Trees, lights, cards and crackers it's Christmas!

We all know that the origins of the Christmas story are based on very ordinary and yet momentous events which took place in a Bethlehem stable over 2000 years ago. Other facets of Christmas have a more recent history and are worthy of consideration. Using trees and greenery as decorations pre-date the Christian era as such products of the earth were widely used in winter festival events throughout Europe. This gave rise to the practice of using holly, ivy and mistletoe as an integral part of bedecking our homes and halls. Trees were also used in the winter festivals, particularly in the east German and Latvian countries, and continue to play a large part in today's seasonal celebrations.

The decorated Christmas tree has its origins in Germany and was first introduced to Britain during the reign of George III and was confined to Royal residences. William IV's wife, the little known Queen Adelaide, continued the practice but it was frowned upon by stuffy courtiers as, in their view, it encouraged pagan practices.

It was Queen Victoria's German Consort and husband, Prince Albert, who gave the Christmas tree respectability when he introduced it into the court at Windsor Castle in 1848. A woodcut of the Queen, her husband and their family, appeared in the London lllustrated News that same year and so the tree became a "must have" for the British upper classes. The trees were decorated by candles, set either in wax or pinned to the branches, but as wax was an expensive commodity in those days, only the affluent could afford to decorate their trees in this way. Continue reading....

By 1860 the Christmas tree had become an important part of the festive scene, and it was also eagerly embraced by the USA. This enthusiasm was not always shared by some of the American presidents and a number of them would not permit the installation of a Christmas Tree in the White House. Today, "new cut" Christmas trees are big business and engender £200m annually to the British economy.

Artificial Christmas trees also have their origins in Germany as the Germans were concerned about the deforestation resulting for the demand for fresh cut firs. The original artificial trees consisted of green-dyed goose feathers fitted on to a wire frame, This may have helped the threat of deforestation but did little for the goose population!

The first tree to carry electric coloured lights made its appearance in New York in 1882. The 80 coloured strung lights were the work of Edward Johnson who went on to be the vice president of the Edison Electric Company. Fairy lights went into full production in 1890 and department stores began to use them to highlight their displays. Fairy lights were notoriously unsafe and remained so until a better system of safety lights was invented in 1917

We have to thank Sir Henry Cole, a civil servant, inventor and first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, for the introduction of the Christmas card in 1843. He had commissioned the artist John Callcott Horsley to design the first card and by 1846 one thousand of them had sold at a shilling each. The original cards featured pastoral scenes and families raising their glasses high toasting the festive season which greatly irked members of the temperance societies. The now familiar Christmas symbols were added later and the robin made its appearance on the cards when postmen took over the delivery.

Cole had been an assistant to Rowland Hill, the first Postmaster General and the postmen were known as "robins" referring to the red stripe adorning their uniforms. And the robin continues to be very much to the fore on today's Christmas cards and it is reckoned that the average person in Britain nowadays sends around 50 cards per year. One of the original Christmas cards recently sold at an auction and realised over £22,000.

The Christmas cracker, complete with gift, motto and party hat, began life as a twist of coloured crackle paper holding sugar almonds known as bon-bons. They were thought up by London confectioner Thomas Smith who went on to refine them by removing the original crackle, making the contents more upmarket and adding the friction induced mechanism resulting in the chemical explosion.

Today, boxes of crackers sell from the cheap and cheerful to the absolute deluxe. Perhaps this Yuletide you will look at the Christmas trappings which surround you with other eyes. Feel free to expound on them to your Christmas dinner guests and when their eyes begin to glaze over give them another sherry and continue undaunted. And a Merry Christmas to you all.

Written by Hugh Smith for the Ileach Newspaper