A is for Advent, a word that comes from ‘adventus’, meaning ‘a coming to’ or ‘an approach’. Advent starts on December 1 and represents the season before Christmas in the ecclesiastical calendar. Advent Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, the one nearest to November 30.
The Advent calendar was not part of my childhood Christmas but it became a seasonal fixture when Palma shops started to stock them. I didn’t buy them for myself but for my grand-daughter. I think I got as much fun out of them as she did.
B for Spaniards is first and foremost for bélen, the word that means Bethlehem and is also used to denote the Nativity Scene, which is set up in a corner of many Spanish homes. For the children (and adults) it’s as much part of Christmas as the tree for Britons and Americans, not to mention the Germans (qv).
The Nativity Scene has a special place in Mallorcan culture. Palma’s Palacio March has a Neapolitan Nativity Scene that has more than 3,000 pieces, each of which is valued at around €3,000. Those of the Reyes (qv) on horseback have a value of more than €10,000. It is one of the most expensive Nativity Scenes in the world and is open to the public during the Christmas holidays.
C is for cards, a tradition that was extremely popular in the days before the internet — at that time Britons were sending some 1,700 million cards every Christmas. Nowadays most of our festive seasons greetings go by e-mail — with or without illustrations.
The first Christmas card was designed by John Calcott Horsley, a Royal Academician, for Sir Henry Cole, founder and first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Sir Henry always sent a letter of Christmas greetings to his family and friends. But he eventually had so many friends and acquaintances the annual letter became a tremendous chore. In 1843 he had the idea of a card with an illustration to which he could add a short message of seasonal greetings. The first Christmas card dates from that year.
Three years later he printed 1,000 of them, some of which were sold at his arts shop in Old Bond Street. But they cost an exorbitant one shilling apiece and, not surprisingly, they didn’t sell well.
D has to be for Dickens who did so much to popularise and sentimentalise the elements that make up a traditional English Christmas. It started in 1836 when the 24-year-old Dickens began his serialisation of the Pickwick Papers which has all the ingredients of the old fashioned idea of what an English Christmas is — or, at least, what it should be. The Pickwickians turn up at Dingley Hall by stagecoach in the midst of snow and severe cold. But a warm welcome awaits them inside where family and friends have gathered to celebrate. Six years later Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in which the sentimental message of goodwill towards all was coupled with a social message of charity.
E is definitely for eating because sitting down at table to enjoy special dishes is a custom that goes back to ancient times when a celebration of any kind meant the killing of a lamb or pig. Before refrigeration huge amounts of fresh meat created a problem, albeit a pleasant one: the meat had to be eaten up quickly. That meant inviting the family and friends for a meal and the consuming of vast amounts of food. When Christmas celebrations were being popularised in Victorian England, it was also the time of the Industrial Revolution and most people lived in horrible conditions. Christmas feasting was a way of escaping the misery of daily life for a couple of days.
F is for the fairy at the top of the tree (qv) a tradition that started in Germany. The pagan Germans of 1,200 years ago didn’t only hug and talk to trees, they worshipped them, especially the oak. Early missionaries managed to get them more interested in the fir tree by explaining that its triangular shape represented the Trinity.
But the fairy at the top of the tree didn’t get underway until the 17th century and it started out as the baby Jesus. Much later, when cherub moulds were used to speed up production, the little figure suddenly had wings. He was painted in gold or silver hues and was so pretty the younger children wanted this little angel as a doll. With the passing of time the figure changed into a fairy.
G is for glass baubles, another classic decoration for the Christmas tree that was invented by sheer chance, this time in Bohemia some 200 years ago. Glass blowing is hot work even on a cold winter day. One pre-Christmas afternoon a group of blowers slaked their thirst with liquid refreshment that wasn’t exactly water.
The drink made them more than a little merry and they started to blow small glass bubbles to see who could produce the prettiest ones. The bubbles were left lying in a corner, but one of the wives later saw them and took them to the Christmas market — where they were sold as decorative novelties.
H is for Holy Land where it all began some 2,000 years ago. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was built in the 4th century over the grotto where tradition says Jesus Christ was born. More than 40 denominations are represented in the Holy Land, underlining the great diversity of Christianity. Christmas is marked on three different dates. Western rite churches celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25, most Orthodox Christians on January 7, and the Armenian Orthodox mark the day on January 18.
I has to be for Izzy, as good friends like Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire called Irving Berlin, who lived to be 101 and wrote some 3,000 songs among which were more hits than anyone else. “And more flops than anyone else, too,” he used to say modestly. But of his thousands of songs, only one concerns us today: White Christmas.
