The other day my sister-in-law in Australia sent me a s**t e-mail. That is, an e-mail that purported to explain the derivation of the word. Apparently it was to do with the shipping of manure below decks, leading to catastrophic explosions and so ending up with the instruction “Ship High In Transit”.
Although somewhat concerned that she should think of me when she read a story about poo, I felt duty-bound to reciprocate with some edumacational nuggets about the derivation of some of our favourite traditions. With our British summer feeling distinctly autumnal, thoughts are already turning to the festive season, so consider the following when you start planning for Christmas.
First, the word Christmas is commonly mistaken for meaning Mass of Christ, but it actually goes back much earlier than this, to an old Celtic festival called Cris T’Mars, which translates as Cross The Marsh. During the depth of winter each year, tribes who populated the higher lands would send out messages to the lowland dwellers who struggled to survive the cold and wet in the bogs and marshes. In a show of apparent humanity and kindness, they were invited to ‘cross the marsh’ to share in the spoils of the higher, more fertile land. However, as the lowlanders extended the hand of peace in return, it was invariably hacked off and roasted over an open fire, as turkey was not easy to come by in those days.
You might also be forgiven for believing that the tradition of placing an angel on top of the Christmas tree has a spiritual basis derived from the story of the nativity. In fact, it relates to the time of the Saxon invaders, who were responsible for bringing Scandinavian pine trees with them, mainly as building material for the repair of their ships. Early Saxon settlers, in an attempt to scare off the local Angle population, would plant a tree outside their dwelling, having first rammed it up one of the tribal leaders. Thus, Saxon warriors were responsible for displaying dead Angles on their trees, a tradition adopted in a slightly less brutal fashion by Christians.
Under the Christmas tree, all is not what it seems either. The tradition of placing beautifully-wrapped gifts under the tree also has a rather sinister background. In the 12th Century, poor people living in what we now know as Essex were known for thieving from the aristocracy who would gather in London for opulent celebrations at Christmas. Legend has it they would conceal their loot by wrapping it in early copies of OK magazine and putting them decoratively under their tree. Not to be outdone, the working population of Essex soon wanted to outdo their neighbours and started wrapping their own presents. One thing led to another, and soon the whole country was doing the same and more, using lights and other pretty things to adorn the tree.
Some of our festive food would also taste a little different if it was still to its original recipe. You will no doubt be aware that Christmas pudding started off life as a good old Victorian plum pudding. Or did it? Parish records in areas of the west country reveal that long before any record of plum pudding, they celebrated the festive season with ‘plump pudding’. This wasn’t just a food, but a spectacle in which the local landowners would carry a large, boiled fruit pudding, strapped to their stomach and covered by a large shirt. In a ceremonial show of gratitude to the local peasants who had worked their land during the year, the landowner would lay on his back in the town square where locals would cut into his fat belly and suck out his juicy innards. Apparently the tradition suddenly ceased after an unfortunate incident one year when a particularly portly landowner filled himself one evening with too much scrumpy and forgot to attach his pudding before offering himself to the locals.
Finally, even the most famous royal tradition of the Queen’s Speech started off very differently. The tradition dates back to Queen Siobhan, a sixth-century ruler who one Christmas, after a particularly hard year of drought and disease, decided to cheer up the population of old London town by riding around in her horse-drawn carriage, displaying her royal backside for all to see. So, the tradition of the ‘Queen’s Peach’ was started. Only when Queen Siobhan abdicated after a nasty shaving accident did the tradition change to something less vulgar and interesting.