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Christmas traditions galore: from meaty mince pies to pantomime dames

Many of the traditions we associate with Christmas-time today have odd, unexpected and sometimes completely un-festive origins…

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Mince pie mangers

Christmas wouldn’t be the same without mince pies. It’s practically the law that these fruit-filled pastry treats should accompany every cup of tea or glass of wine in the run-up to Christmas. However, mince pies used to be far from sweet. They were originally filled with meat and in medieval times, the pastry wasn’t supposed to be eaten at all. Pastry casings – eerily known as ‘coffins’ – were instead used as containers in which to cook foods. These tomb-like casings were discarded once the cooking process was finished. While eating pastry wasn’t popular in those days, it was common to blend sweet and savoury ingredients together, so dried fruit would have been mixed in with the meat in these ancient mince pies. Since the pastry casings were often made in oval or rectangular shapes, Christians started to associate them with Jesus’s manger. This slightly random connection seems to be how the Christmas tradition of mince pies was born. To our great relief today, pastry later became round, edible and only filled with dried fruit mince.

Christmas carols and medieval chords

Singing songs at winter festivals pre-dates Christmas by a long way. When Christianity became prevalent, these winter songs were given a religious make-over and linked directly with Christmas itself. The first known Christmas hymns have been dated back to 4th century Rome, while the first English Christmas carols were written by a chaplain from Shropshire in 1426. This is when groups known as wassailers walked from house to house to sing them. It was only years later that they were sung in churches too. The history of the Christmas carol is still very much alive today, as many carols such as Good King Wenceslas are based on medieval chord patterns.

Mistletoe mischief

Hanging mistletoe inside houses dates back to the Druids, who thought doing so brought good luck and sent evil spirits away. Associated with vitality too, the tradition continued through the ages until it became incorporated into Christmas celebrations. The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is thought to have been started among servants in Victorian England. The custom developed whereby men were allowed to kiss any woman standing underneath a piece of hanging mistletoe. Should a woman refuse a kiss, bad luck would befall her. Mistletoe during Christmas has continued to capture the imagination as the decades have rolled on. The Yellow Pages advert in 1992 which saw a shorter boy kiss a taller girl under the mistletoe – helped by a copy of the Yellow Pages – has been voted one of the best Christmas adverts of all time.

Jingle Bells

The tradition of ringing bells started before Christianity, used to scare away evil spirits. When Jesus was born, it’s said that bells were rung, although it’s unclear whether this was to ward away evil spirits, or simply to celebrate his birth. Nevertheless, bell-ringing is the church’s call for people to come and pray, and so bell-ringing has inevitably become part of Christmas. Associated with peace and freedom too – sentiments also celebrated at Christmas – bells are central to the modern day Christmas tradition. Even if for some it’s only to hum ‘Jingle bells, Jingle bells, jingle all the way’, or other variations of the song…

A Christmassy pantomime? Oh no it isn’t…

The pantomime is a core Christmas tradition nowadays, but in fact, it has nothing to do with Christmas at all. Believed to date back to Roman times, a solo male dancer would act out a myth or legend to an audience, accompanied by music. During the Middle Ages, England saw the rise of folk plays – which were probably the first pantomime-type plays in the country – often performed during Christmas parties. These plays included many modern-day elements of the Christmas panto, including stage fights and comedy. They soon became an expected part of the landscape of activities at Christmas. Even without any festive origins, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without slapstick, pantomime dames and a good dose of audience participation.

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