December 24th: Christmas Eve
When I set out on my advent blogging adventure I didn’t have a plan for what I’d write the next day, let alone on Christmas Eve. Yet here I am, twenty four days later, having navigated topics as diverse (some might say random) as borders, the weather, Christmas carols, pickles and traffic. My main motivation for blogging has always been learning. I started writing The Frustrated Gardener in a quest to reinvigorate my passion for plants and gardening. It worked. Writing about my hobby is now an intrinsic part of the hobby itself. Doing and writing about what I do go hand in hand: broadening the scope to include Christmas, which is what I am working on when I’m not gardening, made sense. I have discovered a lot I didn’t know about Christmas over the last four weeks have given myself space to try new angles. In the process I hope I have revealed a little more of myself than I might otherwise. Thank you for your likes and comments. They have been the best kind of gift.
I write this post from an empty train heading into London to my office. I say empty, but I suppose there must be one or two people in other carriages. I always get a seat and today I have a choice of sixty. Although not a public holiday, Christmas Eve is not generally considered to be a working day for those in non-critical, non-retail or non-hospitality jobs. Despite that, we don’t make a great deal of Christmas Eve in the UK, other than to prepare and get where we want to be for Christmas Day.
Elsewhere in Europe, celebrations begin in earnest after sunset on Christmas Eve with the giving of gifts and the coming together of families for meals of feast-like proportions. In Germany, Serbia and Slovakia, Christmas Eve is traditionally when the tree is brought into the house and decorated, although I am certain this custom is not strictly observed in modern times. I personally like the idea, especially as my real tree is already looking a little jaded after two weeks indoors. In Germany, Sweden and Portugal, presents are exchanged on Christmas Eve, leaving Christmas Day for other festivities. For many years I celebrated Christmas Eve with a Swedish family and it was a lot of fun – a bit like having two Christmases. For us Brits it’s Boxing Day, when traditionally servants and employees were given gifts and tips, that counts as our second major day of celebration.
The ancient practice of burning a Yule Log on the eve of Christmas seems to have been largely forgotten. This is perhaps not surprising given the ‘log’ was originally the entire trunk of a tree. One end was placed in the hearth with the remainder jutting out into the room. Once assumes it was pushed further and further into the fireplace as the Christmas celebrations continued, ending on twelfth night. Each Christmas a new Yule log would be lit from the charred remains of the previous year’s log. In Cornwall it is referred to as ‘The Mock’ and features a chalked stick figure representing Old Father Time and the death of the previous year. You won’t be surprised to learn that Yule Logs, as well as many other Christmas traditions, have their roots in pre-Christian belief systems and were originally devised to celebrate the winter solstice. In Devon and Somerset, for example, the pagan Yule Log evolved into a large bunch of ash twigs representing the brushwood that the shepherds collected to keep Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus warm on Christmas Night. Although most of us won’t be felling an oak and dragging it through the front door tonight, we are unlikely to turn down a slice of chocolate Yule Log if it’s offered. Just the thought is making my mouth water.
Meanwhile a great many of us will attend a Christmas Eve church service or Midnight Mass later today, reflecting the belief that Jesus was born at night, in Bethlehem. An even greater number of us will be anticipating the arrival of Father Christmas, Santa Claus, the Christkind or St. Nicholas, depending where we live on the globe.
The richness and diversity of Christmas tradition, accumulated over thousands of years, is staggering. It surprises me that there aren’t hundreds of accounts written on the subject, although one which I shall certainly be reading before I do this exercise again is Judith Flanders’ ‘Christmas: A Biography’. ‘Christmas and the British’ by Martin Johnes also looks worth a look. Those who mutter about creeping commercialisation and fret about the meaning of Christmas being lost should consider just how much has not changed over the last two thousand years. Christmas is an evolving celebration which has enough depth and gravitas to move with the times rather than sink beneath the waves of history. At its heart is not only the remarkable story of Jesus’ birth, but also millennia of fascinating British history and custom. TFG.
NB I shall take a short blogging holiday over Christmas, returning in the New Year. Merry Christmas one and all!