Animals, Garden Design, Jorge, Water Features

john-constable-water-feature

With the psychological benefits associated with water, it is no wonder water features are an integral part of garden design. Since at least the eighteenth century, doctors have prescribed trips to the seaside to improve their patients’ well-being. Britain’s love affair with water stretches all the way to Aquae Sulis, located in what is today Bath; there both Briton and Roman alike would seek relaxation in its natural hot springs.

Access to water is known to both alleviate stress and promote serenity. For example, psychologists from the ‘Blue Gym’ project found that people have preference for images with water than those with none. Interestingly, the same project found that images with both blue and green garnered the most favourable response (an interesting tip for those designing their garden).

So why is this the case? Why do humans love blue and green? It is probable that our love for water is hard-coded in our genes to ensure our survival. It is a hangover from when humans were hunters and gatherers, when the colours of blue and green signalled a resource rich environment that was conducive to your long term survival. To our savannah-dwellings ancestors, habitat selection was of paramount importance, and lush grasslands and clumps of trees provided evidence of abundant wildlife and a good supply of water.

john-constable-river

It is not incidental that rivers, lakes and seas are blue, and plant life green. Only a combination of both could ensure survival and a view of both signalled the jackpot. It is from this that humans have developed a sense of pleasure when we witness such a view. While now such a view is not necessary for survival, the genetic heritage remains as evolution takes place over extremely long periods, far beyond the 20,000 odd years humans have been living in permanent settlements.

Humans’ preferences for certain habitats have been confirmed in a number of surveys. In one, people from around the world were all shown standardised photos of five landscapes – deciduous forest, tropical forest, open savannah with trees, coniferous forest, and desert – and no category stood out, except that of the desert, which had a slightly negative response. (It is, unsurprisingly, an environment that is both hostile to human life and resource scarce.) When the experiment was extended to young children, they expressed a marked preference for the savannah (where early human evolution took place) as well as landscapes with water, trees, game animals, and cloud patterns among others, which offer opportunities for both food and water.

savannah-environmental-preferences

In another survey, a professional polling organisation conducted a poll of art preferences in ten countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas, and found that blue was the most popular colour, followed by green. And again, there was a marked preference for water, plants, and large animals, both wild and domestic, among others.

Indeed, it is likely that such colours also provide animals a rudimentary pleasure as such environments sustain the majority of life on earth, provided they in fact see in colour. Indeed, animals with comparatively low sentience may find it hard to enjoy anything else.

roman-aqueduct
The Pont du Gard, the most famous Roman aqueduct in existence – it was modified in the 1740s to carry a wide road.  Emanuele  (2007)  licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Now, when do man-made water features pop up in human history? Famously, the Romans built a system of aqueducts to supply the city of Rome with water, which was necessary to feed the expanding metropolis. These aqueducts utilised gravity to transport water from the surrounding hills, which was then stored in large cisterns. From these cisterns, the water would then travel through pipes to public distribution points and individual’s houses where there might be fountains. To power these fountains, the Romans again utilised gravity, as because a foot of height generates 0.43 pounds per square inch of water pressure, even a small cistern could power a fountain. As a sidenote, the Romans were not the first to use gravity to power fountains as even such primitive societies such as the Maya did so.

The power of gravity could be utilised in other ways to power fountains. Jumping forward to the 18th century, King Louis XIV’s fountain complex at Versailles was powered by the river Seine. It utilised an convoluted system of 14 huge water wheels to power pistons for over 200 water pumps. The water was transferred through a system of reservoirs up the hill into an aqueduct, which then distributed the water to the various fountains on the grounds. In the intervening years between the romans and Versailles, fountains would find their greatest popularity in the Islamic world (in the famous paradise gardens), and later renaissance Italy. It was in these two golden ages that saw the emergence of such artists and engineers that could enable their construction. The surviving examples from these periods are still highly popular today.

renaissance-water-fountain
The Fontana Masini in the Piazza del Popolo in Cesena, completed in 1591. It was designed by Cesena Francesco Masini and built by the stonemason Montevecchio Domenico and his assistants.

