Baubles originate from Lauscha in Germany, now a glass-blowing centre. When Hans Greiner, a 17th-century glassblower, couldn't afford to hang sweets or nuts on his tree, he made glass baubles shaped like fruit and nuts, with silver insides that were originally lined with lead. The idea spread throughout Germany and Queen Victoria started the trend here when she saw ornaments from her husband's homeland. The idea of decorating a tree dates back to Roman times. It was condemned by the church for being Pagan, but it was too popular a tradition to quash.
This poisonous, endangered species has a long history in folklore. In France it is Herbe de la Croix, believed to be the wood from which Christ's cross was made, held sacred by the Druids and once placed above cradles to protect babies from evil. The kissing may come from the ancient December festival of Saturnalia, when it was believed to aid fertility. In Scandinavia mistletoe signified peace, and enemies meeting beneath it would call a truce.
Making the pudding was once a family affair: on the last Sunday before Advent, everyone helped to stir the ingredients and traditionally made a wish. It isn't known exactly when the practice of putting in a coin began, but it may have its roots in ancient Rome, when charms were hidden in food during Saturnalia, which celebrated the god of agriculture, Saturn. The silver three-penny issued in 1551 was the standard coin used, but it has changed with time.
In 16th-century Holland, children would leave their clogs in the hearth, filled with straw for the reindeer in the hope that Sinterclass - later Santa Claus - would fill them with gifts. Another theory is based on a story about an out-of-luck nobleman and his dowryless daughters. According to legend, St Nicholas of Myra, a Turkish saint most closely associated with the season, threw gold coins down the chimney. They landed in the daughters' stockings, which were drying in the fireplace. After word got around, locals all left their stockings out on Christmas Eve.
No, but these hardy beasts survive the world's harshest climes and were associated with flying long before Johnny Marks wrote a song about Rudolf in 1949. In Siberia, reindeer were revered: ancient rock carvings show them ‘flying' and native mummification practices involved reindeer, considered superior to horses for passage into the afterlife. They are native only to Scandinavia, Russia, Alaska and Canada, but there is a reindeer park in the Cairngorms and, at the Trevarno estate in Cornwall, imported reindeer feature in Christmas events.
There is much debate about Christ's birthday. Students of the Gospels point out that ‘watching the flock' of sheep implies April to October, as sheep were kept inside over winter. Also, the census that led Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem would not have taken place in winter's bad weather. For the Church, the idea of fixing a date began in the 3rd century and 25 December was first recorded then. A Roman emperor introduced the festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or birthday of the unconquered sun, which ended on 25 December. The Church may have chosen this as Christ's date of birth to divert people from the Pagan festival of Yule, which coincided with the shortest day of the year. By 435AD, 25 December was the official date set.
The popular theory is that Coca Cola created Santa's outfit. Anyone horrified by this commercial idea will be relieved that while the company did set the image of the fur-trimmed red suit in the public's mind, historians think the red robes are ecclesiastical in origin. The actual St Nicholas was the 4th-century Bishop of Myra, known for his kind deeds. Bishops' vestments of the time were red and white. Santa's current attire owes much to the artist Thomas Nast's popular engravings, printed in Harper's Weekly from 1863-1886. His jolly Santa came well before Haddon Sundblom's drawings for Coca Cola in the early 1930s.
There are several theories; the most likely comes from feudal times, when the lord of the manor would hand out offerings such as cloth, grain and tools to his tenants, who would bring boxes to be filled. A second plausible explanation is that it comes from the opening of church donation boxes on the day after Christmas, when money was distributed to the poor and needy. Boxing Day is also known as St Stephen's Day, named after the first Christian martyr, who was stoned to death for his beliefs around AD35.
Today it's more likely to be a Swiss roll covered in chocolate with some festive details than an actual piece of wood, but the ceremonial burning of logs has a long history. The Ancient Egyptians would burn a log to honour their sun god, Horus and, to the Celts, different types of wood fires held differing symbolism. Pine represented death and oak logs symbolised life, but the Yule log was always connected with the winter solstice, when the sun is at its furthest southern point - the shortest day. The Celts believed that the sun stood still for 12 days at the time of the solstice, usually around 21 December. The Yule log was burned to give light in those darkest of winter days.
In the 1840s, British confectioner Tom Smith visited France and was impressed by the bonbons wrapped in twists of waxed paper. Back home, he created double wrapping and, inspired by Chinese fortune cookies, added a love motto. Sold at Christmas, the new range of sweets was a huge success. But his big idea came when he kicked at a log that had fallen from the fire and saw it spark: two years later he launched ‘Bangs of Expectation', which had a small strip of saltpetre, similar to modern versions. They were first known as ‘Cosaques', after the cracking whips of Cossack soldiers, and much copied by other companies.
The Bohemian king, Wenceslaus I (Wenceslas is the anglicised spelling) came to power in 925, after his mother and twin brother, Boleslaus, tried to kill him. Wenceslaus sent them into exile but was later murdered by his twin. Allegedly, his dying words were, ‘Brother, I forgive you.' The remorseful Boleslaus then devoted his life to carrying out the good works for which the king had been known. In 1853 the clergyman John Mason Neale used the story as the basis for his hymn.
As long ago as 1850, a character in a novel by the American author Harriet Beecher Stowe complained that the meaning of Christmas had been ‘lost on a shopping spree'. Even if the true religious meaning doesn't hold any special significance for you, the act of getting together with family and friends, exchanging gifts, eating good food and celebrating the season with traditions from the past is something to be treasured.