Christmas and New Year

We hope that you will enjoy the Christmas holiday. Find out more about Christmas and New Year celebrations in the UK – and things to do if you are staying in South Wales for the holidays.

Santa Snoozing

Father Christmas

Santa Claus around Glamorgan Court

Gift-giving is a near-universal part of the Christmas celebrations. The concept of a mythical figure who brings gifts to children derives from Saint Nicholas, a bishop from the 4th-century. Some of the myths about Saint Nicholas include tales of secret gifts (usually coins) he would distribute to children. Some say another important influence was the Norse God of Odin, as stories about Odin include a hunt he would lead through the sky. His flying horse would leave gifts for children in boots left by the chimney, if the children left carrots and treats for the horse in those boots.

In the UK, whilst the name of Saint Nicholas (or even Santa Claus) is widely known, “Father Christmas” is more common. Children believe that this jovial fellow arrives on Christmas Eve on a sleigh pulled by reindeer and lands on the roofs of houses. He then climbs down the chimney, leaves gifts for the children and eats the food they leave for him. He spends the rest of the year making toys and keeping lists on the behaviour of the children. In the UK it is common for children to either leave stockings by the fireplace on Christmas Eve or at the end of their beds.

Interesting fact about Father Christmas

In the early 1930s, the company Coca Cola were looking for a way to increase their winter sales and employed the talents of a commercial illustrator called Haddon Sundblom to help them in their quest. Haddon hit upon the idea of using the already popular image of the white-bearded Father Christmas (or Santa Claus as the Americans call him), dressed up in the red and white colours that people associated with Coca Cola. Every year for 35 years, Sundblom would produce a new image of a cheery looking Santa holding bottles of Coke, giving bottles as gifts and most of all enjoying the taste of Coca Cola. People looked forward to seeing the new image each year and it definitely improved Coke’s Christmas sales! So, this is why the popular image of Father Christmas has come to be the jolly man in a red and white suit that we all recognise – it’s all down to Coca Cola.

Things to do

If you are going to be in South Wales during the holidays, why not get out into the festive spirit and attend one of these events?

The Christmas tree

Today the tree is a central feature of Christmas celebrations, but its origins are ancient and pre-date Christianity. Pagans used trees as part of their religious ceremonies.

The druids decorated oak trees with fruit and candles in honour of their Gods of the Harvest. During the Roman festival of Saturnalia, trees were decorated with gifts and candles. The Vikings regarded evergreen coniferous trees as symbols that the darkness of winter would end and that the spring would return.

Germany seems to have started the use of a decorated tree as part of Christmas. The Christmas tree is central to the holiday celebration in the UK and, although it had been seen in various places in the UK, it grew extremely popular when Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, brought the tradition to the Royal Family from his native Germany in the mid-nineteenth century.

One of the nation’s most popular Christmas trees can be seen in the heart of London, where a giant spruce is set up and decorated with great ceremony each year near the statue of Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Square. The tree is a gift from the people of Oslo, Norway. During the Second World War, King Haakon of Norway was forced into exile in England when the Germans occupied his nation. Each year during his exile, Norwegian forces would risk their lives to smuggle a tree past the German coast patrols so their king could celebrate Christmas before a tree from his beloved homeland. Since the war, Norway has expressed its thanks for the help of the British people by continuing to send a huge Norwegian spruce to be shared by all.

Decorations

Decorating a Christmas tree with lights and ornaments and the decoration of the interior of the home with garlands and evergreen foliage, particularly holly and mistletoe, are common traditions. Sometimes people decorate the outside of their houses with lights and sometimes with illuminated sleighs, snowmen, and other Christmas figures.

Christmas carols

A Christmas carol is a song or hymn on the theme of Christmas, or the winter season in general. They are traditionally sung in the period before and during Christmas. The tradition of Christmas carols goes back as far as the thirteenth century, although carols were originally communal songs sung during celebrations like harvest-tide as well as Christmas. It was only later that carols began to be sung in church and to be specifically associated with Christmas.

In the UK there is a tradition of Christmas caroling in which groups of singers (usually children) walk from house to house, singing carols, for which they are often rewarded with money, mince pies, or a glass of an appropriate drink. Money collected in this way is normally given to charity.

