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In the United Kingdom, public holidays are recognised as days when non-essential governmental departments, businesses, and schools are closed. One of these public holidays, celebrated worldwide, is Christmas Day. Despite its now commonplace observance, the Christmas Day bank holiday has a rich, complex, and sometimes surprising history that is worth exploring. In this article, we will delve deeply into its origins, evolution, and the traditions that have become associated with it.

I. The Origins of Christmas Day

Before we explore the history of the Christmas Day bank holiday, it’s important to have a grasp of the origins of Christmas itself. This festival, celebrated predominantly by Christians, marks the birth of Jesus Christ. The actual date of Christ’s birth, however, is not definitively known, and it was not until the 4th century that Pope Julius I set the date as the 25th of December.

Why December 25th?

Although there is no biblical or historical evidence to support this as the actual birthdate of Christ, it coincided with two significant pagan festivals: the Roman ‘Saturnalia’, a period of merrymaking, and the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, celebrated in many ancient cultures. The adoption of December 25th was likely a strategic move by the early Christian Church to integrate these popular pagan festivals into the Christian calendar and promote the adoption of Christianity.

II. The Advent of the Christmas Day Bank Holiday

Although Christmas has been celebrated in Britain for over a thousand years, it has not always been recognised as a public or bank holiday.

The Dark Days of Christmas

The history of Christmas in Britain took a rather somber turn in the 17th century, during the rule of Oliver Cromwell, who was a Puritan. The Puritans saw Christmas as a frivolous, wasteful festival with scant biblical justification, and in 1644, they effectively banned its celebration, including the closure of markets and shops on Christmas Day. This ban was not popular and was largely ignored in rural areas. When Charles II returned to the throne in 1660, he reinstated the holiday.

The Birth of the Bank Holiday

The idea of a ‘bank’ holiday was introduced by Sir John Lubbock, who passed the Bank Holidays Act in 1871. This legislation specified four holidays in England, Wales and Ireland (Easter Monday, Whit Monday, the first Monday in August, and Boxing Day) and five in Scotland (New Year’s Day, Good Friday, the first Monday in May, the first Monday in August, and Christmas Day).

Interestingly, Christmas Day was not included as a bank holiday for England, Wales, and Ireland in the original Act. This omission wasn’t due to any hostility towards Christmas. Instead, Christmas Day, like Good Friday, was already traditionally given as a day off to workers, and hence, did not need to be included in the Act. Nonetheless, for the sake of uniformity and to remove any ambiguity, Christmas Day was officially designated a bank holiday in England, Wales, and Ireland in the Bank Holidays Act of 1871.

III. The Evolution of the Christmas Day Bank Holiday

Since its official designation as a bank holiday, Christmas Day has evolved in its observance and the traditions associated with it.

The Victorian Influence

The Victorian era, under the reign of Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert, saw a transformation in the way Christmas was celebrated in Britain. Many modern British Christmas traditions, from Christmas trees, Christmas cards, to the popularisation of the Christmas turkey, originated in this period.

The Festive Traditions

  1. Christmas Dinner: Central to the Christmas Day festivities is the Christmas dinner. The main course usually consists of turkey, goose or other large bird, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, and all the trimmings. This feast has its roots in the Middle Ages but has been shaped by availability, fashion, and the influence of other cultures.
  2. The Christmas Tree: Prince Albert, who was German, introduced the tradition of the decorated Christmas tree to Britain. The royal family’s use of a Christmas tree was popularised by the Illustrated London News in 1848, and it quickly became fashionable in British households.
  3. Christmas Cards: The first Christmas card was commissioned by Sir Henry Cole and designed by John Callcott Horsley in 1843. The idea quickly caught on, and sending cards became a popular tradition.
  4. Carols and Carol Singing: Although carol singing has been a tradition for centuries, it was popularised in the Victorian era. Many of the carols we know and love today, such as ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ and ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’, were either written or translated into English during this time.

IV. The Christmas Day Bank Holiday Today

Today, the Christmas Day bank holiday is a significant event in the UK calendar, providing a day of rest and an opportunity for people to gather and spend time with family and friends, exchange gifts, and share a festive meal. This cherished holiday serves as a reminder of the country’s rich history and evolving cultural traditions. It stands as a testament to the blending of Christian narratives with ancient festivals, the influence of the Victorian era, and the enduring value placed on time for relaxation and celebration in British society.