Christmas In Norwich Through The Years

by | Dec 21, 2022

Here in Norwich, you will always find the city celebrating Christmas during the mid winter months. Like many cities around the country, Christmas lights are strung throughout the streets, shops proudly flaunt their seasonal displays to tempt shoppers through the doors and, usually, an enormous Christmas tree can be found near City Hall. But which parts of Christmas are unique to our city? And where do our Christmas traditions come from? It turns out that a midwinter festival has been celebrated on this land since humans first settled here around 10,000 years ago!

Did you know Norwich was once the central city of an English Christmas?

In the year of 1121AD, Norwich became the centre of the country’s attention during the Christmas celebrations as it was chosen by King Henry I as the place he was to spend the festive season, in the grand royal palace of Norwich Castle. The people of Norwich would have been in a state of joy and panic (a feeling familiar to many of us at this time of year), having only been given a few weeks warning, and would have been seen in the time leading up to the holiday desperately cleaning and decorating the castle, and stocking it full of food and drink. King Henry was here in part to visit the shrines of St Edmund, an old Saxon King of East Anglia martyred by the vikings and, at the time, the patron saint of England. St Edmund was seen as a patron of troubled Kings and this would have been relevant to King Henry as, in the year before his visit, his only son and heir had drowned when his ship had been caught in a storm. It had also been several years since the King had set foot on English soil with his long campaign in Normandy finally coming to an end and he was keen to show his face (and, of course, power) to his subjects in an attempt to remove any possible feelings of doubt in the state of his power. He stayed to celebrate the 12 days of Christmas before moving on and the occasion was marked with much music and dramatic celebration and feasting among the locals and in the Castle itself.

Norwich Castle in winter 2022

What winter festivals did we celebrate before Christianity?

If you look anywhere on the planet throughout human history, even before Christianity and commercialism brought us the Christmas we know today, you would find people recognising a festival or holiday during the coldest months, usually in order to stave off the winter woes and to call on gods or spirits to return the life to the land that comes with Spring. Generally, it seems we have always sought ways to get through the more depressing, dark and coldest period of the year! But which of those people would have been here in Norfolk and what did they celebrate?

The Celts

In the days prior to Roman occupation, the Iceni tribe of the Celts called Norfolk home (although they called the region Caer Vent!) The name ‘Iceni’ could come from ‘Ycheni’ which meant ‘Oxen’ in the celtic language (a derivative of this is used in Welsh today) and it could point to the idea that the Iceni were good cattle farmers. They also had traditions around the latter end of the year and the Winter Solstice was celebrated on the shortest day of the year in December, as it had been since Neolithic times. This was partly to recognise the passing of the seasons, after all the months of January through to June would be seen as a “starvation season” with little food available and it would need to be recognised by people that this time was on the way.

It was also a time when people would try to commune with their gods or spirits to encourage back the spring warmth and greenery. To that end, people would bring evergreen plants or branches into their homes, such as Holly, Ivy or Mistletoe, believing that displaying them over the winter months would encourage the Spring to come around again, bringing with it the warmth and bounty of food. It’s a tradition we still follow today around Christmas but nowadays it has a different symbology. Huge meals of roasted meats would be had as the livestock were slaughtered before the coldest months, partly due to the lack of grass available for them to graze but also to dry and store some of their meat for the leaner times. This was also the time of year when mead, wine and beer were finally finished fermenting which was another reason to celebrate!

The Saxons

As the face of Britain changed and more cultures became entwined with invaders and settlers coming and going, different peoples brought different winter festivals to our shores. The Anglo Saxon Pagans came to Norfolk at some point during the start of the 5th Century, settling near to our modern location of Fye Bridge (near The Mischief Tavern). They mixed with the locals but also brought their own beliefs to our shores. They observed the Modraniht Festival (or ‘Night of the Mothers’) which was celebrated before the end of the year to honour mothers and matriarchal goddesses. Not a lot is known about the festival but it is thought that it involved sacrifices and feasting and the women of the villages would have gifts bestowed upon them. The Saxons, at this point, had a religion not far removed from the later Viking settlers and women played a huge part in that. As well as the Valkyries who were patrons of battle, they believed in the Norns, who were female figures that wove the threads of fate for each person.

The Vikings

Later on, the Scandinavian settlers in the form of the Vikings brought the Yule festival to England. Norfolk was very important to the Vikings and they raided it on several occasions before finally settling here as part of the Dane-Law. Yule is a little more recognisable to our modern eye and bears several similarities to Christmas. It was celebrated over 12 days and consisted of singing, feasting on ham or boar, the drinking of mead and the burning of a scented log in the longhouse known as a Yulelog. The word ‘Yule’ itself, was another name for the Norse god Odin and it is possible that it is Odin that gives us our modern image of Santa Claus. With the spread of Christianity across the country during the 8th and 9th centuries, Christmas became a rather more austere event than its pagan predecessors, with an emphasis being put on prayer and penance on the birthday of Christ.

