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The truth behind the most common Christmas traditions

Many Christmas rituals have unexpected stories behind them, from ancient winter festival habits to savvy businessmen who have forever changed the look and feel of Christmas.

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Christmas trees

Trees have been used in winter festivals for thousands of years, including the Roman Saturnalia festival, when people would decorate their homes with trees and greenery. In relatively recent times, Christians have associated evergreen Christmas trees with an everlasting life with God. Decorating Christmas trees started in 18th century Germany, when coloured paper, fruit and candles were added. Christmas trees started to become popular in Great Britain in 1841, after Prince Albert had a Christmas tree set up just down the road from us at Windsor Castle.

Stockings

The story behind Christmas stockings originates back to the fourth century and Saint Nicholas himself. Known for giving generous gifts to the poor, there are various legends that link his habit of giving to the Christmas stocking. The legends say that he put gifts of gold into stockings that had been hung over fireplaces to dry. It led to the custom of children proactively hanging out stockings in the hope of receiving gifts from Saint Nicholas. Over time, Saint Nicholas’s traditions became Christmas traditions, and the hanging of stockings is one of the customs that stuck. It’s still common nowadays to put oranges or satsumas into Christmas stockings as gifts – these symbolise the gold that Saint Nicholas is said to have given out.

Christmas crackers

Crafted by the clever London sweet-maker Tom Smith, Christmas crackers have been part of the Christmas scene since the 1840s. He was inspired by French sweets he’d seen wrapped in pretty coloured paper, which also had a riddle inside. Tom Smith tried to sell his sweets in this more appealing way too. His idea failed, but he didn’t give up. After watching the fire one evening, he started looking for ways that sweet packages would give a cracking sound when the wrappers were pulled in two. The Christmas cracker was thus created. The goods inside have become ever more inventive as the years have gone on. So-called ‘Millionaire’s Crackers’ are even developed nowadays, which have expensive jewellery and other high-end items inside.

Roast turkey

Enjoying a big feast has been one of the hallmarks of winter festivals since the Middle Ages. The food consumed has changed over the years as tastes and trade links developed. The favoured Christmas meat was originally boar, goose, roasted swan, pheasant or peacock. Turkey only became popular in the 16th century when it started to be imported from America, enjoyed by the likes of King Henry VIII and Edward VII, who is said to have made it fashionable to eat at Christmas. It remained a luxury meat until the 1950s. Nowadays, around 10 million turkeys are eaten at Christmas in the UK alone.

Christmas cards

The custom of sending and receiving Christmas cards was started in the UK by the savvy Sir Henry Cole. A civil servant who helped set up the Post Office, Sir Henry wondered how the postal service could be used more. He collaborated with his artist friend, John Horsley; together they designed the world’s first Christmas card. They sold the cards for a shilling each. And so, the tradition of Christmas cards was born, and the Post Office started to get a roaring trade.

Celebrate Christmas at The Runnymede on Thames

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