stand4Socks, a company that supports causes for each pair of socks sold.

"We know from our own research that the tradition of hanging a stocking above the fireplace goes back at least as far as 1823 and it's still the best part of Christmas."

 

Decking the halls

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The Holly bears a berry as bright as any rose...

- The Rural Travel Guide

“It just wouldn’t be Christmas if we didn’t adorn our homes with holly and ivy and they have been a traditional decoration since ancient times. Holly was originally used in pre-Christian times to celebrate the winter solstice and signified the coming of spring," Cato Cooper, Co-owner at The Emporium Somerset explains.

“In many cultures the plants are believed to have magical properties. Decorating with them was thought to ward off evil spirits, as many believed the howling winds of winter were ghosts and demons.

“In the north of Scotland circlets of ivy were put under milk vessels to keep evil away."

Nicky Roeber, Online Horticultural Expert at Wyevale Garden Centres agrees. He said: "Thousands of years ago, pagans believed that holly was a sacred tree, and it was forbidden to cut it down. The plant was considered so holy that druid priests wore sprigs of it during the Winter Solstice, and boughs of holly were brought into the home in an effort to ward off lightning strikes, fires and evil spirits."

Like our beliefs, Holly at Christmas has evolved over time but still remains one of the most popular symbols of the season.

Cato added: “When Christianity came to Western Europe, many people attributed the prickly leaves of the holly to the crown of thorns worn by Jesus. Many people wanted to ban the use of the plants for decorating the home however, the UK and Germany were the main countries to keep it for décor.

"In these modern days, it is used mainly in the making of wreaths and other festive floral arrangements.”

 

Christmas trees

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Oh Christmas Tree...

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

There's a debate among historians as to who introduced the Christmas tree to Britain - Prince Albert certainly made it fashionable during Queen Victoria's reign but some say it was actually Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, who introduced them some 40 years earlier.

Either way, it's now a tradition to bring an evergreen fir tree into the home and decorate it each year.

And like many of our Christmas traditions, traces of the history can be tracked to the pagans who would have very understandably been in awe of a tree that stays green all year round and made it a huge part of their midwinter celebrations.

It wasn't until the 17th Century in Germany that trees were decorated, however, so although there are traces of trees representing a traditional British Christmas, we owe our current tradition to the Germans.

 

Putting a sixpence in the Christmas pudding

Unlike a lot of our other traditions, the Christmas pudding does have a very Christian heritage.

David Greenwood-Haigh of Coeur de Xocolat explains: "Stir-up Sunday is a tradition going back to Victorian times when the family would gather to make the Christmas pudding five weeks before Christmas.

"Christmas pudding traditionally contains 13 ingredients to represent Jesus and his disciples. It is stirred (while making a wish/prayer) by each member of the family from east to west, to remember the Wise Men who travelled from the east to visit Jesus.

 "Adding a coin is still done today. Originally charms were said to bring luck if you found them on Christmas Day. The traditional charms were a silver coin [sixpence] for wealth, a wishbone for luck, a thimble for thrift, a ring for marriage, and an anchor for safe harbour.

"The holly garnish represented the crown of thorns."

Christmas cards

Christmas cards are well and truly rooted in the British countryside.

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The first one was designed and sent in 1834 by Sir John Callcott Horsley from Orestone Manor in Devon (right). Originally a run of 1,000 prints, only 20 of the cards now remain.

One sold at auction in 2001 for £22,500, while the Victoria & Albert Museum's mint condition copy is worth £25,000.

To celebrate the birthplace of the Christmas card, the owners of Orestone Manor have designed a new Christmas card based closely on Mr Horsley's original design, which carries interesting information about the story of the first Christmas card inside.

 

Megan is the owner of Rural Roots PR & Journalism, specialising in rural tourism, where her passion for travel, heritage and a great visitor experience inspired her to start 'The Rural Travel Guide'.

Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.