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Five Frosty Stories That Prove London Totally Invented Christmas

4 December 2019 | Ryan Ormonde

Historic Londoners had a big part to play in Christmas, from fairs on the frozen Thames to the diplomatic gift of a Christmas tree. Here are five stories showing London's historic connection with Christmas.

Frost Fairs on the Thames

These days the Thames is probably too fast and salty to freeze over enough to hold a fair (consequences of its gradual embanking in the 19th Century and the differently constructed new London Bridge in 1831) but on five occasions between 1309 and 1814 the river hardened enough to hold one of London’s famous frost fairs. At the last of these, in 1814, highlights included an elephant being led over the ice, the roasting and eating of an ox which could have fed up to 800 people, and the typesetting, printing and distribution of a souvenir book Frostiana.

Fairy Lights at the Savoy Theatre

Electric lighting was a novelty in 1881 and London’s Savoy Theatre was straight on the bandwagon, the first significant building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity. Over a thousand incandescent light bulbs were provided to the theatre by inventor Sir Joseph Swan. A year later, the theatre’s Christmas show, a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera Iolanthe, used miniature lighting to light the headdresses of the principal fairies, the battery packs hid in their hair. The term ‘fairy lights’ has been in usage ever since.

Christmas Tree in Trafalgar Square

500 lights adorn Trafalgar Square’s yearly giant Christmas tree, a recurring gift from the city of Oslo to thank Britain for its support to Norway during the Second World War. During the German occupation of Norway, the Norwegian King and his government continued to operate in exile from London. The first tree of gratitude was presented in 1947. Following a tree felling ceremony in November, a tree lighting ceremony takes place on the first Thursday of December, both events attended by the Lord Mayor of Westminster. A more recent custom sees the Poetry Society commission poems every year for display on banners at the base of the massive spruce.

Christmas Crackers

A drinking fountain in the middle of Finsbury Square is a memorial to Londoner Tom Smith, the inventor of the Christmas cracker. Smith was a confectioner who brought the classic bon-bon style twist-wrapped sweet to London from Paris. The cracker was in fact an attempt to reverse the slump in sales of these confections. A crackling fire was the inspiration for the cracking device and ‘cosaques’ or ‘bangs of expectation’ were flying off the shelves from 1847, to be colloquially known as ‘crackers’. The various novelty elements that make the cracker what is it today - including the silly paper hat - were all added to give the Smiths a commercial edge over their imitators.

Christmas Cards

The Victoria and Albert museum can be relied upon for a classy Christmas card and it’s no wonder - the first director of the V&A, Sir Henry Cole, invented the Christmas card, laying the foundations for their popularity in his involvement in the first penny post a few years before. In 1843, the same year that Dickens published A Christmas Carol, Cole had over 2000 Christmas cards printed, on sale for a shilling each, featuring a jovial family scene illustrated by John Callcott Horsley with a banner reading ‘A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.’
 

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