An English Christmas
Christmas marks the birth of Our Lord and holds a special place in our calendar. For many, it is the main feast of the Christian year, a time of peace and joy.
One of the reasons that it is so important for people of North European origin is that it is a continuation of the ancient Yule, the period of lights, warm fires, good food, merry-making, peace and goodwill. The ancient Yule was a time when weapons were put away and no warfare or violence allowed. Folks were invited to the temple and great pots of meat were stewed for eating and ale drunk. Hearths were kept warm and bright by a Yule log and particular meats included the Yule Goat and the Yule Boar. The tradition of eating boar at this festival is maintained in England by the traditional Boxing Day meal of boiled or roast ham.
The tree is a relatively recent addition to the English Christmas but reflects our woodland spirit and so we have taken to it enthusiastically. Mistletoe, from the Old English misteltăn, is also a feature of the English Christmas tradition, hung from the top of door frames and used to steal a kiss! In the olden days, it was held in high esteem and cut from sacred oak trees by the Chief Druid. Mistletoe is associated with thunder, and regarded as a protection against fire and lighting. In Scandinavian mythology, Balder the Beautiful was killed from an arrow made of mistletoe and wielded by the blind god Hoder. Shakespeare, in Titus Andronicus II calls it 'the baleful mistletoe'.
Whilst it can be stressful, it is the main time of the year in which families get together or at least send more distant relatives a greetings card. In England, Christmas remains without doubt the main holiday of the year, the main celebration whether religious or social.
Over recent decades, many bemoan the way Christmas has become commercialised, turned into a materialistic parody of what it is meant to be. In particular, more religious people lament the fact that the central message of the birth of Christ has been almost painted out of the picture. Fewer schools put on nativity plays. Fewer Christmas cards and decorations have overtly religious scenes. Fewer people go to midnight mass. Even the name Christmas is sometimes excluded from the celebration; replaced by ‘Winterval’ and Happy holidays. And these trends are indeed unacceptable and to be reversed.
But Christmas has always been much more than just a religious celebration of the nativity. Its origins in the Yule means that it has always been, and will always be, a celebration of light over darkness, warmth over cold, joy over despair and peace over strife. And it will always be a celebration of the family and community – something which our over-heated materialistic world has also undermined.
The folkish Christmas then, is happy to embrace the warmth and joy of the old Yule. But a true Christmas does not need the latest designer presents, the most expensive decorations or a gourmet meal. The true spirit of Christmas lies in celebrating life with your family and community, with joy and peace.
An import from America, the Turkey with all the trimmings forms the basis of Christmas dinner. Eaten with forcemeat or sage and onion stuffing, chestnut stuffing, sausages wrapped around bacon, roast potatoes, mashed potatoes, brussel sprouts, peas, carrots and whatever else you fancy. It also comes with lashings of gravy, bread sauce, mustard and cranberry sauce. More people are now experimenting with other birds such as the more traditional goose, or with beef and pork as a change.
The famous, or infamous, Christmas pudding. Basically a mix of fruits (dates, nuts, cherries, orange rind and so on) and suet, slowly cooked – traditionally steamed if made from fresh. It is dowsed with rum or brandy and set fire to just before serving. Traditionally served with a rum or brandy sauce – which is a white sauce. You really only need a small amount!
No Christmas is complete without a Christmas cake! Also a fruit cake, soaked in alcohol. You probably won’t eat this after your Christmas pud!
Mince pies with a filling known as mince meat. Whilst this is typically completely vegetarian, fruit and a bit of suet, its name comes from its medieval ancestor which did contain minced (ground) meat.
It’s not all stodge! Satsumas and dates are also something of a Christmas tradition.
And finally the Christmas cracker. Two people pull either end and as it breaks in half it makes a mild cracking noise caused by a chemically impregnated strip that runs through the cracker and splits when the cracker breaks. They include the ubiquitous Christmas hat, which is a paper crown so we are all King for one day, a small gift and a naff joke!
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