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.
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.
St Nicholas – or Sinterklaas as the Dutch call him – would arrive at households on 5 December, the eve of St Nicholas’s Day, and test children on their knowledge of scripture. Prior to his visit, children would try to memorise the Bible for hours in their desperation to pass the tests he would set them. And for good reason – passing the test might mean being rewarded with sweets and treats but failure could cost them their soul. Nowadays a visit to Santa Claus is a wonderful and magical experience where they meet a jolly, warm, friendly character who sits children on his knee, jovially asks if they have been naughty or nice and merrily gives them a Christmas present, chuckling all the time. In contrast, the Sinterklaas of the Dutch Middle Ages was a severe, threatening religious autocrat who preached fire and brimstone, judged children’s moral characters and threatened to damn them all to a lifetime in Hell. If children looked forward to his visits at all – and I’m not at all convinced that they did – their anticipation was mixed with a sense of fear and trepidation. This was a dress rehearsal for the day of judgement.
Sinterklaas would glare at the nervous children and, unsmiling, demand answers to questions on the Bible. If children knew the answers they would be handed sweets and warned to ensure they remained good for the following year. If children got a few questions wrong they would be soundly beaten. But if they had failed to learn anything at all they would be dragged off to Hell.
To understand the terror this instilled in children, it is important to remember that this was a time when Hell and eternal damnation were seen as very real threats for anyone who was not sufficiently pious and the role of a bishop or priest involved ensuring their flock was so terrified of the possibility of an afterlife of eternal torment that they would obey the Church without question. The visit of St Nicholas was an early test of a child’s devotion to the Lord and every child was terrified of failing his tests. Without his favour and protection, there was nothing to stop the devil taking them away. Children really, really did need to be good for goodness’ sake.
“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters” is written by Paul Hawkins and published by Simon & Schuster, and available now. The drawing is by Mel Four and is taken from the book.
 Child safeguarding issues permitted.
All across western Europe, cathedrals would elect a boy bishop. His role was pretty much exactly what the name suggests. He was a pubescent choirboy who was elected at the beginning of December and then dressed in full bishop’s robes, mitre and crosier. He acted as the head of the Church from 6 December until 28 December. He performed the role of a priest, took all services apart from Mass and was free to direct church proceedings and appoint other choristers to act as his canons. The boy bishop was not universally popular – largely because traditionalists felt that the practice of having a small boy pretend to be a bishop undermined the solemnity of the Church.
There were practical problems too. The congregation did not seem to take the boy bishop very seriously and members of the congregation would throw things at him or pull pranks to disrupt the services. Occasionally the boy bishops took themselves far too seriously and houses near the church would suddenly be confronted with a menacing gang of choirboys dressed as bishops and canons demanding the householders hand over money to absolve their sins!
“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters” by Paul Hawkins is available now and published by Simon & Schuster.
Image taken from http://chrismologist.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/saint-nicholas-and-boy-bishops-of.html