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The Traditions of a Classic British Christmas


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At this special time of year, people come together to celebrate Christmas and to enjoy the festivities with family and friends. However, have you thought just where and when some of the other traditions such as the Christmas tree and greetings cards originated from? TheGenealogist has taken a look into the past to offer some insights into the traditions that have developed in the U.K. over the years.

Firstly, there is the Christmas Tree. With its’ bright lights and decorations it provides a source of wonderment for children and adds to the atmosphere of Christmas. The Christmas Tree was first used as a decoration in Germany and was actively encouraged in Britain by Prince Albert when he married Queen Victoria.  In 1847, Albert wrote “I must now seek in the children an echo of what Ernest (his brother) and I were in the old time of what we felt and thought; and their delight in the Christmas-trees is not less than ours used to be".

TheGenealogist has a copy of the original image of the Royal Family from the Illustrated London News in December 1848. From the 1840’s onwards the popularity of the Christmas Tree made it an enduring feature of the traditional Christmas.

Once a hearty Christmas dinner has been eaten, many people enjoy the Christmas Pudding that follows as a dessert. In 1714, King George I (sometimes known as the Pudding King) requested that plum pudding be served as part of his royal feast in his first Christmas in England. In 1747, London food writer Hannah Glasse had given a recipe for Christmas plum porridge, but it appears that East Sussex cook Eliza Acton was the first to refer to it as "Christmas Pudding" in her cookbook.  

Born in 1799, in Battle, Sussex, Eliza Acton was also a poet but found widespread popularity with her cookbook “Modern Cookery for Private Families”. Her book was acclaimed by future chefs, including Isabella Beeton and more recently by Delia Smith. Struggling with continued poor health (she sadly died in 1859), we can find Eliza on the 1851 Census, living with her mother in Hastings:

We all love to send and receive Christmas cards. One man in 1843 decided he had too many letters to send by way of a Christmas greeting so came up with the idea of a general one for all.  Sir Henry Cole, first Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, had an artist design 1000 cards, illustrated with a festive scene on the front, printed with the greeting “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you”.  Born in Bath, Sir Henry Cole was a well known civil servant and inventor of the time and managed the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851 and we can find him on a number of census records on TheGenealogist.

Finally, we take a look at another great Christmas tradition, the ‘Christmas Cracker’. Developed by Thomas J Smith, a London confectioner and entrepreneur in 1847. By the year 1900 he was selling 13 million crackers per year. The idea came about whilst he was in France when he noticed some bonbon sweets wrapped in paper with a twist at each end. He sold similar sweets initially with a ‘love motto’ inside and then added a trinket and the ‘bang’  as the cracker was pulled.

The idea for the bang came from when he threw a log on the fire and the resultant ‘crackle’ noise. He eventually perfected a chemical explosion to create a pop caused by friction when the wrapping was broken.

We have a number of images from our Illustrated London News collection including one of the very first illustrations of a Christmas cracker and this rather lovely front cover image from 1895 (right) showing Tom Smith's Christmas crackers.

Tom and his family also appear on the census records on TheGenealogist for 1851 and 1861 as this hard working Londoner builds up his successful empire! Here is Tom and his young family on the 1851 census:

Finally, don’t forget those other traditions at Christmas such as the use of holly and ivy. Ivy was thought by our ancestors to protect a house against drunkenness, while holly was said to keep witches and tax collectors away!

Have a very Merry Christmas!


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You'll also enjoy a free 12 month subscription to Discover Your Ancestors online magazine worth £24.95, saving you a total of £44.95!

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