Where do our Christmas traditions come from?
A trip to see Santa with his son Niall gets Ed Power wondering how some of our most popular and ubiquitous seasonal activities got their start
I am talking to an elf about Peppa Pig. Clutching my hand is my two-and-a-half-year-old son, his eyes flying-saucer wide with excitement. Christmas is upon us and he is about to pay his first visit to Santa Claus.
We've been chattering about it all week. Okay, I'VE been chattering about it all week. The truth is I'm probably more worked up than the boy. I remember my own childhood encounters with in-store Santas and those Christmases when I was so overwrought by the prospect of his imminent whooshing down the chimney I couldn't sleep. You'd be excited too if you know a Star Wars Imperial Walker was en route.
After helping me complete a questionnaire about Niall's favourite toys and cartoon characters, the elf leads us down a stairs, through a sparkly tunnel and – Niall is squeezing my hand a little tighter now – to the Big Man Himself. Ho-ho-here we go. . .
Santa's smaller than I remember from our last encounter (yes, yes, that was 30-odd years ago) and gentler of voice. But he's a sharper dresser, his beard, especially, something to behold with layers and layers of luxuriant white stretching almost to his waist.
Propping my son on his knee, Santa asks what he wishes to receive for Christmas. A little overwhelmed, Niall whispers that he would very much like a toy hoover (as with many his age he regards helping his parents with the housework as the best fun of all – we'll see how long that lasts) and a robot dinosaur (every boy should have a robot dinosaur). He ventures a smile, his reward a kindly pat on the head.
Stroking his beard – I'm staring now, it's definitely not cotton wool – Santa says he'll gladly oblige (he has apparently decided Niall is too tinchy for the whole 'naughty or nice' routine). He pats the child on the head once more and Niall stares back. It is plain he isn't ENTIRELY won over (two months short of his third birthday, he hasn't quite outgrown his suspicious toddler phase).
Still, he leaves the encounter convinced of one thing at least: in a few weeks Santa will visit our house and, in the back of his sled, will be a present just for him. On the car journey home it's all he talks about until he is lulled asleep. I carry him to his cot, and suddenly it is very plain to me that this might be our best Christmas ever, the one I will remember even if he doesn't.
For parents today a trek to Santa's grotto carries with it a peculiar déjà vu. Often, we are the first generation of Irish people to have visited Santa as kids ourselves so there's a strange sense of seeing your childhood refracted back at you.
In fact, the tradition of Santa's Grotto goes back more than a century. It was in 1890 that the first in-store Santa appeared, at a dry goods dealership in New England. It took nearly 40 years for the institution to catch on, however – it only truly became popular after it was adopted by New York retail palace Macy's in 1934. Here are the origins of many other beloved Christmas traditions.
Santa Goes Down the Chimney
The image of Santa descending the chimney stack was created by the early 19th Century writer Washington Irving (author of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow). At the time there was a vogue among New Yorkers for reviving the customs of their Dutch predecessors, including the winter feast of St Nicholas. Intending to satirise the St Nicholas cult, Irving published a tongue-in-cheek pamphlet in which St Nick is a smiling fat man who wears fur and slides down chimneys.
The Christmas card is a product of expediency rather than sentimentality. In 1843, Henry Cole, head of London's Victoria and Albert Museum, was frustrated at not having enough time to write letters of Christmas goodwill to friends. So he had an artist run up 1,000 cards, illustrated with a festive scene and with the greeting 'A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year'. He was spared writer's cramp – and established a seasonal tradition.
As with many festive staples, the fur-lined, present-stuffed Christmas stocking has its roots in the middle ages. In the 12th Century, French nuns started a tradition of leaving stockings crammed with fruit at the houses of the poor. The toes would contain an apple, said to bring good health, while into the heel would be stuffed a tangerine, a luxury at the time.
Chalk this one down to the Dark Ages too. Back then, it was traditional for the entire village to partake of the 'Christmas Pye', a huge dish stuffed with rabbit, ox, lamb, shredded pigeon and mixed fruits. The pie was oblong, as this was said to resemble Jesus's cradle. In the 17th Century, the 'mince' became largely sweet instead of savoury (out went the random bits of pigeon and pheasant) and people started serving them as individual pies rather than as a huge trough of slop.
The Christmas Cracker
The humble cracker was invented by London sweet shop owner Tom Smith. He got the idea from seeing French bonbons wrapped in paper with a twist at each end. In 1847 he started selling sweets with a 'love motto' inside. Later, he added toys and a 'bang'. By 1900, he was selling 13 million 'Bangs of Expectation' a year.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
In what could have been a scene out of a Mad Men Christmas special, in 1939 advertising copywriter Robert May was tasked by a Chicago department store to create a festive colouring book. The store had traditionally given away such books and, to save costs, decided to design its own. Hired to tell the story of one of Santa's reindeer, Robert was going to call his creation Robert or Reginald. He settled on Rudolph and, after 2.5 million of the booklets were printed, the tale of the shy reindeer with the glow in the dark nose became part of Christmas folklore.
The origin of these hooked sticks of candy is surprisingly mundane: in 1670s Cologne, the local choirmaster was so aghast at all the loud children in his church on Christmas Eve that he had the local sweet-maker craft candied sticks to keep them quiet. To justify giving kids sweets in church, he asked that they be shaped like crooks, so as to invoke the tale of shepherds visiting Jesus on December 25.
Some of our most beloved traditions have a dark history. This is certainly true of Christmas carols. In the middle ages, mobs of drunkards would roam the streets, singing and demanding food and drink. If you didn't pony up, you risked a beating. So people kept the singers fed and watered and pretended to enjoy their terrifying close harmonies.