Other more complicated methods of pumping water emerged in time such as hydraulic rams and steam engines. The former is not too dissimilar to the water wheel in that it requires no power other than the kinetic energy of flowing water. The device, in effect, takes in water at one height, and outputs water at another higher height. It was invented in 1796 by Joseph Michel Montgolfier, who is otherwise famous as one of the inventors of the hot air balloon. The steam pump, and its successor the electric pump, would prove revolutionary and greatly increase the power of fountains, enabling such fountains as the King Fahd’s Fountain that produces the largest water jets on earth, possibly surpassing a 1,000 feet.

largest-fountain-on-earth
King Fahd’s Fountain, located in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Now, returning to the original question, a water feature is likely to signal a plentiful supply of water, and allow one to feel relaxed, and at home. Even better, the sound of running water will allow such relaxation when in earshot. Then, once placed in the greenery of the garden, it provides the perfect environment for a human to relax. Now thanks to advances in technology, you can use solar energy to power your feature, allowing one to both save money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Jorge at PrimroseJorge works in the Primrose marketing team. He is an avid reader, although struggles to stick to one topic!

His ideal afternoon would involve a long walk, before settling down for scones.

Jorge is a journeyman gardener with experience in growing crops.

See all of Jorge’s posts.

Flowers, Jorge, Plants

cherry-tree-flower-in-winter

Plants are intelligent inasmuch as they only flower when the light, age and energy conditions are appropriate to allow the plant to reproduce successfully. To do this, they have developed at least 20 different senses to monitor the complex conditions in their environment and are able to take into account factors like humidity, gravity and even electromagnetic fields. Plants differ greatly in their evolutionary strategy, and possess a diffused brain of sorts as to process information. This is why unlike, say mammals, plants are able to survive a significant loss of body mass.

Most plants flower in the spring or summer when the heat-sensitive bees are ready to facilitate conjugation with trees nearby. Spring is usually preferred because it gives the resultant fruit more months to soak in the heat and sunlight to produce fructose, which feed the sugar-crazed mammals and birds that the plant needs to spread its off-spring far from the mothership. Winter doesn’t work so well as the worker bees are otherwise occupied maintaining the temperature of the queen bee.

bluebells-flower-in-winter

Some, however, such as snowdrops and bluebells, have carved out a niche that allows them to gain a step up over their competitors. By flowering in winter, they are able to survive quite happily in real-estate that most plants can’t – that is, under the heavy bows of large deciduous trees, deep inside the ancient woods. In places where even grass can’t grow, these plants thrive as they utilise their bulbs as an energy storage device that they fill up in the early spring when the sun is weak and the trees leafless. By the time the big trees are fully-leaved, the plants have done their work for the year and their dark leaves are already dying off by the end of spring. The sugars produced by photosynthesis are converted to starch and withdrawn deep into the earth-bound bulb for protection. And by choosing this tactic – the protection of the mighty deciduous trees – they’ve avoided competing with the most ruthless of summer plants like grass.

But what of the winter-flowering trees like the Mahonia and Cherry tree? Most likely, the winter-flowering trees found just a few insects to spread the pollen. And because there were no other flowers around at the time, the winter-flowering trees had hit on a limited but good-enough niche.

mahonia-flower-in-winter

And what are the winter-pollinating insects and why do they seek out flowering-plants in winter? Recent research has shown that one of the UK’s most common bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) is achieving comparable foraging success in winter on plants such as Mahonia to that achieved in summer months. There are also a few moths that, just like many plants, have evolved antifreeze in their blood to prevent the formation of ice-crystals when the temperature falls below zero.

So, therefore just like the winter-flowering plants, insects have crafted themselves their own niches to ensure the survival of their species.

bombus-terrestris

The Science

Many plants flower in time for a particular season by responding to the length of day, a process known as photoperiodism. While scientists do not fully understand how plants do this, it is accepted that when a plant flowers is related to its genes and external environment.

In plants, scientists have identified the CONSTANS and DNF (DAY NEUTRAL FLOWERING) genes as the key mechanisms that regulate a plant’s flowering time in response to day length. In the Arabidopsis plant, scientists recently identified a faulty DNF gene that led to abnormal flowering times in mutant plants. The DNF acted to repress the activation of the CONSTANS gene until light levels rise above a certain threshold in daytime. Hence, once a functional DNF was introduced into the plant, the abnormal flowering was corrected.

