Category Archives: Bad Santas Advent Calendar

“Bad Santas…” Advent Calendar Day 24 – Thomas Nast

 by Thomas Nast

 

Coca-Cola’s billboards might have spread the image we have for Santa Clays today but the person usually credited with creating it was Thomas Nast, the cartoonist at the influential Harper’s Weekly magazine in New York in the mid-late 19th Century.. Nast’s father was a Protestant from the traditionally Catholic German state of Bavaria who had fled to New York for political reasons when the boy was six years old. Nast’s drawings embodied both the way that old Catholic traditions of St Nicholas were being rapidly redesigned through Protestant eyes and the way that traditions stemming from fourteenth-century Europe were reborn for the society of nineteenth-century America.

Nast’s first image of the character that came to be embraced as Santa Claus appeared on the front cover of Harper’s Weekly in December 1862. It was the height of the Civil War and a low point for the North, who had suffered heavy losses at the Battle of Fredericksburg only a few weeks before Christmas. Nast was a fervent supporter of the war and the battle against slavery but drew an image to reflect his sadness at the separation and loss that the war caused in everyday families. Nast, who had spent time in England, may have been influenced by the way that Father Christmas had developed as an expression of sadness for lost Christmas traditions and hope for a better future. He drew a powerful, striking image of despair as a wife sits praying at her window whilst her children lie in bed. Many miles away sits a weary, ageing solider. He has the beard and rotund gait that was already familiar in the pictures of the Christmas Men and would soon be known around the world as Santa Claus. But, far from the joyful personification of Christmas, he slumps sadly with a letter in his hand. Even 150 years later, it is a moving and heartbreaking image of longing, hope and loss.

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A year later, Nast drew the same figure again, this time clearly identifying him as Santa Claus. He dresses in a Unionist flag and hands out presents to soldiers who are separated from their families.

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After that, Nast continued to draw Santa for the next thirty years. Once the war was won he seemed to cheer up considerably and he gradually became the man we know and love today. Nast’s German roots meant that he was aware of European folk mythology and his residence in New York meant that he was also aware of the Clement Clarke Moore poem. Nast’s drawings were the point where European traditions and Irving’s and Moore’s writings came together to create something new.

St Nicholas was no longer an austere saint but a jolly toymaker. His assistants were no longer angry fearsome devils but friendly elves. He did not judge children but simply stored their hopes and wishes in a giant ledger. He liked food being left out for him but he was not going to punish anyone who failed to leave him an offering. Nast was also the first person to encourage children to write to Santa and to locate Santa Claus’s workshop at the North Pole. Nast’s grandson Thomas Nast St Hill speculates that the reason for this was the combination of a neutral location, so that Santa could not be appropriated as a political figure by any particular country, and the fact that the North Pole made it easy for Santa Claus to access both the United States and Europe – even at this time Santa’s status as a global gift-bringer was beginning to develop.

Nast helped put European folklore back into the heart of Santa Claus, albeit in a much nicer and more child-friendly form than it had ever appeared before. In doing so, he helped ease the way for Santa to supersede the same myths he had been inspired by. It was through his drawings that Santa Claus became generally accepted as wearing red.

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“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters” by Paul Hawkins is available now from Simon & Schuster.  The images above are all by Thomas Nast.

 

 

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“Bad Santas…” Advent Calendar Day 23 – The Mysterious Disappearance of Diedrich Knickerbocker

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The story of Santa Claus starts, as every good story should, with the link between a missing historian, a famous dessert, a pair of women’s underwear and the New York professional basketball team.

The missing historian in question was the New York amateur historian Diedrich Knickerbocker. Knickerbocker was of Dutch ancestry and his major historical research project A History of New York, which was published in 1809, told the story of the early Dutch settlers to what was then New Amsterdam.

Knickerbocker himself had disappeared by the time of publishing. He had been staying in the Columbian Hotel in New York but had disappeared without paying. The manuscript for the book was found amongst his belongings and the landlord, keen to recoup his lost rent, decided to publish the book. Adverts were placed in the local newspapers trying to find Diedrich Knickerbocker but the mystery of his disappearance remained unsolved for many months. Even after the truth was discovered, Diedrich Knickerbocker was never seen again. To this day, his body has never been found.

