Tag Archives: European History

“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 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 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 16 – Victorian Postcards of Dead Birds

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Some Christmas cards are a little stranger and harder to fathom. The strangest without question are the Christmas cards of dead birds – a picture of a fully formed robin or wren lying on its back, presumably having died from the cold, with the words ‘May Yours Be a Joyful Christmas’ or ‘A Loving Christmas Greeting’ on the back. John Grossman, who chronicles Christmas cards in his wonderful book Christmas Curiosities, guesses that it might have been a combination of eliciting sympathy and sentimental feelings from the receiver and a stark reminder of those less fortunate at Christmastime, but frankly a dead bird remains a bizarre thing to put on a #Christmas Card.

 

Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters is available now from Simon & Schuster.

 

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