It’s Christmas, but not quite as we know it

Herbert Bayer Christmas card. Sold for $5,124 via Bloomsbury Auctions (April 2009).

The tree is decorated with lights and sparkly tinsel, the mistletoe is hanging in the doorway, snow drapes the scenery, there’s mulled wine, Tiny Tim, bangs of expectation, jolly old Saint Nick in purple and gold, and woodcock pie cooling on the side. That’s right, it’s the most magical time of year and at Invaluable and we’re celebrating the festive season traditions of past and present. Anyone for a slice of woodcock pie?  

Tom Smith cracker/bangs of expectation advert from 1911

Tom Smith cracker/bangs of expectation advert from 1911. (Image via Wikimedia Commons).

The festive period is a time for celebration. It’s a time of coming together with friends and family and sharing enormous plates of food around a warm and cosy fire. That’s the ideal, anyway, and forms part of the tradition of Christmas, but the tradition that’s presented on TV commercials these days hasn’t always been so traditional. There was a time when traditions were skewed by modern standards and the familiar wasn’t quite so familiar.

One British tradition that has remained steadfast is pulling crackers (not edible crackers, but rather a table decoration-meets-gift filled with joyously bad jokes and puzzles suitable for all ages that makes a bang and features, without fail, in every single festive British tablescape), and for this we have a confectioner called Tom Smith to thank. Smith hit upon the idea in 1841, after hearing the crackle of logs on the fire. With crackle in mind, he decided to call his cracking new wrap for toys crackers “bangs of expectation”. That’s the popular story anyway.

Bang of expectation

In fact it was Tom Smith’s brother, H J Smith, who worked in music halls who was credited with inventing the wonderfully named bangs of expectation. With a knowledge and understanding of stage magic and the silver filaments for the bang (of expectation), H J Smith used this neat novelty to help his brother Tom’s struggling confectionery business and bring even more sweets to children during the festive period. 

The idea not only helped his brother’s ailing business, but it wrote itself into the fabric of British festive tradition. In fact the Tom Smith Cracker Company is still in existence today and even makes the official crackers for the British Royal family, after being granted their first Royal Warrant in 1906. It remains unclear, though, when the name “cracker” was popularized.

Purple Santa?

And while crackers make the festive period go with a bang, it simply wouldn’t be Christmas without jolly old Santa. The kindly man in red with a big white beard bearing gifts is an image that goes hand in hand with the festive period. It hasn’t always been this way though, as in Britain Saint Nick used to dress in purple and gold to represent the spirt of the 12 nights to Christmas, and the time of joy and feasting it brings, according to historian Dr Fern Riddell. In fact, old Saint Nick has variously been pictured in yellow, brown, and green, which represent colours from a rural, pastoral background that link him to a pureness of spirit. 

The Rise of Rudolph

But, how does Santa get around during this busy festive period? Clement Moore’s poem A Visit from St. Nicholas has the answer, and it even helped the modern idea of Santa began to take shape. More commonly known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas from its first line, the poem was first published anonymously in 1823 and later attributed to Clement Moore, who claimed authorship in 1837. However, critics have questioned this claim citing textual and handwriting analysis as reasons for their doubt.

Whoever did in fact write the now world famous poem, not only wrote themselves into modern history but also created many of the features that are still associated with Santa Claus today, such as his use of reindeer. So, without Clement Moore there would be no Rudolph, or his very shiny nose, which is said to have first appeared in print in a children’s story given-away by the Montgomery Ward department store. 

Santa, as we know him, had nearly taken shape, and by the time the festive period of 1841 rolled around, his image would be set in stone thanks to another department store. J.W. Parkinson on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia pioneered the tradition of using an actor dressed as Santa (or one of Santa’s helpers from the North Pole if a young one asks) and a timeless tradition was born.

Festive flourishes

Christmas cards form another integral part of the holiday and were invented in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole. The tradition proved to be a near instant success, as by the end of the century millions and millions were connecting people across vast distances thanks to the invention of stamps. Such cards proved a sensation, and were created by some of the finest artists in the land. They were reviewed critically for their artistry, and often appeared in exhibitions at the time. Fast forward more than 100 years and artists are still turning their hand to Christmas cards. Even Andy Warhol proved he wasn’t too cool to get into the Christmas spirit with a design of his own.

But even with Christmas cards, Santa and his reindeer, and bangs of expectation, it just wouldn’t be a festive holiday with a tree and for that we have to say dankeschön to the Germans. Queen Charlotte to be precise, the German wife of George III, who is known to have had a decorated tree for her family as early as the 1790s. There is also a record of a tree at a children’s party given by a member of Queen Caroline’s court in 1821. The reason why isn’t quite so clear, but it makes a perfect canopy to hide presents beneath.

Now that festive have traditions have been established, who’s for a slice of that woodcock pie? It’s a bird pie made of woodcock that reserves two feathered heads to decorate the top and was served on gold plates to Queen Victoria on Christmas Day in 1897. Anyone? Anyone at all?