English Christmas Advent S1 E2
The world first Christmas card John Callcott Horsley 1843

English Christmas Advent S1 E2

Saison 1 Episode 2 : Christmas cards, Christmas carols, decoration

By Mde Jane Forseyth “vice présidente de l’association Charles Rennie Mackintosh en Roussillon”. 

We also send Christmas cards to our friends, especially those who we do not see very often. This is frequently the only contact we might have with friends and family who are far away, so many people write long letters to go in the cards. The first Christmas card is believed to have been designed in 1843, by John Callcott Horsley, who sent it to his friend Sir Henry Cole, said to be the chief instigator of the British Postal system.



Whilst many Christmas cards have religious designs, increasingly they are secular. One of the traditional designs contains robins, which are associated with birth of Jesus. Robins are said to have helped fanned the flames of a fire built by Joseph, with their wings and were rewarded by the Virgin, who gave them their red breast

There used to be the tradition that on 21st December, St. Thomas’ Day, poor women would go from house to house in their villages, requesting money or food for their families for Christmas. This was gradually replaced by groups of people singing Christmas carols, requesting money (alms). Frequently these days this money is for charity.

Drawing of children singing Christams carols from vintage victoran boock

Christmas carols are songs related to the Christmas story, although one of them is about the holly and the ivy, which is rather strange as both plants have pagan myths associated with them. 

<— The Mediaeval Baebes sing The Holly an the Ivy Lyrics


Holly was identified with eternal life and gave protection from evil, the red berries warding off witches.  Ivy was said to bring on madness and so as green plants used to decorate homes in the winter times, they both had to be brought in together. However, the Church started to develop its own myths about the holly as it seemed useless to ban it. The story that was developed was that the berries represent Christ’s blood and the thorns his crown.

Both the holly and the ivy are thought to have too powerful magic to just throw away, but must be burnt.


Another pagan-related plant used in decorations at Christmas-tide is mistletoe. It was a symbol of fertility to the druids and so sacred it had to be cut using a golden sickle, used to ward off evil spirits in the middle ages and as a sign of peace, shelter and protection. It was the Victorians who started to develop the idea of ‘peace’ to encouraging kissing beneath its boughs.

Nowadays it has become the custom to put up the Christmas decorations during Advent, though when I was a girl it was one of the jobs to be done on Christmas Eve.

The Wrest Park Christmas Tree as it appeared in the June 1900 edition of Gardener's Chronicle (left). The tree as it stands today (right).(Image: © English Heritage)

The idea of the Christmas tree came to be popular in Britain in the reign of Queen Victoria, as her husband was German and it was already a popular practice in German families. However, it was the German wife of King George 111, Queen Charlotte who introduced the custom in 1800, by decorating a yew tree. The first trees decorated with apples were recorded in Strasbourg in 1605 and candles were used for their decoration in 1611.   The world’s oldest surviving Christmas tree was planted in 1856 in Bedfordshire, England, and is now owned by English Heritage.

Advent wreath whith a Christ candle in the center

It is now popular to put wreaths on doors and although this custom too dates only from 19th century, when they held 4 candles, 1 for each week in Advent, the original custom comes from 16th century. These wreaths though held 24 candles (recording the December days leading up to 25th) but must have been the cause of many fires and so the custom died out.

Advent wreath as designed by Johan Hinrich Wichern

Nowadays they are replaced by Advent calendars, originally printed in Germany in 1851, following the design said to be that of a housewife in Munich, who was sick of hearing her children ask when it would be Christmas!

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