The seventh day of Christmas: New Year’s Eve

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I thought my photograph of Hampton Court on New Year’s Day 2009 might be suitable for today’s blog, as 2012 draws to a close. It has been a difficult year for me personally but a tremendous year to be British. Tonight I am celebrating in another place rich in British history, Dartmouth in Devon (of which, more another day).
A very brief potted history of New Year’s celebrations: Julius Caesar instituted January 1 as the first day of the year. January is named after Janus, the Roman god with two faces that looked into the past and into the future. Romans celebrated New Year by making sacrifices to Janus, exchanging gifts, decorating their homes and throwing parties. In medieval Europe, Pope Gregory XIII established January 1 as New Year’s Day in 1582. But the celebrations today retain much of their more pagan origins. One ancient tradition that still continues, particularly in Scotland, is ‘first footing’. At midnight, the Old Year is let out through the back door and the New Year let in through the front door. The first person at the New Year to pass over the threshold should bring coal or, more likely(!), whiskey for luck in the year ahead.

Wishing all my blogging friends a very happy New Year.

The sixth day of Christmas: poinsettia

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The three working days between Christmas and New Year can often seem rather anticlimactic. I thought this image of a discarded poinsettia ‘bloom’ in Painshill Lake captured something of that feeling.

More positively, poinsettias are of course a very popular plant at this time of year. They hail from Central America, particularly Southern Mexico and belong to the euphorbia family. The colourful ‘blooms’ are in fact leaves, not flowers.

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Surfing the net today, I came across this sweet story about the origin of their connection with Christmas:

“There is an old Mexican legend about how Poinsettias and Christmas come together, it goes like this:
There was once a poor Mexican girl called Pepita who had no present to give the baby Jesus at the Christmas Eve Services. As Pepita walked to the chapel, sadly, her cousin Pedro tried to cheer her up.
‘Pepita’, he said “I’m sure that even the smallest gift, given by someone who loves him will make Jesus Happy.”

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Pepita didn’t know what she could give, so she picked a small handful of weeds from the roadside and made them into a small bouquet. She felt embarrassed because she could only give this small present to Jesus. As she walked through the chapel to the altar, she remembered what Pedro had said. She began to feel better, knelt down and put the bouquet at the bottom of the nativity scene. Suddenly, the bouquet of weeds burst into bright red flowers, and everyone who saw them were sure they had seen a miracle. From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as the ‘Flores de Noche Buena’, or ‘Flowers of the Holy Night’.” http://www.whychristmas.com/customs/poinsettia.shtml

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I rather enjoyed another piece of trivia I picked up on the same website: apparently, the plants are named after Joel Robert Poinsett, the USA’s first ambassador to Mexico, who introduced the plant into the USA. Mr Poinsett is also famous for having founded the Smithsonian Institute.

The fifth day of Christmas: yummy money

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In Britain, chocolate coins are a traditional Christmas gift, most often in the stockings of children. The origin of this tradition may lie in old stories about Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra in Lycia (Turkey). According to one story, he wanted to give money to the poor children of Myra without them knowing so he climbed on a roof and threw money down a chimney, which landed in a child’s stockings hung up to dry. The giving of chocolate coins, or gelt, is also a tradition of Hanukah.

The Fourth Day of Christmas; lighting up time!

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Cartier store decoration, 2009

This post is a brief history of Christmas lights, chronology taken from Christmas: A Very Peculiar History by Fiona MacDonald.  Photos, as always, by me.

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Window display at Richard James, Saville Row, London 2008

Macy’s department store in New York, USA, pioneered special Christmas window displays in the 1870s.

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Display at Richard James, Saville Row, London, 2008

Edward H. Johnson, of Edison Electric Light Company, USA, was the first to decorate his tree with electric light bulbs, in 1882.

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Shopping Arcade, London

In 1904, Christmas lights were first used to decorate outdoor trees, but they were not yet electric.

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Claridges hotel, London, Christmas 2009

In 1927, the first organised outdoor Christmas light displays were held in the USA, called ‘Festivals of Lights’.

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Christmas floodlighting at RHS Wisley, Surrey

In 1956, electric lights were first used to decorate outdoor Christmas trees.

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Millennium glasshouse at Wisley

Despite the relative safety of electric lights over their predecessors, the US Fire Prevention Authority reported that between 2003-7 fire-fighters were called out to around 250 Christmas tree fires every year.

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Millennium glasshouse, Christmas 2010

Christmas light displays have become ever more spectacular over the decades but, with concerns about global energy supplies growing, perhaps their days will soon be numbered?

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Spooky Christmas lights at Wisley

The Third Day of Christmas; the robin

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The British or European Robin, erithacus rubecula

The North wind doth blow and we shall have snow,
And what will poor robin do then, poor thing?
He’ll sit in a barn and keep himself warm
and hide his head under his wing, poor thing.

– traditional nursery rhyme

Wisley robin 2

The robin is particularly associated with Christmas and is a popular image for Christmas cards.  This is probably because the robin is one of the few British birds to sing all year round.  Its song from mid-December into spring is particularly strong, as males seek to defend territory and attract a mate.

spring bird

The Second Day of Christmas

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Scandinavian Christmas tree decoration

There are several different theories or branches to the story of the origin of the Christmas tree tradition.  One is the ancient pagan custom in Scandinavia of propping a pine tree, stripped of its bark, outside the door of the house, to keep the family safe from witchcraft or the devil.  The practice of some early settlers in America of erecting decorated Christmas trees was denounced by Puritans as ‘a pagan mockery’.  By the early 1800s, however, the tradition was well established.

Angel decorationMore Christmas traditions tomorrow. 

 

The First Day of Christmas

Merry Christmas

Christmas Day is the first of the Twelve Days of Christmas celebrated in the well-known song.  This song probably originates in France but the first English version dates from about AD 1250.  The song was a festive memory game with players taking turns to sing a verse and forfeits if words were forgotten.  

Wishing all my blogging friends a very merry Christmas.