Book of the Month Review

Christmas Traditions

A Celebration of Christmas Lore

A stocking-filler-sized compilation of Christmas lore, revealing the intriguing origins of the traditional festivities.

Forty short pieces on individual traditions are each accompanied by charming vintage illustrations from the British Library’s collection of Christmas books, cards and ephemera. Origins of the Feast at Christmas The decision to celebrate Christ’s birthday on 25 December; the Yuletide festival of Anglo-Saxon England; Saturnalia; evergreens taken inside in midwinter; the original Captain Christmas `Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ – Christmas in and out of Church Holly symbolizing Christ’s crown of thorns; the role of Midnight Mass; European celebrations of Epiphany and the importance of the Three Kings Christmas down the Ages Mistletoe and kissing; the Puritan ban on Christmas; the Twelve Days of Christmas; Dickens’s recipe for Twelfth Night cake The Transatlantic `Victorian’ Christmas Nineteenth-century romanticisation of Christmas and invented traditions; goose clubs; advent calendars; Christmas cards and gift-giving Modern Traditions Individual, sometimes outlandish traditions from around the world

By Becky Hinshelwood

I’m going to start with a warning… After reading this book, I got so excited with all the brilliant stuff I’d learnt about the history of Christmas traditions that I started regaling it all to my family. It’s worth knowing that I have kids aged 11, 8 and 5. So you can imagine, we very quickly got into territory that is dodgy for ‘believers’ in festive magic!

It went something like this:

“Did you know that St Nicholas used to bring gifts on his saints day which is 6th December. It wasn’t until the Transatlantic development of ‘Sinterklaas’ as Santa Claus that presents came on 25th December”

“But how did Father Christmas used to be someone else?”

“Oh… umm…”

So enjoy the excellent information in this festively delightful book but do be cautious which you choose to share around the Christmas dinner table with small children who ask awkward questions!

It’s so easy, nowadays, to fall victim to Festive Fatigue. And I think that this little book could be part of the solution. George Goodwin summarises the origins of the season, both religious and secular, and turns his focus to the evolution of many of our modern customs. So we look at things like carol singing, Santa Claus, turkey, Christmas pudding and the nativity play. Goodwin’s writing is concise, readable and amusingly arch in places. In 124 pages I feel like I’ve learned an awful lot!

The important thing in learning all this stuff is that it gives you the power to refresh how you want to celebrate Christmas. Feeling the pressure to give the kids a ‘perfect’ Santa experience? When you know that the concept of Santa’s Grotto was only conceived by accident in an American department store, it suddenly seems a bit more trivial. With knowledge comes power, and understanding history might give you the power to simplify.

So at a time that we’ve reached peak materialism at Christmas, could learning a bit about the history of Christmas traditions help us all to embrace a bit more of a zero waste approach? Perhaps switch our focus from presents and trimmings to the more traditional mischief and playfulness.

Our modern take on Christmas springs from the imagery of Charles Dickens and Washington Irving. Although the roots of festivity go way back to the Romans and Anglo Saxons, the way that we now interpret the season is absolutely down to these two men. Goodwin’s final section on modern traditions like the Queen’s speech, advent calendars and even Rudolph brings a certain clarity to the modern British Christmas. But it makes you realise how recently a lot of these things have been established.

So what makes a tradition? Goodwin’s reference at the end to Christmas jumpers and dogs dressed as reindeer show how traditions are evolving all the time. A lot of this is visual, with instagram perfection the source of a lot of our social pressure. So instead, look to the illustrations in this book. They’re wonderful, and the fact that many are full-page images means that they have maximum impact. The (mainly 19th Century) images gave me a lot of joy and are central in making this book feel really Christmassy!

So this Christmas I’m going to take inspiration from Christmas Traditions. And I don’t mean that I’ll start whipping the kids with a birch twig! I rather fancy instating a ‘King or Queen of the bean’ and embracing ye olde misrule! And instead of becoming enveloped in sadness at the end of the season with the prospect of the long January ahead, we’ll celebrate Twelfth Night. Thank you, George Goodwin, for helping me to find new joy in this festive season!

If Becky’s review has inspired you to read more, then you can buy your copy HERE + free UK delivery. Published by British Library.