Advent calendar 2019: 24 facts about Christmas through history

Count down to Christmas with our history advent calendar! Every day until Christmas Eve, we will be revealing one fact about Christmas through history. Follow the festive advent calendar here or on our Instagram page: @historyextra

History Advent Calendar 2019

In the run up to 25 December, we’ll be revealing one fascinating fact a day about the festive season through history. Check back each day for a brand new fact about Christmas!

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  1. The popular Christmas song ‘Jingle Bells’ was originally written to celebrate Thanksgiving | Find out more here
  2. The first, isolated record of an English-decorated ‘Christmas’ tree dates from the 15th century, when a fir tree lit with candles was set up in a London street | Find out more here 
  3. The inventors of the first Christmas crackers called their creations ‘Cosaques’, supposedly because the crack they made when pulled were reminiscent of the cracking whips of Russian Cossack horsemen | Find out more here
  4. During the Roman festival of Saturnalia, it was also a time to upend the social order. For example, masters served their slaves during a feast, adults would serve children, and slaves were allowed to gamble. And the aristocracy, who usually wore conservative clothes, dressed in brightly coloured fabrics such as red, purple and gold | Find out more here
  5. While the carol we know today as ‘Deck the Halls’ originated in the 16th-century as a favourite Welsh song called ‘Nos Galan’, it wasn’t until the 19th century that it acquired Christmas lyrics | Find out more here
  6. Early depictions of Saint Nicholas associate him with dropping gold coins down the chimney. In 16th-century Holland, this led to the tradition of children placing their shoes on the hearth on the eve of the feast of Saint Nicholas, and awaking in the morning to find them filled with gifts and sweets | Find out more here
  7. Gordon Selfridge was one of the great impresarios of Christmas windows. His apprenticeship in Marshall Field of Chicago had given him the keenest eye for glamour and presentation. It was Selfridge who coined the phrase “only X shopping days to Christmas” | Find out more here
  8. King George V delivered the first royal Christmas broadcast, penned for him by poet and writer Rudyard Kipling. It was broadcast live just after 3pm, which was considered the best time for reaching most of the countries of the empire by short-wave radio | Find out more here
  9. The first artificial Christmas trees in England were made from goose feathers that had been dyed green. These were imported from Germany, where they had become a fashionable way of conserving the country’s fir tree population | Find out more here
  10. It is a modern superstition that Christmas decorations need to be taken down on Twelfth Night (traditionally 5 or 6 January). For many centuries they were kept up until Candlemas Eve (1 February) | Find out more here
  11. The most popular food eaten at Christmas in the Tudor period was brawn, or boar’s head | Find out more here
  12. Christmas in the medieval period was a time for charity and sharing food – in 1314, for example, some tenants at North Curry in Somerset received loaves of bread, beef and bacon with mustard, chicken soup, cheese and as much beer as they could drink for the day. Gifts of food were also sometimes enforced: for the right to keep rabbits, the town of Lagrasse had to give their best bunny to the local monastery each Christmas | Find out more here
  13. London confectioner Tom Smith is credited with inventing the Christmas cracker. In 1847, he introduced England to the French bonbon, a sugar-almond wrapped in paper with a twist at both ends. To boost sales, Smith added a ‘love motto’ before enlarging the packaging, replacing the bonbon with a gift and later adding an exploding ‘crack’ | Find out more here
  14. The custom of exchanging cards during the festive season was a Victorian invention, with the first commercial card produced in 1843 by Henry Cole | Find out more here
  15. We have people who went on the crusades to thank for mince pies. The key ingredient in the festive treat – minced meat with fruit, peel and spices – was brought back by crusaders during the Middle Ages | Find out more here
  16. Boxing Day has historically been a day of outdoor activity in English society. In the 18th century, Boxing Day became a day for aristocratic sports – hunting, horseracing, shooting. By the 19th century, as a result of urbanisation, it was about professional football | Find out more here
  17. Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol following a tour of northern England, where he had witnessed the struggles of everyday life for Britain’s poor. He had been moved by his visits to ‘ragged schools’ – free charity schools that educated destitute children | Find out more here
  18. Where did the carol ‘Silent Night’ originate? One charming tale tells of mice chewing through vital sections of an organ in the church of St Nikola in Oberndorf, Austria. A resourceful young teacher and priest, so the story goes, saved the service by composing a simple carol that could be sung with just guitar accompaniment | Find out more here
  19. Harper Lee’s friends gave her a year’s wages for Christmas 1956 so she could take time off to finish To Kill a Mockingbird | Find out more here
  20. Christmas was a time for subversion during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period, when snowmen were regularly built as winter effigies. During the cold winter of 1510–11, the citizens of Brussels built around 110 individual snowmen, some depicting folklore figures such as unicorns and mermaids | Find out more here
  21. In 1913, a customs broker named John Dvial Gluck Jr founded the Santa Claus Association – a group responsible for answering Santa’s mail in New York City. For 15 years the association received an abundance of donations from New Yorkers – although Gluck was later found to be a fraudster | Find out more here
  22. During the First World War, with so many men and women spending Christmas away from home, the demand for parcels at Christmas was greater than ever. Over the entire course of the war, the army postal service sent 114 million parcels from Britain to conflict zones, and 2 billion letters. Army postmen were dubbed ‘Santa Claus in khaki’, as they laboured to deliver care packages to the front line and bring messages home in time for Christmas | Find out more here
  23. A larger-than-life character in Tudor Christmas celebrations was the Lord of Misrule, whose job it was to preside over the 12 days of merrymaking in aristocratic households (everyone from the Lord Mayor of London to Henry VIII himself employed one). The Lord of Misrule – sometimes known as ‘Captain Christmas’ or ‘Prince Christmas’ – was tasked with ensuring that everyone toed the line and made merry during the festive period | Find out more here
  24. In Christmas 1914, Princess Mary, daughter of George V, launched her own charitable Christmas initiative: a metal case of cigarettes for every soldier in the army | Find out more here
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