Suffolk Record Office | Christmas

As we prepare for the festive season we thought we would look back at the origins of Christmas traditions.  Many midwinter festivals in eastern and European cultures predate Christmas. Modern celebrations borrow ideas from these. Since Pagan times, evergreens have been valued for their ability to retain signs of life in the middle of winter, hence the custom of decorating our houses with holly and ivy. 

By Elizabethan times, food was part of Christmas festivities. In wealthier households, a banqueting course of expensive and intricate food displayed the wealth of the host and the culinary skills of his lady. The austere Commonwealth period resulted in little celebratory fun, and it wasn’t until the Restoration of 1660 that Christmas revelries regained popularity.   In 1662, Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary that he ate ‘plum porridge and a roasted pullet, followed by mince pie.’ (This was a frugal meal, owing to his wife’s illness.) 

We owe many of the modern Christmas traditions to the Victorians: -  

• Prince Albert popularised decorating a Christmas tree - although he was not the first to introduce the tradition to England. The Victorian tree was festooned with toys, small gifts, candles, candies, fancy cakes, and paper chains. 

• Tom Smith, a confectioner’s apprentice from London, devised the first Christmas Cracker after a trip to Paris in 1840. 

• The first Christmas Card was invented in London in 1843 by Henry Cole to advertise his business. John Calcott Horsley designed it - 1,000 cards were printed and hand-coloured. Charles Goodall first mass produced Christmas card designs from 1862. By 1871 there were complaints that sending cards was slowing down the post and in 1881 the Royal Mail asked people to post early for Christmas.

The earliest known portrayal of Father Christmas (the English version of Santa Claus) was in Ben Jonson’s play Christmas His Masque, first performed in 1616. Traditionally, Father Christmas is portrayed wearing green robes - harking back to the story of the Greek bishop, Saint Nicholas, who gave gifts to the poor. The red-robed Santa Claus is an American influence. Thomas Nast, the American cartoonist and satirist first drew the modern version of Santa Claus in 1881.  

christmas, ipswich,  Messrs Footman Pretty & Co,  debenhams

christmas, ipswich, Messrs Footman Pretty & Co, debenhams

As families gather round their festive tables, they often reminisce about Christmases past and earlier generations; which encourages some to research their family history by purchasing a subscription to online family history sites, not realising they can use Ancestry and FindmyPast in the three Suffolk Record Offices and Suffolk Libraries for free.  Digital copies of many popular family history sources are also not online yet, including in Suffolk’s church registers and parish papers dealing with poor relief and charities.  Settlement examinations, removal orders, bastardy bonds and relief payments, give family historians a broader sense of how their ancestors lived and the struggles they faced. Probate records are another valuable source. Our paid research service provides invaluable help, for those who cannot make a personal visit.  

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