Nonetheless, Knickerbocker’s research is significant as it shows the point where St Nicholas became Santa. He describes the Christmas traditions of the first Dutch settlers, the building of the Church of St Nicholas (the first church ever built in New York) and the place that St Nicholas’s Day took in the hearts of early New Yorkers. He explains how St Nicholas flew over the houses in a cart pulled by horses and would shimmy down chimneys to deliver gifts. Essentially the description was so vivid that Knickerbocker became the first man to chronicle the modern Santa Claus.

There were two very small problems with all of this. The first is that Diedrich Knickerbocker never actually existed. The second is that the ‘traditional celebrations’ he described were entirely fictional.

In actual fact Knickerbocker’s History of New York was an elaborate joke by the then-unknown writer Washington Irving, who would later become famous as the writer of ‘Rip Van Winkle’ and ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. It was intended as a satire of stolid, worthy and pompous history books, and the debacle around Dietrich Knickerbocker was partly a joke and partly a publicity stunt that had several unexpected consequences.

Firstly, Diedrich Knickerbocker himself, for a man who never existed, turned out to be distinctly influential. The word Knickerbocker became a slang term for New Yorkers with Dutch ancestry and ultimately New York itself. The New York Knicks and the Knickerbocker Glory ice cream sundae both take their name from the fictional character. When the book was published in England, the illustrations were done by Charles Dickens’s illustrator – a man named George Cruikshank. Cruikshank’s drawings of old-style Dutch trousers resembled ladies undergarments of the day and ultimately led to female underwear being referred to as ‘knickers’.

Secondly, whilst Irving’s traditions of St Nicholas in New York were almost certainly invented by him on the spot, they turned out to be surprisingly popular. St Nicholas might not have been known to fly through the skies and climb down chimneys before Irving’s writings but he quickly gained a reputation for it.

Washington Irving’s influence on  Christmas does not end there. In 1819 and 1820 whilst living in England he published The Sketch Book, which included a series of stories set in a fictional country house named Bracebridge Hall that popularised English Christmas traditions of the past in America (and indeed in England too). Along with Charles Dickens, Irving’s writings did more than anyone to promote the idyllic traditional Christmas and set out the customs and traditions that form part of our ideal Christmas today. Much like Dickens’s Christmas stories, Washington Irving’s tales purported to capture the spirit of Christmas traditions of yesteryear but actually helped invent much of what we now think of as the ‘traditional’ Christmas. Although Irving had spent a lot of time at Aston Hall near Birmingham, he later admitted he never actually witnessed any of the Christmas traditions that he described.

“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters” is available now from Simon and Schuster.  As far as I can establish, the image of Washington Irving  is by John Wesley Jarvis, the image of a Knickerblocker Glory comes from http://knickerbockersicecreamparlour.co.uk, the New York Knicks’ logo belongs to them and I took the image of women’s knickers from Wikipedia.

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“Bad Santas…” Advent Calendar Day 22 – The Coca-Cola Santa

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Contrary to popular mythology, Santa Claus was already popularly depicted in red before Coca-Cola began to use him in adverts in the 1930s.  But Coca-Cola and their illustrator Haddon Sundblom – did create an image of Santa which featured heavily on billboards every year from 1931 onwards for the next thirty years and is still in use today. The cumulative effect of this advertising meant that the image of Santa Claus – which previously varied from country to country and region to region finally became defined and inescapable and no other image was possible.  To children everywhere, The Coca-Cola figure was Santa Claus.

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Films too helped to sell the image.   By the middle of the twentieth century Santa Claus was a regular fixture in movies and regularly appeared as a guest character on TV shows.  L. Frank Baum, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis all featured Father Christmas in stories and he was used in television adverts and posters to sell not just children’s toys and games but everything from shredded wheat and soap to fountain pens.

And some far more inappropriate things too.

He has been used to sell cigarettes:

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Alcohol too is one of Santa’s advertising pleasures. Obviously everyone knows that Santa enjoys a sly tot of whisky when he drops by with the presents, but children would doubtless be shocked by the 1934 advert for Byrrh wine where Santa sits on a rooftop, swigging from a bottle and looking half-dead from intoxication. A beautiful angel kneels beside him and it is unclear whether she is joining in the fun or reading him the last rites. The image is supposed to suggest merry seasonal drinking but looks more like an alcoholic at his lowest ebb.