In a separate study, scientists identified the sugar molecule trehalose-6-phosphate (T6P) in the Arabidopsis thaliana as playing an essential role in controlling flowering time in relation to energy reserves. As such, once a certain day length was perceived by the plant’s leaves, a mix of photoreceptors and other proteins would lead to the expression of the FLOWERING LOCUS T (FT) gene that would migrate proteins to the tip of the shoot, triggering the expression of flowers. However, as a failsafe, once the plant reaches a certain age, it would begin to flower anyway regardless of day length. As flowering is an extremely intensive process for the plant, energy too must also be available in the form of sugar. Here, the T6P sugar molecule would act as a signal for energy levels, regulating the production of FT protein. Thus, the T6P acts to influence both of the two most important pathways to flowering – the expression of the flowering gene and the production of the flowering protein.

Ultimately, greater understanding of the complex pathways that control flowering times will allow farmers to reduce uncertainty and thus boost their agricultural output.

Jorge at PrimroseJorge works in the Primrose marketing team. He is an avid reader, although struggles to stick to one topic!

His ideal afternoon would involve a long walk, before settling down for scones.

Jorge is a journeyman gardener with experience in growing crops.

See all of Jorge’s posts.

Gardening, How To, Jorge, Plants

forcing vegetables

Forcing fruit and vegetables in winter is fun way to ensure you have a steady supply of fresh greens for your family. It involves producing crops out of season through replicating the environmental conditions necessary for plant growth. This quirky custom dates back to at least the 1600s, but achieved peak popularity with the Victorians, when the better off sought to impress their friends with spring salads.

Forcing Rhubarb

forcing rhubarb

Forcing rhubarb is an easy way to start experimenting with forcing plants, and can be done throughout the winter, although it works best in January and February. Simply start by removing weeds and leaves around the rhubarb crown, and place some fresh mulch. Then use large cylinder (preferably a pot) to cover the crowns, plugging any holes in the process. This exclusion of light will start frenzied growth, and the stems should be ready in only eight weeks, provided the soil is kept moist! You can harvest when the stems hit the roof of the pot, although 20-30cm of growth is to be expected.

It is recommended that you use established plants as the young ones may not have sufficient energy reserves, and that you do not force again for 2 years as the process leaves the plant susceptible to disease. If you are in colder climate, or are expecting a harsh winter, insulating the pot will be necessary. The warmer it is, the faster the plant will grow, and 18-20°C is the optimum temperature. Unsurprisingly, as the rhubarb is deprived of the light, it will be unable to photosynthesise, and will appear paler than usual. Also noticeable, is how the resultant stem is decidedly less bitter, supposedly due to less sugar.

Forcing Strawberries

forcing strawberries

Forcing strawberries can be a little more difficult, but the key is to expose the plant to the cold until at least February, before moving it to a warm environment. This extended cooling is necessary to convince the plant that an extended period of warmth is about to begin, thus signalling the changing of the seasons. When choosing which strawberry plants to force, you can try older plants that perhaps performed poorly in the year, but if you are really keen, you can plant runners up to a year and a half early, and cultivate the plant’s root system through picking off its flowers.

Now, what kind of warmth are we talking about? An unheated greenhouse can produce a small crop, but instead it is better to use a either a propagation mat or a greenhouse heater to raise the temperature a small amount. Now, if you wish to keep your strawberry plants outside, you can use a cloche that can be removed on the milder days to attract bees.

paintbrush-pollination

Once you decide to move to the plant into the warmth, it is now time to apply some TLC. First remove dead leaves, runners and weeds and give them a dressing with mulch. Then as it is cold outside and there are no bees, you’ll have to do the pollinating. Grab yourself a paintbrush or cotton swab and rub it over each of the flowers as often as possible. (Some gardeners do this daily!) Finally it’s time to start the watering regimen, that is until the fruits finally ripen, when you should let the earth dry out. (This helps concentrate sugars in the fruit.)

Forcing doesn’t just have to be used in winter and other vegetables that are historically forced include Chinese Beansprouts, Chicory, Dandelion and Seakale. For fruits, gardeners have reported success with tomatoes and even pineapples. Do you have any experience with forcing fruit? If so we would love hear from you. Post in the comments below!

Jorge at PrimroseJorge works in the Primrose marketing team. He is an avid reader, although struggles to stick to one topic!

His ideal afternoon would involve a long walk, before settling down for scones.

Jorge is a journeyman gardener with experience in growing crops.

See all of Jorge’s posts.

Christmas, Jorge

roman nativity
A 4th century depiction of the birth of Jesus featuring an ass and an ox. There is no evidence documenting animals at Jesus birth, so it is likely they were added at a later date.  Picture credit:  Giovanni Dall’Orto (2007).

