The word “Christmas” comes from the old English Cristes maesse (the mass of Christ). At Christmas, Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, who is worshipped as the son of God. Until the 4th century AD, the dates for Christmas were not fixed. As the Bible gave no indication of Christ’s official birthday, Christians were free to celebrate Christmas anytime from the beginning of January until the end of September. The first recorded date of the Christmas celebrations beginning on 25 December is 336 AD, during the rule of the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine. A few years later, Pope Julius I decreed that the birth of Jesus should henceforth be celebrated on 25 December each year.
Although Christmas Day is the focus of modern-day Christmas celebrations, it is actually the first of twelve days of Christmas. Each of the twelve days of Christmas is dedicated to a different Saint’s day. Traditionally, each and every one of the twelve days was celebrated. Save for the care of animals, all work was forbidden during the Christmas period, recommencing on Plough Monday – the first Monday after Twelfth Night. While all twelve days of Christmas had their own peculiar celebrations, not all of the days were celebrated equally. The three most important celebrations took place on the Saints’ Days of 25 December, and the 01 and 06 January. It was on these days that the most lavish feasts took place, with up to twenty-four courses being served in aristocratic households. Leftover food, of which there was lots, was used to feed the poor.
Today, the Christmas feast is still at the heart of Christmas Day celebrations, where roast turkey is considered the ‘traditional’ choice of meat. Surprisingly, turkey is not very traditional at all. In the Tudor and Elizabethan period, the roast of choice for wealthy families was generally swan, goose, peacock or wild boar. In fact, turkeys were not introduced into Britain until around 1523. Naturally, it soon featured on the table at one of Henry VIII’s Christmas banquets, sparking a new trend for Christmas turkey. So popular was this new Christmas bird, that soon large flocks of turkeys could be seen walking on foot to London from parts of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. The journey was such an epic undertaking that the turkeys would begin their march to the Christmas table as early as August!
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