Christmas as we know it today has its origins in the Victorian era. However, many of our traditions have their roots in earlier time periods.

Christmas evolved out of the Roman festival of Saturnalia, a seven-day celebration honouring Saturn, the god of agriculture. The festival took place on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, when people celebrated the fact that the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to the longer, warmer days ahead.

During Saturnalia, all the rules were turned upside down. The poor would go to the houses of the rich and demand their best food and drink. If the rich failed to comply, their visitors would terrorise them with mischief.

This became the time of year when the upper classes would repay their ‘debt’ to society by entertaining less fortunate citizens.

A beggar or student would be crowned the Lord of Misrule to preside over the revelries. Men dressed as women and masters dressed as servants, and there was plenty of drinking and feasting.

Children would be given wax dolls as gifts – a macabre tradition, as the dolls represented the human sacrifices that Rome had given to Saturn in the past as payment for good harvests.

By the Middle Ages, Christianity had mostly replaced the pagan religion. When the Church chose December 25 as the date for Christmas, it was an attempt to Christianise the pagan Saturnalia celebrations that already took place at this time of year.

Medieval Christmas lasted 12 days, from Christmas Eve until Twelfth Night on January 6.

The tradition of Christmas trees dates back to this time, as people often brought trees inside their homes to ward off the devil.

The Church, however, was still trying to curb pagan practices and popular customs were given Christian meaning. For example, carols that had started as celebratory pagan songs were taken up by the Church and became a Christmas tradition.

Likewise, the Church made holly a symbol for Jesus’ crown of thorns, though the association of mistletoe and holly with Christmas predates Christianity. Both were believed to have magic powers as they stayed green through the winter and were hung over doors and windows to ward off evil spirits.

Scandinavians also associated mistletoe with Frigga, their goddess of love, which may be where the custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes from.

Despite its increasingly Christian associations, seventeenth century Puritans disproved of Christmas. They believed in closely following New Testament scripture and, as the date of Christ’s birth is not in the Gospels, they thought Christmas was still too strongly linked to the pagan Roman festival.

Their disapproval had such wide-reaching consequences that, in 1644, all Christmas activities were banned in England.

However, when Charles II was restored to the throne, he reinstated Christmas.

It was the Victorians who popularised many of the traditions that are familiar to us today, including Christmas cards, carol singing and decorating Christmas trees.

Christmas crackers are a more recent invention. They were first made around 1845 by London sweet-maker Tom Smith. He had travelled to France and seen bon bon sweets (sugared almonds wrapped in colourful paper) and returned to London with the idea of selling them. He also included a small motto or riddle with the sweet.

These sweets did not sell very well, but one day Tom came up with the idea of having the sweets open with a crack when their wrappers were pulled in half.

When Tom died, his increasingly successful cracker business was taken over by his three sons, who introduced hats into the crackers.

Charles Dickens’ book, A Christmas Carol, is credited with helping to popularise and spread the traditions of the holiday. Its themes of family, goodwill and happiness encapsulate the spirit of the Victorian Christmas, and continue to be key components in the way Christmas is celebrated today.