Christmas brings to mind an array of customs, but it is not immediately obvious where they all come from. The popular tales surrounding the birth of Jesus, as say dramatised through a nativity play, leave much to be desired. For example, they tell us nothing of the origin of the Christmas tree or Father Christmas – the big man himself. Consulting the Bible is not much help either. In the New Testament one will find only two gospels that mention the birth of Jesus: Matthew and Luke. These scriptures do not even mention the variety of domesticated animals supposedly present at Jesus’ birth, nor do they state the shepherds and wise men appeared together. How did this all come to be one may ask? Well, this article will aim to explain the origin of Christmas and its customs, starting with its date.  

The Date

Popular mythology would place the birth of Jesus on the 25th of December, 1 CE, although this is not mentioned in the New Testament. This figure originates, in part, from the miscalculations of the 6th century bishop Dionysius Exiguus, who is otherwise famous for the invention of the Christian calendar. He gave us the year of Jesus’ birth through comparing information from the New Testament and other Roman sources as to arrive at a date, finally settling on 754 AUC (years after the founding of Rome). To arrive at the day of Jesus’ birth one has to go further back to the ancient festival of Saturnalia – a precursor to Christmas.

As a side note, there were other earlier guesses of the date of the birth of Jesus. Clement of Alexandria (c.150 – 215) guessed that Jesus was born on the 28th of March, and the anonymous document, DePascha Computus (written c.243) places the birth on the 18th of November. In fact, the Catholic Church’s official commentary on the New Testament, as written by Joseph A. Fitzmyer, places Jesus’ birth on the 11th of September, 3 BCE.

Saturnalia

saturnalia
A bas-relief of the God Saturn with his usual accompaniment – a scythe. Picture credit: Jean-Pol Grandmont  (2011)  licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Saturnalia was a festival celebrated well before the birth of Christ and well into the first millennium; it was instigated as to mark the end of Autumn planting in honour of the god Saturn (in Latin Satus means Sowing). Described as the “best of times” by the poet Catullus, the festival was enormously popular in part due to the relaxation of mores. It was a period of lawlessness where it became forbidden to punish anyone guilty of damaging property or injuring people. The festival saw the inversion of social roles with masters paying their tenants rent and the classes exchanging clothes. Included in this was the nomination of an enemy of the people to represent the Lord of Misrule – a practice that continued with the emergence of Christmas proper, but in different forms. Early festivals may have involved human sacrifice with victims pampered with the pleasures of the flesh, as to become tokens representing the forces of darkness.

Separately, the festival shared a number of similarities with Christmas today. The historian Lucian describes widespread intoxication, house-to-house singing and the consumption of human-shaped biscuits, although it must be stated that this ‘caroling’ was done naked. He even highlights the “occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water”. (The precursor to the ice bucket challenge! Well, maybe.) Other familiar occurrences include the decoration of trees, gift-giving and relaxed dress codes. Gift-giving emerged from how the Emperors compelled their most detested citizens to bring gifts during Saturnalia; this spread to the general population and evolved into the custom of gift-giving we know today.

saturnalia ernesto biondi
Saturnalia as imagined by the Italian artist Ernesto Bioni. Picture credit: Roberto Fiadone (2008) licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Now returning to the original question of the day of Jesus’ birthday, Saturnalia was originally held for two days succeeding the 17th of December, but was gradually extended to become a week-long event, ending on (you guessed it) the 25th of the same month. The pagan festival’s popularity continued unabated into the Roman Empire’s Christian period and the church sought to attract converts to the religion by first tolerating, and then remarketing the celebration as a Christian event with the 25th as Jesus’ birthday. (Christianity was tolerated after 313 AD with Constantine’s Edict of Milan; it became the Empire’s sole authorised religion in 380 AD with the Edict of Thessalonica.) Interestingly, early schisms resulted in the adoption of different calendars with Orthodox Christians celebrating Christmas on the 7th of January.

The Pagan Roots of Christmas Past

There are other features of Christmas that may have their origin in Europe’s pagan past. Prehistoric peoples long celebrated the Winter Solstice and farming practices created an abundance of resources at this time, making feasting a possibility. This was because the alcohol made during the year had finally fermented, and that as livestock had to be slaughtered due to a lack of feed during winter, there was a surplus of meat available.

christmas pagans
Prehistoric peoples’  designed monuments like Stonehenge to cast light in certain ways on days such as the winter solstice. Picture credit: Jeffrey Pfau (2005) licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

It is often claimed that the custom “kissing under the mistletoe” has pagan origins, emerging from Norse mythology, or perhaps the Roman festival of Saturnalia. One story goes that Hoder slew his brother Baldur with a spear of mistletoe over the female Nanna. Another states that the sexual license of festival of Saturnalia combined with the Celtic use of mistletoe, although it must be mentioned that neither of these accounts are well documented.

