Humbug! How the British Stole Christmas

Or, How We Ruined Christmas

Christmas is one of the few times of year when a lot of travellers are happy to be at home. We leave our backpacks by the chimney to be stuffed with gifts, hang our hiking boots on the fireplace to be filled with fruit (and Febreeze), and drink all the sherry long before Santa even gets a sniff.

These familiar British Christmas traditions make us feel proud to hail from these quaint and gluttonous isles, and travellers flock home to pay their heritage due diligence.

Except that Britain, um, sort of nicked most of these traditions from other countries.

But (prepare for tenuous travel link!) the foreign origins of your favourite festive staples mean you can enjoy them as normal and maintain your travel cred during the holiday season. See what we’ve done there?

Christmas trees

Christmas trees!

Nicked from: Egypt, China, Germany

Christmas trees are better travelled than you. Their transformation from circumspect emblem of the bounty of nature to gaudy plastic monstrosities sold in Argos can be traced all over the globe.

In pre-Christian winter festivals the evergreen symbolised fortitude and immortality in cultures as varied as Chinese, Egyptian, and Hebrew. It was also common for trees to be worshipped in European paganism and druidism (so they were already enjoying a little UK love).

Later, Christians would put up trees to fend off the devil in the cold winter months. The renaissance saw German craftsmen begin to decorate trees, and the tradition finally arrived in the UK when Queen Charlotte of Germany set one up at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor, at Christmas 1800.

There are no records to suggest how the fallen needles were removed from carpets in the pre-vacuum cleaner age.


Mistletoe at Christmas

Nicked from: Greece, Iceland

Mistletoe is kind of a dick. It latches onto a proud and upstanding tree, refuses to let go, and leeches out its essential nutrients. This, we must admit, makes it the perfect symbol of romance and relationships.

The Greeks believed that Trojan hero Aeneas (not pronounced ‘anus’) carried a sprig of mistletoe in his golden bough. Icelandic tradition insists that mistletoe was the only item capable of killing the god Baldur. Other pre-Christian cultures believed mistletoe to carry the male essence, which might explain why it’s so sticky.

Greek mythology and deicide. Noble beginnings for a plant we now use as an excuse to tongue the work colleague we’ve fancied all year.

Santa Claus

The origin of Santa Claus

Nicked from: Greece, the Netherlands, Norway, the USA

You’ll be pleased to hear that, unlike a lot of famous bearded dudes this year, there are no sinister revelations to be found in Santa Claus’ closet.

Saint Nicholas was a Greek saint and all around good guy who loved giving presents to disadvantaged children. Add a generous dash of the Dutch Sinterklaas, who wore red and white paired with a stylish bishop’s hat, a soupcon of the Norse god Odin, and finish with a sprig of American folklore (they nicked Sinterklaas, basically). Bake for a few centuries, and out pops modern day Santa Claus!

Then Coca Cola kidnapped and condemned him to a lifetime of driving around in a big truck giving Type 2 Diabetes to children. There’s a moral there somewhere.


Christmas stockings on the fireplace

Nicked from: Greece, Scandinavia.

If you think about it, hammering an old flammable sock to your fireplace is hardly normal behaviour.

This is something else for which Saint Nick must take the blame. His mission to gift food and clothes to children hit a stumbling block when he couldn’t work out where to actually leave his offerings. So when he saw girls hanging their stockings to dry over the fire, he stuffed them with fruit. Which isn’t at all weird.

Meanwhile, in Scandinavia, children packed their shoes with carrots and hay for Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir to snack on. Once the food was gone, Odin would leave sweets in their place.

It seems that somewhere along the way we lost the real meaning of Christmas: eating out of our footwear.

Christmas Caroling

Carol singing

Nicked from: France, Germany, Italy

Don’t you just love it when strangers come to your front door and launch into off-kilter karaoke renditions of songs that not even winter and a pint of mulled wine can make you enjoy?

Christmas hymns have been around since the 4th century, but only metastasized into full-blown carols in 13th century Europe, where they entered the scene as all-purpose songs wheeled out for numerous public holidays and events. Over time they were monopolised by Christmas, and the songs spread around the world.

So thanks, 13th century Europe, for Michael bloody Buble.

Eastenders Christmas Special

Nicked from: the USA

It’s a popular piece of trivia that soap operas earned their name from the sponsorship of early USA radio dramas by soap manufacturers.

Only later did Eastenders come along with its particularly moribund brand of existential despair, pitting dead-eyed meat puppets against each other in an increasingly dejecting game of dreary emotional brinkmanship, climaxing on Christmas Day when a special edition of the show dutifully arrives to spew bile and bitterness into your living room just in time to make you feel better about your own miserable reality.

If there’s one thing Britain does better than any other country, it’s misery. Merry Christmas!

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