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And what of the recent trend for Santa being used to sell sex? This too is old hat. A 1947 lingerie advert shows Santa cuddling up to a leggy blonde who is extremely keen to show off her purchases.

Sex, cigarettes and booze may paint Santa as a bit of a rogue but it is the gun adverts where it really gets disturbing.

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Of course, it is unwise to jump to conclusions. Just because Santa is advocating guns doesn’t mean anyone is going to get hurt – except in the 1947 advert for Arrow shirts, which shows Santa aiming a gun into his own mouth ready to end it all in despair at the number of shirts he has to deliver due to the anticipated surge in Arrow’s sales.

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Merry Christmas folks!

Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters by Paul Hawkins is available now from Simon & Schuster.  The Illustration at the top is by Melissa Four and is taken from the book.

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“Bad Santas” Advent Calendar Day 21 – The ‘Shit Log’

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Those of you who read my post about the Caganer might think that having a Christmas tradition based around defecation is slightly unusual. But how about having two Christmas traditions based around defecation? For the caganer is not the only scatological tradition that the Catalans enjoy. There is also the Tió de Nadal – a rather unique Catalan Christmas log.

In fact, the Tió de Nadal gives the phrase ‘Christmas log’ a whole new meaning. It is, as you might assume, a hollow piece of wood. Originally this would have been a simple log but these days it is commercially produced and often has a pair of forearms, a cartoon face and a traditional Catalan hat. The log sits in or near the fireplace from around 8 December and, rather than being burned on the fire like a normal log, it is covered with a blanket to keep it warm. Children are encouraged to be kind to the log and to feed it and treat it well. And children know they have to follow this instruction – for the Tió de Nadal is actually a highly unusual festive gift-giver and children know that the kindness they show to their festive log will lead to them being rewarded with presents.  So children offer food to the log, placing it on or underneath the blanket. By the next morning the parents have taken the food and the children find that it has ‘mysteriously’ disappeared.

Finally on Christmas Day – or sometimes Christmas Eve – the ceremony of the Tió de Nadal begins. The children are given a stick and are encouraged to beat the log repeatedly whilst singing the songs of Tió de Nadal, which crudely implore the log to excrete presents for the family.

The songs tend to have translations that involve slightly unusual language for a children’s ceremony.

For example:

Shit log, shit me a gift

Shit me turrón[1] and shit me sweets,

If you don’t shit well,

I’ll hit you with a stick, shit log!

 

Upon hearing the song, and being beaten repeatedly, the log will excrete one gift at a time. These are usually small treats such as sweets and chocolate that the parents have concealed inside the log or under the blanket. The adult reaches under the blanket and ‘finds’ what the Tió de Nadal has excreted. A great play is made of the effort the log has gone to in order to produce the gift and then the next child (if there is more than one) takes their turn to beat the log and chant for a gift to be ‘shat’ out. And so on and so on until there are a number of sweets and chocolates for the family to share.

The ceremony ends when the log no longer produces sweets but instead excretes something sharper – usually a herring or a bulb of garlic. This means the log has run dry for the year and the ceremony is over.

 

Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters is available now from Simon & Schuster.  The Illustration above is by Melissa Four and is taken from the book.


[1] A Spanish delicacy that’s a bit like nougat.

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“Bad Santas…” Advent Calendar Day 20 – The Christ Child

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(Sorry this is a day late!)

The Christ Child was an impressively literal creation. Quite simply, it was the baby Jesus, freshly out of his manger and clad in white, who went round Germany and other Lutheran territories delivering gifts to children. The idea was that this was a spiritual figure who would teach children the true meaning of Christmas.

There were several problems with this.

The first one was a literal one. The baby Jesus was born on Christmas Day. And delivered the presents on Christmas Eve. This meant that somehow or other, the baby had to either pop out of Mary’s womb pre-birth for a quick bit of gift-giving or somehow, post-birth, travel back in time twenty-four hours and then travel round the world handing out gifts. Before being able to eat or speak. Even for a miracle-worker it made very little sense.