The Food We Ate During Winter Festivals

A very important part of Christmas to all of us is, of course, the food and it is therefore easy to imagine that it was the same for the people that came before us. But what foods would we have eaten back in the day? Well, for the Celts, Oxen were very important. They were raised through the warmer months of the year and highly prized by the villages as the only sustainable source of food. In Winter they were slaughtered and the meat separated into that which would be eaten during the feasts, and that which would be salted and dried for the lean winter months. Simply roasted over a fire for the feasts, the Ox meat would have been accompanied by homebrewed mead and beer.

Tables were often decorated with candles, lanterns and garlands.

During Modraniht the Saxons would eat Gesufel Hlaf which was a form of spiced loaf cake flavoured with ginger, cinnamon and bayberries and sweetened with honey. They would also hunt a boar or deer and so venison would often be seen adorning the tables of their feasts. The Saxons also ate a lot of local vegetables including onion, cabbage and parsnip which would be stored from the end of autumn and it would have been washed down with Oat beer.

More than any other time period, Medieval England became well known for documenting its sometimes very unusual feasts. But what would those feasts have looked like? Well, for one thing, it would have an array of meats that would certainly seem unusual to us nowadays. The centerpiece of any feast involving aristocracy was a carefully roasted and prepared peacock. It was prepared by carefully removing the skin so the feathers remained intact and kept their luster. The rest of the carcass was roasted with a support holding the neck aloft and the skin later reapplied over the meat so that the bird almost looked alive. It appears it was as much about the display of the dish as it was the food itself! Peacocks were important to the upper echelons of medieval society as they were a symbol of warrior prowess, love and obedience.

Another important dish for the feast table was that of a Boar’s Head and Brawn. A boar’s full head would be taken after a hunt and, over a period of a few days, was prepared by removing the skin from the skull, sewing the eyes, nose and mouth shut and stuffing it with a mix of cured meat, fatty bacon, spices and salt and boiled with carrots and onions. The head was then displayed with the ears perked up and tusks replaced to give the illusion of life and melted lard with black ash was poured over the head to appear like fur. This was served with the ‘brawn’ which was usually a rich, dark meat taken from the shoulder and boiled until soft, before being pickled in ale and served alongside the head in thin slices. Boars were very much a royal symbol in medieval times, considered dangerous and strong, it was only aristocracy that were able to hunt them and they were protected by royal law since at least the 12th century. A boar hunt even featured in the legends of King Arthur! Other foods tended to involve various different pies and boiled vegetables and always accompanied by healthy amounts of Ale, Mead and Wine!

Did you know Christmas Crackers used to come from Norwich?

One of our well-loved christmas traditions is the Christmas Cracker. These little cardboard twists with their trinkets, bad jokes and satisfying pop have been a staple of the Christmas table for many years. But did you know that Norwich has its own important ties with this seasonal staple? The Christmas Cracker was invented by Tom Smith, a confectioner’s apprentice in London, in 1847 while he was trying to work out a way to get ‘love notes’ into his wrapped bon-bons. Liking the idea of a wrapping that could be pulled apart, Smith later dropped the sweets for small toys or trinkets and decided to add a small ‘popper’ mechanism (supposedly after hearing the sound of his fire crackling) aiming the product more toward the Christmas season. This was the birth of the Christmas cracker!

Tom Smith’s product became popular and was noticed here in Norwich, with Caley’s, a prominent Norfolk confectioner, deciding to release their own version of the Christmas Cracker in 1898. Although sales were nowhere near those of Tom Smith’s brand, Caley’s own cracker became world famous. After the second world war, Caley’s was merged with Smith’s brand and in 1953 Tom Smith opened his cracker factory on Salhouse Road in Norwich and started production, shipping crackers all over the world with up to 50 million being produced a year in the 1980s. The royal family enjoyed specially made crackers from Norwich at Christmas and Princess Diana commissioned bespoke crackers for royal weddings!

Norwich Lanes at Christmas 2022

Things took a turn in the 1990s when Guinness Mahon Ltd took over, installing a new management team and two years later in 1998, exactly 100 years after cracker production started in Norwich, the factories closed. Today, the cracker industry continues to do well, although now based in South Wales, and the name Tom Smith is still synonymous with them!


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Barnhart, Robert K. (1995). The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology
Orchard, Andy (1997). Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend