Tag Archives: Central Europe

“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 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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“Bad Santas” Advent Calendar – Day 17 – The Caganer

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The caganer (which tranlates as ‘the shitter’  is a unique and amusing tradition that began in Catalonia sometime around the eighteenth century but has appeared in parts of Spain, Portugal and Italy too. He is a figurine that appears in nativity scenes and is traditionally dressed in a white shirt, black trousers and a red hat. And as the name suggests, he is always shown squatting with his trousers around his ankles and a large, brown stool curled up behind him.

Usually the caganer is a small, subtle figure. He is rarely placed prominently in the scene but is almost always hidden away in a corner. Children will make a game of trying to spot him. However, in 2010 the Maremagnum shopping centre in Barcelona broke a Guinness World Record with their Christmas display of a 19ft-tall caganer. This meant that three storeys’ worth of shoppers could enjoy spectacular views of a giant man taking a dump as they went around buying their Christmas gifts.

These days the caganer does not have to be a peasant. In recent years, demand has risen for ‘celebrity defecators’ – models of popular figures of sport, politics, stage and screen all literally caught with their trousers down: politicians from Vladimir Putin to Fidel Castro to Barack Obama; sports stars from Lionel Messi to Rafa Nadal to Lewis Hamilton; musicians from Mick Jagger to Michael Jackson to Bruce Springsteen. Caganers exist of all of them engaged in defecating, even the Dalai Lama, Ghandi and Albert Einstein. Apparently Queen Elizabeth II is a particularly popular model of December defecator.

This is probably quite bemusing for the people depicted but caganer-makers see using someone’s image as a celebrity caganer as an honour and a positive acknowledgement of respect. After all, as Oscar Wilde very nearly said, ‘The only thing worse than being so famous that there is a figurine made of you defecating is not being so famous that there is a figurine made of you defecating.’

 

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

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“Bad Santas…” Advent Calendar Day 14 – The Christmas Man

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The Christmas Man’s name was fantastically literal; he was a man who gave gifts at Christmas. As it turned out he was a bearded old man, much like St Nicholas. He called into houses to hand out presents to children who had behaved, much like St Nicholas. And he carried a birch rod to beat naughty children, much like St Nicholas.

However, the crucial thing for the Protestants was that he was most definitely not St Nicholas. In fact, he was most definitely not a saint at all. In order to definitely not be a saint, he definitely did not wear bishop’s robes or any other religious insignia. And he definitely did not deliver presents on St Nicholas’s Day. Like the Christkind, he instead delivered them on Christmas Day. Which definitely made him the Christmas Man. Definitely, definitely, definitely not St Nicholas. Nope. All similarities to St Nicholas were entirely coincidental. Definitely.

“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters” is available now from Simon & Schuster.  The image above was lying about on my hard drive and I’ve completely forgotten where I got it from.  If it belongs to you then drop me  a line and I’ll amend this to give you credit.

 

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“Bad Santas…” Advent Calendar Day 10: The Christkind

Christkind

The Christkind (or 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!

Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters by Paul Hawkins is available now from Simon & Schuster.  The image at the top of the page is available under a Creative Commons license. 

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“Bad Santas…” Advent Calendar: Day 8 – The Feast of Fools

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The Feast of Fools, a church celebration that priests would engage in during medieval times. The Feast may have originated in Turkey in the ninth century but it became most popular in France during the twelfth century, although Britain, Scotland and many other countries observed it too. Like Saturnalia, the Feast of Fools was a relaxation of social rules within the Church and, as such, it was the time when priests and clergymen could kick back and, for a brief period, succumb to some of the temptations they had to reject for the rest of the year.

In 1445 religious scholars in France complained about the behaviour of priests during the Feast of Fools. Amongst other things they accused the priests of wearing ‘monstrous visages at the hours of office’, dancing ‘in the choir dressed as women, panderers or minstrels’, gambling, singing ‘wanton songs’ and ‘infamous performances with indecent gestures and verses scurrilous and unchaste’. It seems some priests really knew how to let their hair down!

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

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“Bad Santas…Advent Calendar” Day Seven – Black Peter

2 (chapter2_end illustraton)

To some, Black Peter was simply a brutal Moorish servant that St Nicholas had acquired. To others he was Satan himself, who had been captured and subjugated by St Nicholas and compelled to do his bidding. What was certain was that he was both vicious and single-minded in his determination to punish misbehaving children. A beating from Black Peter was said to be far more severe and brutal than any discipline the child had ever received before. If a child sufficiently angered St Nicholas for him to demand that Black Peter take the child away in his sack then the child would be trapped in Hell for an entire year, only getting the chance to repent the following Christmas.

Early depictions of Black Peter saw performers portray him by blacking their hands and faces with soot. This is certainly politically incorrect and a bit tasteless by modern standards. However – if you accept the idea of Black Peter being the Devil rather than a Moorish servant – the similarities to the image of someone ‘blacking up’ could be dismissed as an unfortunate coincidence. In the Middle Ages there was no universally accepted idea of what the Devil looked like but he was often depicted as being black in colour, perhaps because he was perceived as an evil figure strongly associated with shadows and darkness.

The nineteenth century saw a change in how Black Peter was portrayed. This was the time when Christmas experienced a major renaissance during which many medieval traditions were reinvented with a modern twist. It was also the height of colonialism and centuries of slaving trading had ensured non-white people were seen as inferior to Europeans, perhaps even less than human, and certainly ripe for mocking and satire. The person playing Black Peter began to take things a bit further and created the image hat largely remains to this day. Not only would the performer blacken all visible skin but he also donned pink lipstick and an Afro wig and wore garish jewellery. His behaviour and demeanour was fierce and primal and he was presented as a violent ‘untamed savage’, bound up with chains and clearly subservient to St Nicholas, his dominant ‘master’.

Critics of the character argue that such an overtly racial image is a throwback to the days of slavery and colonialism. They believe the clear stereotyping in Black Peter’s appearance can only be a symbol of racism that both offends and excludes the black population that makes up a sizable part of the country today.

Many modern-day Dutch people are keen to preserve the tradition of Zwarte Piet and  insist that they are preserving existing traditions rather than attempting to cause racial offence, explaining that the character is black because he is covered in soot from climbing up and down chimneys. However, it is very difficult to disassociate his appearance from similar racial caricatures such as minstrels and golliwogs and it is extremely difficult to believe prejudice played no part in how his image was created in the nineteenth century.

In 2011 the former Dutch colony of Suriname banned depictions of Zwarte Piet in public and the same year Amsterdam city councillor Andrée Van Es became the first high-profile politician to publicly denounce the character. Attempts have also been made to portray Peter in different-coloured make-up such as blue, green and yellow. Nonetheless, the traditions have proved hard to shake off. Van Es was heavily criticised by Dutch traditionalists and an experiment by Dutch public broadcasters NPS to portray a rainbow-coloured Peter lasted only a year before he reverted back to his blackface origins. Meanwhile, the Dutch community in Vancouver were so vexed by the controversy over their use of Zwarte Piet in their annual Christmas celebrations in 2011 that local authorities decided to cancel them entirely, rather than make the decision to phase out the character. For now, however, Peter still appears in his blackface guise to play a major part in Christmas celebrations in the Netherlands itself.

“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters” is published by Simon & Schuster and available now.  The illustration is by Mel Four and is taken from the book.

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