The song first made an appearance in a 1942 musical film called Holiday Inn which teamed Bing Crosby with Fred Astaire. Hollywood cashed in on the song’s success 12 years later by featuring it in another film, appropriately called White Christmas, in which Bing Crosby starred with Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen.
J is for another much loved Christmas song, Jingle Bells, the most popular version also being that of Bing Crosby. As a child, Jingle Bells summed up Christmas for me more than any other song or carol. And it still gives me quite a buzz no matter who is singing it. Every time I hear Jingle Bells I am reminded of one of my many unfulfilled desires: driving through the snow on a one-horse open sleigh.
K is for kissing, especially under the mistletoe (qv), another unfulfilled desire. Is there any man or woman out there who has never been kissed under the mistletoe? Mind you, I’m not too worried about this because over the years I’ve received kisses in all other kinds of situations. But a kiss under the mistletoe would be rather nice, especially if I didn’t realise the mistletoe was there and the kiss came as a complete surprise — and I thought it was someone’s spontaneous expression of love at first sight. An impulsive kiss from an old friend, even with the aid of mistletoe, would also be rather welcome.
L is for the Lotería de Navidad, Spain’s big lottery draw with its first prize know as El Gordo, or the Fat One. The draw takes place on December 22 and tickets called ‘décimos’ (one tenth of a whole number) were this year costing €20.
Many years ago, when a ‘décimo’ cost 1,000 pesetas, a Spanish woman in her seventies bought a full lottery ticket — that is, 10 décimos. She had always wanted to buy a full number but could never afford it. But over a period of several years she put a little money aside every month and she eventually had 10,000 pesetas…which she took to the lottery shop and bought 10 décimos.
It was a lot of money to blow on a lottery number, but she had always wanted to do it and she happily took 10 ‘décimos’ and handed over her 10,000 pesetas. The story could have had a sad ending. But it was a very happy one. The woman’s number came up her 10 décimos brought in a considerable fortune. If that story were to be repeated today, 10 ‘décimos’ of El Gordo would be worth €4 million. Ten ‘decimos’ would today cost €200.
M is for mistletoe which the Druids took seriously because it was their sacred plant. For most of us nowadays mistletoe is taken as a bit of a giggle, especially when we get an unexpected (and possibly unwanted) kiss under it at Christmas.
The Victorians used to take one of the berries off for every implanted kiss and if you were left without a kiss by the time the berries ran out, the superstitious said you would never marry. In days of old, people used to keep mistletoe all year round to prevent the house from being struck by lightning. It also kept witches at bay.
N is for St Nicholas who was a bishop in Myrna, Asia Minor, in the 4th century and was the original Santa Claus as we know him today. Bishop Nicholas was a most generous man who used to distribute his wealth among the poor as he went around town. In some European countries children get their toys from St Nicholas. N is also for ‘neules’, a Majorcan Christmas decoration made by cutting paper into seasonal shapes. The designs are most intricate and are used as a hanging decoration.
O is for the origins of Christmas Day whose date has always been a problem for religious leaders because the date of Christ’s birth is unknown. The Eastern Church celebrated Christmas in March until well into the start of the 5th century. Then they changed it to December 25 in 432 when the birth of Christ and the Adoration of the Magi were both celebrated. The Roman Church had set December 25 as the date almost a century earlier. The first mention of December 25 as Christmas Day was made in a panegyric in 386.
P is for pantomime that ever popular part of Christmas, supposedly a treat for the children but also much loved by adults. Pantomime can be traced back to the mimes of ancient Rome. British pantomime began with Christmas morality mimes which early in the 18th century incorporated the clown element of the Italian harlequins that had just arrived in London.
Q is for the Queen’s Speech, essential listening for many people all over the world, particularly the Commonwealth countries. As always, journalists and commentators worldwide will be all ears watching out for any changes in style of content and delivery. Q is also for quiz, an annual feature in many newspapers.
R is for Reyes, the Spanish name for the Three Wise Men whose names are Melchor, Gaspar and Baltasar. Spanish children learn their names from an early age because it is the Three Kings or Reyes who bring them festive season gifts. The two big festive season dates for Spanish children are January 5 when the Three Kings and their entourage parade through towns and villages all over the country with mounds of toys. The next morning the children wake up to find the toys that were left for them. R is also for reindeer, eight of which pulled Santa’s sleigh. A possible question for a Christmas quiz: name Santa’s eight reindeer.
