12 festive facts about the history of Christmas that you should know! - History Bombs
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12 festive facts about the history of Christmas that you should know!

As we lead up to Christmas, we hope everyone is enjoying a relaxing break. To get you in the festive mood, here are 12 facts about the history of Christmas that you might not know!

1. Christmas is largely based on a pagan festival 

December 25th isn’t actually ever mentioned as the birthday of Jesus in the Bible. 

Instead, the reason why Christmas is celebrated on this day dates back to the fourth century, when Christianity swept across Europe after Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion. Roman religion was a very public religion and their religious festivals were wild, so many people weren’t keen to abandon the merriment in favour of tepid Christian holidays. 

As a way of combating this, Pope Julius I aligned the celebration of the birth of Christ with the Roman festival of Saturnalia. The festival of Saturnalia celebrated the god Saturn, and included drunken festivities such as gambling, singing, eating and gift giving… sound familiar?

2. Christmas pudding used to be beef porridge

Christmas pudding is the traditional dried-fruit dessert that is set alight and eaten at the end of Christmas dinner, but it wasn’t always a sweet dessert. 

The dish originated in the 14th century as a sort of porridge made up of beef and mutton, raisins, currants, wine, and spices. It was originally eaten as a fasting meal in the lead up to Christmas. Yum…?

3. Allied intelligence officers used Christmas gifts to help prisoners of war escape from Colditz

During World War Two, Allied powers teamed up with a playing card company to produce playing cards that would help Allied POWs escape from prison camps. 

According to the Geneva Convention, prisoners of war in occupied Europe were permitted to receive mail from the Red Cross, so long as it didn’t include weapons.

The American Office of Strategic Services used this to their advantage by creating packs of playing cards with escape route maps that were revealed when the cards were soaked in water to be sent to prisoners as ‘Christmas gifts’.

4. In Welsh tradition, you have to rap battle with a terrifying horse skull at Christmas lest he raid your cupboards

The Welsh folk tradition of Mari Lwyd is believed to have originated in the medieval period.

In this tradition, a group of men, one wearing a long cloak with a horse skull, come to your door and engage in a sort of rap battle known as pwnco, and if you lose, the horse skeleton is permitted to come into your home and steal your food. Nadolig llawen.

5. The Trafalgar Square Christmas tree is a thank you gift from Norway 

The massive tree in Trafalgar Square in London is a gift given annually to the UK from Oslo, Norway as a thank you for Britain’s support of Norway during the Second World War. 

6. Christmas was banned in England in 1647… but not by Oliver Cromwell

During the English Civil War, Parliament banned many festivities that were considered too close to Catholicism, including Christmas, Easter and Whitsun. As the war raged on, Protestants and Puritans became more and more concerned by the existence of Catholics and the possibility that their own king might be one, and so took measures to stamp out any remnants of Catholicism in public life.

As the celebration of Christmas is not mentioned in the Bible, and Protestantism as a religion is heavily rooted in scripture, it had to go. While many believe that it was Oliver Cromwell who banned Christmas, his involvement is actually considered to be periphery. In fact, Ollie wasn’t even sitting in Parliament when the 1647 ban was passed, as he was at threat of being arrested by the House of Commons at the time.

7. Winter feasts go as far back as the Neolithic period

During the Neolithic era, people gathered at Stonehenge to have large feasts of pork, beef and mead, and share gifts to celebrate the midwinter solstice. 

8. Medieval Christmases went hard

During the medieval period, they had a full twelve days of Christmas celebrations, ending on January 6th, Twelfth Night. These boisterous festivities combined the traditions of the Roman Saturnalia (feasting, games and gift-giving) with the traditions of Yule (Yule logs and decorating evergreen trees).

A peasant was chosen to take the position of ‘Lord of Misrule’ and his word was taken as law for what Christmas games were played, which could get pretty rough. Sounds like these guys were doing it right with twelve full days of drunken partying! 

9. At Tudor Christmas you could be crowned King of the Bean

Similar to the medieval tradition of the Lord of Misrule, in the Tudor period a bean was baked into a cake and whoever received the bean baked into their cake slice became the ‘King of the Bean’.

The Bean King was given a paper crown and, whenever he took a drink, the group announced “the king drinks!” and had to drink with him.

10. Victorian Christmas cards were completely unhinged

While the first Christmas card was sent in 1611 to King James I, they weren’t produced in mass until the mid 19th century, and they certainly haven’t always looked how they do today.

Victorian Christmas cards, while looking like something produced by Generative AI, featured weird illustrations of animals, violence, and sad children.

11. Jingle Bells was the first song performed in space

Astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra aboard Gemini 6A in 1965 became the first people to perform music in space.

In a live broadcast nine days before Christmas, Wally reported an unidentified flying object in polar orbit, flying from the North Pole, before playing Jingle Bells on an 8-note harmonica and set of bells, creating the first musical broadcast from space.

12. Santa Claus was Dutch

Santa Claus originates from the Dutch Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, who is the patron saint of children, depicted as an old man with a white beard and a red cape. Dutch-Americans incorporated Saint Nick into Christmas traditions to celebrate their Dutch ancestry!

Whether you are celebrating Christmas or enjoying a well-deserved break, we at History Bombs wish you a merry and peaceful holiday season, and we will see you in the New Year!

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