It is probable that the custom of the Yule log derives from Germanic pagans who burnt logs throughout the winter months to represent the sun. It has been stated that they believed the sun was a great wheel of fire that rolled towards and away from the earth.  Ostensibly, the word Yule derives from the Norse word Hwoel meaning wheel. However, it is more probable that the word yule was used to represent feasting, which was common in that time of year.

Christmas in the Medieval Period

Christmas remained popular throughout the medieval period, and many practices continued unabated such as the Lord of Misrule, where lord and peasant would swap places for a day. Other similar festivities include the Feast of the Holy innocents that saw the election of a boy bishop. Acts of charity was still instrumental to the holiday too. For example, in 1314 North Curry, Somerset, tenants received beer and a great variety of nutritious food to tie them over for the day.  

lord of misrule
Medieval tiles from the now destroyed Derby Black Friary displaying the spirit of Misrule in the corners.

The medieval Christmas was still very different than today as it lasted for 12 days from the 25th until the 6th of January. Before this period was a month of fasting in preparation for the day of Jesus’ birth. Feasting was paramount to the festival once it started, but the day of gift giving was New Year’s Day, as opposed to Christmas day. Sadly, goodwill was not extended to all men as Christmas was a day of ridicule and persecution for some. In Korneuburg circa 1305, Jews were accused of desecrating a consecrated communion wafer, leading to a witch hunt.  In 1466, Pope Paul II revived Saturnalia forcing Jews to race through the streets naked after being stuffed with food. This continued well into the 18th and 19th century when Jews were forced to march wearing clownish outfits and were pelted with missiles. In 1881, Christian leaders in Poland whipped the public into a frenzy that led to the death of 12 Jews and the injuries of many more.

The Medieval period saw the beginning of a number of customs integral to our Christmas. In 1223, the Italian village of Grecio saw the first instance of nativity. This was instigated by St. Francis of Assisi and was documented by the near contemporary St. Bonaventure in his book the Life of St. Assisi. St. Bonaventure describes how St. Francis was granted permission by Pope Honorious 3 to assemble live animals – an ass and an ox – along with hay, a manger and the local villages at a nearby cave. In this cave, St. Francis preached the story of Jesus’ birth and started a tradition that would prove extraordinarily popular. Nativities proved popular because they recounted the stories of the bible in the common tongue and in a simple way, via visual display and emotional engagement. This was important as, for the medieval layman, the stories were otherwise inaccessible, locked up in Latin scripture.

st francis nativity
A fresco depicting St Francis at Greccio. Painted between 1297-1300, the work is traditionally attributed to the Florentine master Giotto.

Around the same time, St Francis wrote the song Psalmus in Nativitate – the first Christmas carol. While St. Francis did not invent caroling, he wrote it in the style of popular music so it was easy to replicate; this differed from the church hymns of the past. Unsurprisingly, caroling took off and would often accompany nativity plays, although would also find popularity when sung on the street. It is likely that house-to-house singing did not originate at this point, but this is where it took a distinctively Christian form. The practice would spread all over Europe and it was around this time that travelling bard and mistress would begin singing Christmas songs at people’s houses in return for hot meals.

Christmas in the Early Modern Period

puritan ban christmas
A 17th century public notice from Boston deeming Christmas sacrilegious.

While Christmas was never the premium event in the medieval Christian calendar (the honours going to Easter followed by the Annunciation), the advert of Protestantism would undermine the holiday throughout the Early Modern period. Famously, the puritans would ban the holiday in both America and England because they knew that Jesus was not born on Christmas Day. They knew of the event’s pagan origins and believed only the scripture was worthy of worship. They also subscribed to the doctrine of abstinence that placed the revelry of Christmas in a negative moral light. (This revelry led to some deriding the festival as Foolstide.) Some had political, as well as theological, reasons to dislike Christmas as the festival was believed to be celebrated by royalists whom the Parliamentarians opposed.

