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Preparing for Christmas

Canterbury Cathedral and lit Christmas tree at night with nativity creche

Christmas celebrates the moment when God became a man and lived among men. Men and women who follow His teachings of love know themselves and every person to be valued by God. They believe in the fundamental dignity and equality of each individual. If a person needs help, they reach out a helping hand. Or so we hope.

The birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has been celebrated in Britain for at least sixteen hundred years.

Ancient winter solstice traditions of holly, firelight, and feasts were united with Christmas carols, candlelit Christmas services, Christmas giving and Christmas feasts to celebrate the coming of the Christ child and the opening of human hearts to love. These British traditions have wreathed the world:

BRITISH CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS

Christmas cards

Children and tree on Christmas card

A Brit invented the first printed Christmas card in 1843, the same year that Dickens published A Christmas Carol. The first card in the world showed a happy family raising a festive glass, while side scenes showed the family clothing and feeding people in need. The man who commissioned the card was Sir Henry Cole, the founder of the Victoria & Albert Museum. The painter was John Calcott Horsely. Printed in black and white and then coloured by hand, 1,000 cards were produced for "Old King" Cole.

But the tradition didn't take off until Christmas 1862 when printer Charles Goodall produced a simple card with the words A Merry Christmas.

All credit to the Postal Service for delivering barrowloads of mail efficiently. (And to Rowland Hill for inventing and spearheading the world's first adhesive postage stamp and a uniform postal charge.)

Christmas Carols

Christmas Carols at night in Haworth

Image: Haworth, Beautiful Britain

Among the carols Brits wrote and still sing:

Angels We Have Heard on High

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

Deck the Halls

O Come, All Ye Faithful

Joy to the World

In the Bleak Midwinter

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Good King Wenceslas look'd out

Hark! the Herald Angels Sing, is heard at St Paul's Cathedral, London:

Lessons & Lessons and Carols are held at almost every church and cathedral in Britain, carols are sung everywhere, indoors and outdoors; and Christmas Eve carol services fill the night before Christmas with song, releasing listeners into the starry beauty of Christmas, even when it's raining. The spirit of the English cathedral choir has travelled abroad. . .

Boys choir in red and white robes

Image: Episcopal Church of the Redeemer Church, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania

Scrooge

life_dickens_christmas_carol_small.jpg

"Bah, humbug!" shouted Scrooge. Then he was visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Future. . .

Image: Bristol's Tobacco Factory Theatre production

The idea for A Christmas Carol came to Dickens like “a bright, clear jet of light” and he wrote at a white heat, finishing the book in less than two months as "he wept over it, laughed, and then wept again". (So wrote Les Standiford, author of The Man Who Invented Christmas.)

The result is a phenomenon of insight, power, passion, and Christmas delight. Dickens sent out presentation copies on December 17th, 1843. (The official release date was the 19th.)

By December 22nd, he had sold every copy. A Christmas Carol has been a bestseller for 150 years, and has been adapted for film, theatre, and television.

The story evokes almost every British Christmas tradition, especially the one Dickens considered the beating pulse of Christmas. . .reaching out to others with love, cherishing children, particularly children in want, and living with joy.

Christmas Panto

Panto

Image: Richard Wilson Archive. Richard Wilson is on the right.

December finds giddy children and their parents at festive pantomimes. On stage, actors in big wigs and hats and gaudy costumes – with the occasional man decked out as a woman and a woman masquerading as a man – deliver saucy send-ups of fairy tales while bounding on and off stage, singing, and imploring the audience to respond. Audiences giggle, clap, shouts warning, laugh and roar.

Christmas Eve service

Christmas Eve at Salisbury Cathedral /Image: The Anglican Communion

Christmas Eve & Christmas Day Services

The reading for the Christmas Day Service is always 1 John 4:7-16: My dear friends, let us love one another, because the source of love is God. . .

It has been said that God's voice can be heard in the birth of Jesus like a beating heart, a heart beating gently, sending us one simple message: 'Will you receive Him? Will you receive?'

Christmas Dinner & Christmas Pudding

Carrying in the flaming Christmas pudding

Christmas Dinner follows the Christmas Day Service. Pull your Christmas cracker with a bang, and put on a paper crown. The menu is beef, lamb or fowl (with substitutes for vegetarians), hot chestnuts, red apples, luscious pears, mince pies, "seething bowls of punch", trifle, and Christmas pudding.

Made a month before Christmas, usually on the first Sunday in Advent, Christmas Pudding makes a flamboyant appearance at the end of dinner. Blazing in brandy, decorated with Christmas holly, Christmas pudding looks, in the words of Charles Dickens, "like a speckled cannon ball".

Taking a walk on Christmas Day

St Cross

Image: Adrian Harvey, The Hospital of St Cross and Almshouse of Noble Poverty

Whether you are in the country or the city, visiting friends or family, with a dog or without, a walk follows dinner on Christmas Day. Those who decline are sure to repine.

Yule log burning in old fireplace

Burning the Yule log. Before central heating, when heat was provided only by fires, the Yule Log was a fine log to burn.

Messiah!

Handel came to Britain to earn a living, became a British subject, and worked feverishly to complete Messiah, which received its first performance on April 13th 1742 in Dublin. The proceeds went to support local hospitals.

Messiah is immensely popular in America, and is usually performed during Advent as a pre-Christmas concert. Everyone jumps to their feet during the Hallelujah chorus at the end of Part II. (The 200-year-old tradition is said to have begun when George II rose to his feet as the first triumphant notes of the Hallelujah Chorus rang out, and the whole audience stood with him.)

During Part III, a pure and heartbreakingly beautiful song floats into the air: I know that my Redeemer liveth. . .

Bethany College, West Virginia, has only 900 students, but its choir pours its heart into the Hallelujah Chorus, as did the Shawford and Compton Choir and many others all across Britain.

Little boy smiling in Christmas box

Image: Beautiful Britain

"I don't know what to do!" cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath; and making a perfect Laocoön of himself with his stockings. "I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to every-body! A happy New Year to all the world! Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!"

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