S is for Sibil.la, a tradition dating back centuries. It is a chant sung in churches all over Mallorca and can be heard only here or in Alguer, an area in Sardinia that was once part of the Kingdom of Cataluña and where Catalán is still spoken. The words of the Sibil.la which predict the end of the world and the coming of the redeemer, are sung before and during Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Until about 45 years ago, the role of the Sibil.la was sung by a boy soprano. But some churches started to allow girls to sing it and today the part is frequently given to young girls.
T is for the tree that is the major Christmas decoration in many parts of the world. It is thought that the Christmas tree as we know it today originated in Alsace, on the French-German border, in the early 1600s. There are written records of Christmas trees in England between 1700 and 1820, but their tremendous popularity didn’t begin until the 1840s when Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, introduced them along with other German Christmas customs. Albert’s tree was an instant success and by 1854 there was a huge one in Covent Garden market.
In America there is no record of a Christmas tree until 1855, despite the strong German influence there at the time. The first French tree didn’t appear until 1870. But the Americans did make an important change: the first tree with electric lights. It was installed in New York in December 1882 by Edward H. Johnson who, appropriately enough, was an associate of Thomas Edison, whose company manufactured the first Christmas tree lights and advertised them in the December 1901 issue of the Ladies’ Home Journal.
U is for Unicef, the branch of the United Nations that looks after the interests of underprivileged children all over the world. It was the first organisation to market Christmas cards on an international scale and today it sells more cards than any other producer. The cards first went on sale in 1949 and have always been my favourites. They are designed by artists from all five continents and the drawings and colours are most attractive. U is also for underwear, the female kind and of the colour red. There is a superstition, probably put out by a lingerie manufacturer, that it brings good luck if a woman wears red underwear on New Year’s Eve. If you’ve been looking at the knickers and bras in lingerie shop windows (I never pass on without stopping and staring) you’ll have noticed they’re full of red undies of fancy design and even fancier prices. The idea is that husbands and boyfriends give them as Christmas presents to be worn on the night of December 31.
V is for vegetarians whose place on the food chain means they miss out on many of the traditional Christmas goodies. But don’t feel sorry for vegetarians at this time of year: there are so many superb dishes built round nothing but veggies, pulses and unusual breads that it is easy to turn out lovely meals that are a veritable feast worthy of Christmas or any other celebration.
W is for White Christmas, not the song but the actual snowfalls that spread a white duvet over landscapes during the festive season. However, it’s thanks to Irving Berlin (see I for Izzy) that we have the term white Christmas. It has always snowed over Christmas in many parts of the world, but until 1942 when Irving Berlin wrote the world’s most popular Christmas song, no one had ever thought of calling it a white Christmas. The term is not only part of the English language, it translates nicely into other languages.
The British have had few snowfalls at Christmas but Dickens put the idea of a white Christmas into their heads because for the first eight years of his life it snowed every Christmas. For him snow and Christmas were very much intertwined — and he made the most of it in Pickwick Papers and A Christmas Carol. In the 20th century, London was under a Christmas Day blanket of snow on only two occasions: in 1938 and again in 1970.
X is for Xmas, a word that was once politically incorrect. When I was a child we were told we mustn’t use Xmas as it demeaned the proper word and was used only by newspaper sub-editors and advertising copywriters — because with its four letters instead of nine it fitted better into headlines and printed texts.
But Xmas is a perfectly good word that has been in use for more than 600 years, the X representing the Greek letter ‘chi’, then first letter of Christos, meaning Christ. But what we learn in childhood is sometimes difficult to shake off, so I continue to prefer Merry Christmas to Merry Xmas.
Y is for Yuletide, the Viking festival of the winter solstice that predates Christmas by several thousand years. The Old Norse word for this festival was ‘jol’, when people aimed to please the gods Odin and Thor, as well as reawaken Nature and welcome back the sun. It was a time of drinking, feasting, story-telling and the lighting of bonfires…not unlike a modern Christmas.
The ‘tide’ part of the word comes from the Old English ‘tid’, which meant a definite time in a day, year or life. In the 16th century ‘tide’ was used to denote an anniversary or festival of the Church or a village fair taking place on the day of the parish patron saint. The yule log (see L for log) was part of the Yuletide festival.
Z is for the zzz…zzz sound of quiet snoring as one sleeps off the effects of excessive eating during an hour’s siesta (or longer) after a superb Christmas meal. The siesta is a wonderful Mediterranean custom and I seldom miss mine during the year — and never over the 12 days of Christmas.