Christmas cards

Christmas cards are very popular in the UK as a way of maintaining relationships with distant relatives and friends and with business acquaintances. Many families enclose an annual family photograph or a family newsletter. Many people buy their Christmas cards from charities, making it a great way to raise money for worthy causes.

Mistletoe with quite a few kisses left - photo by Morten Siebuhr

Mistletoe

Kissing under the mistletoe has long been a part of Christmas tradition. For those who wish to observe the correct etiquette: a man should pluck a berry when he kisses a woman under the mistletoe and when the last berry is gone, there should be no more kissing!

Advent calenders

An Advent calendar is a symbol of the holy season of Advent, celebrated in December. The traditional calendar consists of two pieces of cardboard on top of each other. 24 doors are cut out in the top layer, with one door being opened every day, from December 1st to December 24th (Christmas Eve). Each compartment can either show a part of the Nativity story and the birth of Jesus, or can simply display a piece of paraphernalia to do with Christmas (e.g. bells or holly).

These days, most people encounter Advent calendars in the form of chocolate Advent calendars, where each compartment contains a piece of chocolate, and the pictures are often cartoon characters rather than anything overtly religious.

Crackers

In 1847, Tom Smith invented Christmas crackers. It was a simple idea which became an integral part of British celebration and tradition which still continues today. In its simple form a cracker is a small cardboard tube covered in a brightly coloured twist of paper. When the cracker is ‘pulled’ by two people, each holding one end of the twisted paper, the friction creates a small explosive ‘pop’ produced by a narrow strip of chemically impregnated paper. The cardboard tube usually contains a bright paper hat, a small gift, a balloon and a motto or joke.

Christmas Dinner

Has all this talk about Christmas inspired you to host a traditional Christmas dinner on the 25th December? Christmas dinner usually comprises of turkey and stuffing, roasted potatoes and parsnips and a variety of boiled vegetables such as carrots, peas, broccoli and sprouts. For dessert it is common to serve Christmas pudding with brandy sauce, Christmas cake or mince pies.

Bon Appetit!

New Year

champagne bottle popping

In the UK people welcome in the New Year by getting together the night before the 1st of January and often party well into the next day! Traditionally, it was thought that one could affect the luck they would have throughout the coming year by what they did or ate on the first day of the year. For that reason, it has become common for folks to celebrate the first few minutes of a brand new year in the company of family and friends.

Lots of people choose to either have a party at home with family and friends and others like to go into town and visit the pubs and clubs. One thing is always the same though: at one minute to midnight everyone starts looking at their watches and waiting for the 10 second count down to the New Year. At the first stroke of midnight people hug each other or shake hands and wish each other a very happy new year. Even people who don’t know each other will offer new year congratulations and this can be great fun and a good way of getting to know people!

New Year Traditions

Among the various New Year traditions in the United Kingdom there goes a tradition that the first person to step on the threshold on New Year’s Day will determine the luck of the family members of that house in the ensuing year. The custom is known as First Footing. Traditionally a tall, dark and good-looking man is said to be an ideal first footer who can usher in good luck to the family. The first footer usually brings a piece of coal, a loaf and a bottle of whiskey with him. On entering the house unhindered the first footer is said to place the coal on the fire, the loaf on the table and serve a glass for the head of the family, without speaking or being spoken to until he wishes everyone “A Merry New Year.” The first footer should enter the house through the front door and leave through the back door.

In Wales, the back door is opened to release the old spirit of the old year at the first stroke of midnight. It is then locked up to store the luck in, and at the last stroke the New Year is welcomed in at the front door.

Another tradition is the making of New Year’s resolutions. This dates back to the early Babylonians, whose most popular resolution was to return borrowed farm equipment.

Nowadays modern resolutions include promises to lose weight or quit smoking. Though how many of them are actually kept beyond the first few days is debatable!

The song “Auld Lang Syne” is sung at the stroke of midnight in almost every English-speaking country in the world to bring in the New Year. At least partially written by Robert Burns in the 1700s, it was first published in 1796 after Burns’ death. Early variations of the song were sung prior to 1700 and inspired Burns to produce the modern rendition.

An old Scotch tune, “Auld Lang Syne” literally means “old long ago” or simply, “the good old days”. It is quite difficult to understand the lyrics of the song as Burns wrote them in a broad Scots dialect; it’s also a general source of amusement that nobody usually knows any of the words beyond the first verse and chorus! Here are the lyrics for you so that you can get practising before New Year’s Eve!