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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

Christmas derives originally from two pagan sources, both celebrating the return to health of the sun after its shortest day (the winter solstice, December 21 or 22). The Roman emperors had chosen December 25 as the birthday of Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun, with which they identified themselves; and in Rome this was the season too of the Saturnalia, a period of revelling and present-giving. Meanwhile the pagan tribes of northern Europe enjoyed a 12-day winter festival called Yule, with its own traditions of trees and mistletoe. Christianity adopted and adapted both (easier than launching a new festivity).

The medieval Christmas was a prolonged event, the period of Yule having turned into the *twelve days of Christmas (a concept which survives now mainly in the secular carol of that name). Twelfth Night, the night of January 6, was the climax of the revels, after which life had to return to normal. The *Puritans, recognizing the pagan origins of the Christmas revels, did their best to suppress them. They were successful in Scotland, where the most important winter festivity became the *New Year.

The modern English Christmas retains the elements of feasting and present-giving, much overlaid with additions from the 19C (these include the *Christmas card, the *Christmas tree, and *Father Christmas). The Christmas meal is essentially now a family affair, and is usually held at midday. The ingredients have become surprisingly standardized. Where a joint of beef or a goose once provided the main course, it is now almost invariably a turkey, well stuffed (often with sage and onion at one end, chestnut at the other) and accompanied by *bread sauce and cranberry sauce. It is followed by *Christmas pudding and *mince pies.

The table is decorated with crackers, which first made their appearance in early Victorian times. Their contents were originally sweets with a motto or a poem, but now are trinkets with punning jokes, the awfulness of which is a large part of their appeal.

The traditional decoration for the living room at Christmas has been holly (which must be taken down on Twelfth Night but not before); it probably dates back to pagan times as a symbol of the revival of life, being evergreen and bearing berries in midwinter. In the same spirit a branch of mistletoe has provided a time-honoured place for kissing under. It was the old custom that any man who claimed a kiss beneath it removed one berry, and when there were no more berries the kissing had to stop.

Since 1932, when George V first spoke to the nation on radio, an integral part of Christmas Day has been the king's or queen's Christmas message at 3 p.m. It has been broadcast on television since 1956.
Christmas is a *bank holiday, as are *Boxing Day (Dec. 26) and New Year's Day. Since a weekend is bound to fall between December 25 and January 1, the entire period is increasingly taken as a midwinter holiday by many in Britain, returning almost to the medieval tradition of the twelve days of Christmas.

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