"The ancient peoples of Angli began the year on the 25th of December when we now celebrate the birthday of the Lord," wrote Bede, "and the very night which is now so holy to us, they called in their tongue mondranecht, that, the mothers' night, by reason we suspect of the ceremonies which in that night long vigil they performed."
"With his usual reticence about matters pagan or not orthodox," commented the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, "Bede abstains from recording who the mothers were and what the ceremonies."
For which we should be grateful since we have picked up enough rituals through the centuries. We even have our own version of mondranecht as modern mothers perform the Christmas Eve Rites of Wrapping.
The Romans decked their halls, if not with ivy then with laurel leaves and exchanged small gifts during Saturnalia. The Druids liked mistletoe even more than we do. By medieval times, the boar's head and Christmas goose was washed down with hot spiced wine (hippocras, they called it), and the 17th century saw the center of the table increasingly given over to the turkey. By then, mince pies were so much a part of the Christmas feast that the Puritans, as part of their attempt to stamp out the celebration of Christmas and other "popish observances," outlawed them.
The Christmas pudding has been with us almost as long, aging happily along the way, and to the Victorians we owe not only the Christmas tree but the Christmas card.
If you'd like to try reproducing the dinner of an earlier age, you'll find menus and recipes in Christmas Feasts, by Lorna J. Sass (published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Irena Chalmers Cookbooks, Inc.).
Short of that, you could borrow a custom from the Victorians to help the children get through the day before Christmas. Then trees were decorated, not with tinsel and shimmery balls but with sweetmeats and fruits which could be eaten when the tree was untrimmed on Twelfth Night. Let your children invite a few friends over the day before Christmas to make edible ornaments and help trim a small tree of their own. Given the importance of whether they're naughty or nice, they should all be on their best behavior, willing to clean up with a minimum of fuss.
And since one good custom deserves another, when the parents come to reclaim their offspring, take time to sit down and toast the holidays with Lorna Sass' recipe for an 18th-century Brandy Posset: 1 quart heavy cream 1 stick cinnamon, broken in two 6 egg yolks, lightly beaten 1/8 teaspoon (or more) freshly grated nutmeg 2 tablespoons sugar 1/2 cup brandy Wafers or butter cookies
In a heavy-bottomed pot, boil the cream with the cinnamon stick for a few minutes over medium heat. Remove the pot from the heat and whisk the cream vigorously to cool it slightly. Gradually whisk in the egg yolks and add the nutmeg and sugar. Simmer the mixture over low heat, stirring constantly, until it thickens slightly. (Take care not to boil it because the yolks will curdle.) Add the brandy and pour the mixture into a small bowl or into individual mugs. Sprinkle some additional nutmeg or cinnamon on top, if desired, and serve with cookies or wafers. (Makes six to eight small servings.)