Christmas Through the Ages: Celebrations from Saturnalia to the Second World War

Volume 20

Updated 15 February 2022

By Hannah McCann (Repost from Volume 15)

Every year on 21 December the tallest stone at Stonehenge lines up with the rising sun. The midwinter solstice would have been a very important day for Neolithic people. Archaeological evidence from around Stonehenge shows us that they had immense feasts - from pork and beef to mead made from honey. They probably sang songs, accompanied by the whistle of bone flutes as bonfires were lit on the frosty ground to honour the sun.

The Romans continued to celebrate the midwinter solstice but expanded the festivities. Their five days of parties, feasts and singing started on 17 December and led up to the shortest day. This festival - known as Saturnalia - celebrated the God Saturn who was head of the Roman Gods.

All normal etiquette and rules went out the window. Slaves were fed by their masters and even had some time off, everyone wore brightly coloured clothes instead of the usual white toga and gambling was allowed. There would be a sacrifice in the temple, followed by a huge, rowdy public feast. At Saturnalia the practice of gift giving emerged. Sigillaria were small figures - normally made from pottery or wax - that were given as presents, as well as cerei which were wax candles. The poet Gaius Catullus called Saturnalia ‘the best of days’.

There was another festival that coexisted with Saturnalia called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti or the birthday of the ‘unconquerable sun’. This festival took place 25 December and celebrated the days becoming longer again. By the time Christianity became the official religion of the empire in 380 CE, under the rule of Emperor Theodosius, Christmas had been intertwined with the celebration of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, 25 December - or as we know it - Christmas day. 

The medieval period was when Christmas began to take on a form that we still see remnants of today. People would fast until Christmas Eve and then celebrate for 12 days until 6 January. On the ‘Twelfth Night’ presents were given.

Medieval customs were a mix of Saturnalia (masters and servants swapping roles and gifting presents) and the Saxon pagan midwinter feast - the Feast of Yule. Customs of the pagan feast included burning the Yule Log. This log - decorated with ribbon and greenery - was brought into the home on Christmas Eve and was burnt for all twelve days.

Another pagan tradition was to decorate the home with evergreen plants (such as holly and ivy). A kissing-bough (made of twigs, leaves and fruit) would be hung from the ceiling. In later eras this would later be replaced by mistletoe. Again, mistletoe drew on old beliefs as the plant was sacred to druids and was thought to bring good luck to the home. 

The rich would often eat goose or swan, while the poor would eat poultry. Mince pie was one large pie filled with actual minced meat and Christmas pudding was a spiced porridge. Mulled braggot was often drunk, a type of extra-strong ale mixed with honey, cinnamon and brandy. In the evenings, the Lord of Misrule commanded what Christmas games would be played. Carols also emerged in this period - people would sing and dance. They could be religious songs but they could also be rude. 

Under the Tudors, the tradition of placing a bean into a Christmas cake emerged and whoever found it would become the King of the Bean. This meant that everyone had to do as they say - similar to the Lord of Misrule. This later developed into the practice of placing a coin into the Christmas pudding. The rich held ‘sugar banquets’ where edible models were made from sugar - such as castles and goblets. Spiced wine became popular along with gingerbread and ‘marchpane’ - almond paste that was decorated with sugar figures. 

People would often dress up (‘disguisings’) and plays were performed - Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was very popular at Christmas. 

“If music be the food of love, play on.” 

Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

In 1644, Christmas celebrations were banned by an Act of Parliament under Oliver Cromwell. He was a devout puritan and believed that Christmas celebrations (gambling, drinking, excessive eating) threatened Christian beliefs. All Christmas activities were banned - even going to church. People still celebrated in private as the ban was very unpopular, but they were far more subdued. In 1660, when the monarchy was restored, Christmas and old customs returned. It was less extravagant than the Tudor celebrations, but Christmas celebrations were back once again.

The Victorian era was when Christmas as we know today started to emerge. Although Christmas trees had been introduced to England by the German Queen Charlotte in the Gerogian era, it was Prince Albert that popularised the custom in the 1840s. In 1848, a print of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children gathered around their illuminated tree was published in a London newspaper which sparked a huge rise in the popularity of Christmas trees.

These trees were placed in pots on the table and wrapped gifts were tucked underneath. They were decorated with candles, sweets, ornaments and small gifts. This was the case until the 1880s when the Norwegian Spruce tree became easily available. This tree was affordable and much larger, so the practice of placing the tree on the floor emerged. Charles Dickens - the writer of A Christmas Carol - was not very impressed, calling the trees that ‘new German toy’.