Secondly, the whole thing was a bit hard to visualise. How on earth does a baby deliver gifts? Between the inability to walk and the inability to carry things, it seemed doomed from the off.

Thirdly, the whole appeal – and admittedly terror – of St Nicholas was that he burst into the room in full view of everyone and made a public show of bringing the gifts. Obviously this required an adult family member or neighbour to play St Nicholas and visit children. Clearly the same could not happen for the Christkind. An adult turning up dressed as a baby would have been unconvincing and strangely unfestive. So the tradition had to be rewritten so that the Christkind appeared in the dead of night whilst all children were asleep and delivered the presents incognito.

Fourthly, the Lutherans made a fundamental miscalculation. Moving the present-giving from 6 December to Christmas Day might help increase the significance of Christmas Day but it also increased the significance of giving presents on Christmas Day. Ultimately Luther’s plan to popularise giving gifts at Christmas instead of other times served to, well, popularise giving gifts at Christmas. The Lutherans basically managed to accidentally invent the very focus on the material side of Christmas that they were trying to destroy!

The Christ Child did remain a giftgiver in parts of Central Europe but over time his image began to change.  People began to realise that, whilst you could not dress a grown adult up as a baby, you could dress up a child (usually a girl) might be happy to dress as an angel.  So the Christ-child morphed into an angel and continues to exist in parts of Europe today.  Meanwhile the German for Christ-child – Chirstkindl has morphed into Kris Kringle, another name for Santa in parts of the US.

 

“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters” is available now from Simon & Schuster.  The image at the top is taken from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/panmankey/2013/12/beyond-santa-claus-the-other-gift-givers/

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“Bad Santas…” Advent Calendar Day 19 – When Puritans Banned All Mention of Christmas and the Contents of Today’s Post Were Censored As a Result…

Eating mince pies, giving money to servants, sending gifts to friends in Late December or even putting sprigs of rosemary in roast beef were seen as suspicious actions that could be met with threats and reprisals…

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“Bad Santas” Advent Calendar Day 18 – The Christmas Cat

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Everyone knows the Christmas Cat,

He’s angry, huge and mean,

But nobody knows where he came from

Or where he will next be seen.

 

His eyes stared at you, open wide,

Both of them fierce ablaze,

It took a brave, brave man indeed

To steadily meet his gaze.

His whiskers were like razors,

His back was curved up high,

And those sharp claws on his hairy paws

Could make a grown man cry.

He curled and curved his great big tail,

He jumped and scratched and hissed,

Sometimes by the harbourside,

Sometimes in the mountain mist.

 

Vicious, large and evil,

Through freezing snows he came,

And in the houses everywhere

Folk trembled at his name.

A cruel ‘meow’ would let you know

Something evil was on its way,

And mice were never meat enough,

Men were his natural prey.

He feasted on the very poor

Who worked the Christmas through

But still had no new clothes to wear

No coat, no shirt, no shoe.

He’d steal their Christmas dinner,

He’d eat it with one chew,

And because their dinner was so small

He would then eat them too.

So mothers sat at spinning wheels,

They span their wool and thread

To make some clothes to give their child

So the Cat would not strike them dead.

But if a child received no new clothes

The threat was very real,

When the Cat made his Christmas call

They’d become his Christmas meal.

Candlelight on Christmas Eve,

The Cat peers through the pane,

Sees children clad in new costume,

Knows his efforts are in vain.

Perhaps a shirt, perhaps some socks,

A vest, a scarf, or shoe,

Whatever the child needed

To see the winter through.

The Cat would sigh, would hiss, would howl,

It would beat his mighty paws,

But there was no more he could do

For the child stayed out his claws.

I’m not sure he’s still around,

Nobody I know can say,

But if we all get Christmas clothes

That Cat will be kept at bay.

If you see a child who’s going cold,

Garments ragged and threadbare,

Help save him from the Christmas Cat,

Give him something new to wear.

This good deed will keep them safe

And give you a warm feeling too,

It will give you joy throughout your day

And a happy Christmas too.

“The Christmas Cat” is an English version of ‘Jólakötturinn’ by Jóhannes úr Kötlum and is taken from “Bad Santas and other Creepy Christmas Characters by Paul Hawkins, published by Simon & Schuster.  The illustration is by Mel Four and is taken from the book.


 

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