The banning of the festival did not necessarily go down well and it became a hotly contested issue (not dissimilar to how Brexit divides us today) with polemical after polemical written for and against its celebration. The majority of the population remained sympathetic and significant portions of the population continued to celebrate the festival, if in private. As services were no longer held in churches, individuals would sometimes hold them elsewhere. One example of this comes from John Evelyn who in 1657 attended a ‘grand assembly’ celebrating the birth of Christ, which later was interrupted and broken up by the army. The authorities’ task of dampening the festivities was made harder due to the fact the day was a traditional holiday, which resulted in the population heading to taverns. Disputes over the event could even lead to civil disorder as in Ipswich in 1647 where the repression of the authorities led to rioting and the death of a protester. One extreme example led to a full blown revolt in Canterbury of the same year. The traditional festivities only returned in 1660 with the restoration of the monarchy and the return of Charles II.

charles II christmas
Charles II by John Michael Wright.

The Victorian Revival

It is with the early eighteenth century revival of Christmas and its explosion of popularity in the Victorian period that we can easily recognise the Christmas we celebrate today. While there are a number of innovations such as the Christmas card and tree, the period primarily popularised and revived older practices, and consolidated them into one package. It is in this period that we also witness a shift from the rowdiness of the past to a more family-centred holiday. For example, it was with the relaxation of family discipline that Christmas day began to be viewed as a special day to treat children.

Christmas differed from the early modern period in that it found a new lease of life in churches. This was the case as theological changes in the previous century produced less stringent strands of Christianity that were more tolerant of joyous celebrations such as Christmas. This was further enhanced with the rise of the Oxford Movement that looked favourably upon Catholic rituals. Churches, thus, witnessed a return of richer, more symbolic forms of worship and were again brightly illuminated and extensively decorated. Essential to this was the introduction of boughs and flowers such as Ivy, Holly and Rosemary that the Victorians went mad for. (One commentator went as far as describing a church he visited as a greenhouse!) By the late nineteenth century, Christmas was widely celebrated in churches and was very popular. It was even common for couples to get married on Christmas day.

charles dickens christmas carol
The 1843 first edition cover of A Christmas Carol.

Key to the popularisation of Christmas was Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that did more than any other work to instill Christmas in the popular imagination. The novel proved popular due to its powerful social message, religious themes and the fact it reflected a Victorian obsession with the supernatural. Once the novel was conceived, Dickens became impassioned and wrote the novel in a mere six weeks. A terrible sleeper, he spent many Christmases travelling throughout London, both in the day and at night, to soak up the atmosphere and the book captures it so well. Rich in description, the novel describes how the festival arrests the senses with its decorations and smell. The book’s greatest legacy, however, has to be its humanitarian vision that has remained influential even today and inspired such masterpieces as the 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life. Testament to its success, the book has never been out of print.

After its conception in Grecio, Christmas caroling spread all over Europe and evolved, changing from country to country. Not dissimilar to a game of Chinese whispers, the carols’ meaning and performance changed with different languages and through combining with secular song. At the start of the 19th century, caroling at Christmas wasn’t as popular as it once was. It took antiquarians to help popularise the custom through publications of carols, taken from various communities throughout the British Isles. The most famous of the publications was William Sandys’ Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern published in 1833, which became a bestseller. Included were such carols as The First Noel, God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen I Saw Three Ships, and Hark the Herald Angels Sing that are immediately recognisable today. Also worthy of mention is Davies Gilbert whose 1822 publication of Christmas carols from the West of England includes the carols While Shepherds Watched, A Virgin Most Pure, and The Lord at First did Adam Make. It is worthwhile to mention that the Victorians did produce new carols such as Thomas Neale’s Good King Wenceslas. To do this composers often adapted older melodies and verse. In 1878, Truro Cathedral would integrate carols into its Christmas service.

While the artist John Calcott Horsley created the first Christmas card, the commissioner of the piece, Sir Henry Cole, devised the idea. Horsley’s card embodies Christmas today, featuring three generations of the family round a table, flanked by scenes of charity. Cole previously introduced the Penny Post, which made it cheap to send cards and he printed over 4000 Christmas cards in their first year. In 1874, the Christmas card spread to America and by the 1880s the firm Prang and Mayer were producing over 5 million cards a year.

First christmas card
John Callcott Horsley’s Christmas card.