Due to the Industrial Revolution, many families had the savings and time off work to celebrate both Christmas Day and Boxing Day. The mass production in factories generated many new toys, games, books and dolls. Poorer children were given a stocking with fruit - such as apples and oranges - along with nuts.

Queen Victoria’s children actually received quite modest gifts, mainly fruit and sweets. The practice of leaving gifts in stockings emerged from a Dutch tradition, where children would leave their shoes (filled with straw) for Saint Nicholas’ horse. Sweets would be left for good children - nothing would be left for the bad ones.

Turkey became the food of choice and people would sometimes hold feasts for their poorer neighbours, a custom that was encouraged by Dickens through his book A Christmas Carol.

“A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they”ve sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there — Not the little prize Turkey: the big one?… Go and buy it, and tell them to bring it here, that I may give them the direction where to take it.”

“I’ll send it to Bob Cratchit’s!” whispered Scrooge, rubbing his hands, and splitting with a laugh. “He shan’t know who sends it. It’s twice the size of Tiny Tim.”

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Christmas crackers were also invented in this period. Tom Smith was a confectioner’s apprentice in London and introduced the bon-bon from Paris. He wanted to make them more exciting so after seven-years he came up with the Christmas cracker. The bang would excite children and the poems inside would entertain the adults. He still drew on past traditions, as the bang was said to frighten away evil spirits. 

Further innovations in the Victorian era included printed Christmas cards. These became popular due to mass production, the introduction of the railways and the halfpenny postage stamp. Many other elements of modern day Christmas stem from those years. A Christmas box was left out for people to leave tips for servants which would then be opened on 26 December - now known as Boxing Day. The words to many well-known carols today were written in the Victorian era, such as Once in Royal David’s City, Good King Wenceslas and O Come All Ye Faithful. 

The figure of Father Christmas also emerged in the reign of Queen Victoria.

‘He was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot, And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot … His eyes how they twinkled! His dimples how merry! His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry … He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.’

Clement C. Moore, A Visit from St Nicholas (Twas The Night Before Christmas)

This description of St Nicholas was written by the poet Clement C. Moore in 1822 and became popular in the 1860s. Throughout history there have been many ‘Father Christmas’-like figures. From the Norse God Odin who had a long white beard and rode through winter giving out gifts or punishments based on people’s behaviour, St Nicholas who was kind and generous to the poor and children, and the Dutch Sinterklaas - another gift-bearer - which became Santa Claus in the United States of America. All these ideas combined to form the common figure in Britain - Father Christmas.

At the turn of the century, Christmas became commercialised. One London department store had 500 pages of Christmas gifts in their 1913 catalogue. However, this all changed with the outbreak of WWI.

During the first Christmas of the war in 1914, 2.5 million letters and 460,000 parcels were sent from Britain to the front. On Christmas Day in 1914, some unofficial truces were held along some areas of the Western Front. There are reports of candles being lit, trees being placed and soldiers playing football. Some soldiers reportedly shared gifts with their enemies on the other side of No Man’s Land. 

Christmas was equally difficult in the Second World War, with rationing and bombing having a great impact on civilian lives. It was difficult to travel for Christmas due to the air raids and rationing of sugar, butter and eggs meant that normal Christmas treats were off the menu. Some people used substitutions - such as grated carrot - to make cakes sweet.

Paper-chains became a popular way to decorate the home as they were cheap, needed few resources and gave people something to do during the air raids. People had small Christmas trees - similar to the early Victorians - so that they could be taken with them to the shelters. Some families had American GI’s with them at Christmas during the war, as many were hosted by families before they were deployed.

As we can see, Christmas and other holidays held to celebrate the winter solstice have brought joy to people throughout history. It gave everyone a chance to celebrate with friends and family - from the poor to the rich, the slave to the free, the soldier and the civilian. Our modern-day Christmas celebrations draw on all these festivities - Roman feasts, pagan rituals, Tudor celebration and Victorian customs.

We share gifts in the tradition of Saturnalia, decorate our homes with pagan and druid greenery, our food is from the medieval period, our drink and sugary treats from the court of Elizabeth I and our Christmas trees, cards, carols, crackers and even Santa Claus all come from the reign of Queen Victoria. Christmas really is, and has always been, ‘the best of days’.

Links for further reading

Christmas through the ages

British History in depth: Ten Ages of Christmas

The History of Christmas

Category: Ancient, Medieval, Modern