As we prepare for Christmas, DAVE WELBOURNE looks at the origins of some seasonal rituals:

Many traditional Christmas customs owe a great deal to the Victorians. Between 1859-1863 one in five of Bradford’s population died of diseases such as scarlet fever and typhus. Half the children died before their fifth birthday. Against this background of poverty, it is difficult to see how many people could enjoy Christmas. But, although much of the merriment was for the wealthier classes, improvements in living standards in the later 19th century meant poorer classes could partake too. Many families lacked facilities to cook a goose and some queued at local bakers to pay for the use of large ovens.

The Christmas tree was imported from Germany by Prince Albert, who put one up in Windsor Castle in 1841. The first Christmas card was sent in 1843. Early cards featured birds, flowers and a lace surround. Later they became more religious. By late Victorian times they were more elaborate, with winter scenes. In 1840 the Penny Post enabled people to send cards by post.

Father Christmas originated from St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor in the 4th century. Bad-tempered but kind, he became the patron saint of children. The present day Santa, dressed in red with a white beard, came from 20th century USA. It was in 1823 poem A Visit From St Nicholas, later The Night Before Christmas, that we first hear of Santa Claus arriving on a sleigh pulled by reindeer.

Giving presents on Christmas Day became popular in the 19th century. From Medieval times alms boxes were opened on St Stephen’s Day (December 26) and distributed among the poor. Hence, Boxing Day. It became traditional in Victorian workhouses to treat inmates at Christmas. In Bradford workhouse they could enjoy a roast beef Christmas dinner.

Churches were decorated with evergreen. Mistletoe was hung up in homes to bring good fortune. Kissing under it, for extra luck, dates back to the Celts and Romans, when mistletoe on the oak was cut. If it touched the ground it was bad luck so it was hung up high.

Spiced ale was drunk from a bowl with a toast to good health - the ‘wassail cup’ from the Saxon ‘Wass Hael’ meaning ‘To your health’. Carol singing became popular in Victoria’s reign. The word ‘carol’ meant ‘dance’.

Goose pie was popular in 18th century Yorkshire. The artist JMW Turner was a friend of Walter Fawkes of Farnley Hall near Otley, where he often enjoyed goose pie. Mince pies were eaten in Medieval times, with spices masking the taste of meat which wasn’t fresh. By the 18th century, the meat had disappeared.

Drunkenness at Christmas was a concern. In 1887 Simeon Rayner, writing about Pudsey, complained: “We should not wonder if some heathen visiting Pudsey on Christmas Day had asked if their Christ had lived and died a drunkard, that made them honour his birthday in such a way.”

In 1872 a new Licensing Law ordered pubs to close at midnight, leading to riots and resentment from breweries. The Liberals were defeated in the 1874 Election, brought down in a ‘torrent of beer’.