The Christmas tree originates from Strasbourg, Germany. It was here in the 17th century where the tree was first decorated and named after the Christian holiday. In the 18th century, the practice spread throughout Germany and was popularised by Goethe in his novel, the Sorrows of Young Werther. It spread to Britain with the German Prince Albert marrying Queen Victoria, and arrived in America with Pennsylvanian German immigrants. Although, its popularity was only consolidated after 1848 after an American newspaper carried a picture of Christmas tree.  

christmas tree
An 1858 wood engraving of a Christmas tree – published in the 25th of December edition of Harper’s Weekly.

Father Christmas

Many of Christmas’ customs origins can be gleaned from the tale of how Father Christmas came to be. The story begins with St. Nicholas in the 4th century and ends with Coca Cola in the 20th. It highlights how Santa is a truly global creation of Christian, Pagan and commercial origin who took centuries to evolve into the man we know today.

St Nicholas was the bishop of Myra (located in what is today Turkey) and is otherwise famous as an attendee of the Council of Nicaea. There are no contemporary accounts documenting his life, or surviving works of his hand, so we are largely ignorant of his life. One of the earliest tales of his life tells us how he provided three gifts anonymously to three destitute maidens as to save them from slavery. Fast-forwarding to the 11th century, sailors transferred the saint’s remains to the Italian city of Bari, supplanting the southern European gift-giving deity Pasqua Epiphania. (St Nicholas was the patron saint of sailors; Epiphania is reputed to place sweets in good children’s shoes!) It was here that a gift-giving cult developed, who met annually on the 6th of December – the alleged date of his death.

saint nicholas christmas
The Dowry for the three virgins by Gentile da Fabriano.

As the cult spread throughout Europe different cultures would adapt the saint’s appearance to match their own. Thus, once the cult reached Northern Europe, St Nicholas acquired a Germanic appearance. Influenced by the gods of their ancestors, Germanic peoples’ based Nicholas on the pagan god Woden, who used to ride horses through the heavens and possessed a magnificent white beard. Bereft of his Mediterranean appearance and light garments, the saint also donned heavy winter clothing. Later, the Catholic Church would seek to absorb the cult and decreed that he distributed gifts on the 25th of December, encouraging others to do so.

Jumping forward again to the beginning of the 19th century, the man of the moment is Washington Irving, who did the most out of anybody to popularise Christmas in America. Before Irving, Christmas had largely died out, although was still celebrated by some German communities. Irving experienced Christmas first-hand in his stay at Anton hall, Birmingham, and was one of the first to write about the joy of the holiday. The writer wrote a satire of Dutch culture and referred to Saint Nicholas in his Dutch name Sinterklaas, which anglicised as Santa Claus, gave Father Christmas his other English name. In his History of New-York, Irving furnished Santa with a pipe and wagon, making his journeying rather more comfortable.

Washington irving
Coincidentally, Washington Irving also created the headless horseman that  influenced the 1993 classic A Nightmare Before Christmas.  In one scene the main character Jack can be viewed holding his head in his hand in front of the moon as in  1974 postage stamp above.

In 1823, Dr Clement Moore wrote his timeless poem a Visit from St. Nicholas, with its memorable opening lines:

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house  
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse

Moore innovated by providing Santa with his eight reindeer, and kept him fit by making him descend chimneys. In the late 19th century, the illustrator Thomas Nast drew over 2200 images of Santa for the magazine Harper’s Weekly, giving him a uniform appearance. He also positioned him in the North Pole, filled his workshop with elves, gave him a list of good and bad children and started the practice of children writing to Santa.

thomas nast santa
An 1881 illustration of Santa by Thomas Nast.

In 1931, Coca Cola commissioned the Swedish artist Haddon Sundbolm to create a coke-drinking Santa. He modelled Santa on his friend Lou Prentice, chosen for his cheerful chubby face. The campaign famously dressed Santa in the colours of Coke, although incidentally the traditional robes of bishops were red and white, and Saint Nicholas may have dressed in similar colours. Coke’s campaign was the first of many advertising campaigns that have standardised Santa’s appearance ever since.

A concluding thought

While Christmas does originate from multiple sources – pagan, Christian, commercial, natural and supernatural – key to the festival is a profound recognition of our humanity. Whether it be the long running custom of the Lord of Misrule, Scrooge’s change of heart, the Christmas truce of 1914, or George Bailey’s wish for his life back; Christmas is a time for goodwill to all mankind.

Jorge at PrimroseJorge works in the Primrose marketing team. He is an avid reader, although struggles to stick to one topic!

His ideal afternoon would involve a long walk, before settling down for scones.

Jorge is a journeyman gardener with experience in growing crops.

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