Christmas Eve

By Carlton Alfred Smith, Christmas Eve

24 December

Notable days in the British calendar would traditionally begin at sunset the evening before and last until sunset of the day itself, and the most well-known of these is Christmas Eve. Taking place on 24 December each year, it is the beginning of the Christmas celebrations, which before the Victorian era were considerably more boisterous and less family-friendly than what is now recognised in modern society.

As Christmas Eve was when the Christmas celebrations began, it was the night when the yule log would be burned. This was a large log selected to burn throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas, and was lit with the ashes of the previous year’s yule log, which were kept. Homes would be decorated with holly and ivy, along with baked goods that were cooked on Christmas Eve and not consumed until Twelfth Night. Wassailing was popular, where groups would go door-to-door singing songs in exchange for mulled spiced cider, collecting for charitable causes such as the parish church or to feed the poor.

Apples and pears with right good corn,
Come in plenty to every one,
Eat and drink good cake and hot ale,
Give Earth to drink and she’ll not fail.

The Christmas Book: Christmas in the Olden Time: Its Customs and Their Origin

Until the Victorians, Christmas Eve was a night of revelry, as was the entire Christmas period. Locally the festivities would be overseen by the Lord of Misrule, who would be appointed at Hallowe’en and would hold the title until Candlemas. As herald of Father Winter, who was adapted into Father Christmas when the Normans brought the story of Saint Nicholas to Britain, the Lord of Misrule was a sort of anti-Pope who would encourage mischief whilst dressed in bells and ribbons. At sundown on Christmas Eve it was believed Father Christmas would walk the land dressed in Spring and decide how mild or harsh his season would be based on the behaviours of the people throughout the year.

Over the centuries many Christmas traditions were adopted into Christian practices or died out altogether, especially during the Reformation. From the Victorian era Christmas became a more family-focused affair, though Father Christmas was still a staple dressed in green and adorned in leaves and vines. The Americanised Santa Claus wore red from the beginning of the 20th Century and this image was later popularised by the likes of White Rock Beverages, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi-Cola, who used a red-dressed Santa in their advertisements until the 50s. Throughout the years holding mass at midnight on Christmas Eve has became a popular event within the Catholic church. In modern culture, Christmas Eve is a time for early gift giving and preparations for the following day, and the night upon which Santa Claus delivers his presents to children across the world.

Carlton Alfred Smith, Christmas Eve
Carlton Alfred Smith, Christmas Eve, Public Domain
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