Tag Archives: History of Christmas

“Bad Santas…” Advent Calendar – Day 12: Father Christmas

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One of the major reasons why the banning of Christmas failed in England was because the threat of abolition caused people of the seventeenth century to fight for their right to continue the traditions they had developed. Many writers even tried to find a character who embodied these Christmas traditions and could be used to appeal for their safekeeping. Writers of the seventeenth century were not masters of subtlety – probably because large segments of the public were illiterate, so books had a limited reach, and playwrights knew that drunken audiences would talk and heckle through most of their plays, so needed constant reminders of what was going on. Ben Jonson’s 1616 play Christmas, His Masque features a group of allegorical brothers and sisters with names like Minced Pie, Carol, Mumming, Wassail and Misrule, and he then introduces their father. The father is an old man with a beard who bemoans the fact he is being excluded from Christmas celebrations and implores the audience to keep the traditions alive in the face of growing opposition.

This is an early appearance of a character who would soon be featuring in mummers’ plays, stories and newspaper articles everywhere and over the next few hundred years would come to be a ubiquitous figure. He was a character who came to embody the secular irreligious Christmas traditions that the Puritans despised, but perhaps it was only because of the Puritan opposition that he ever developed at all. His name was Father Christmas.

“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters” by Paul Hawkins is published by Simon & Schuster and is available now.

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“Bad Santas…” Advent Calendar: Day 11 – The Karakoncolos

The Karakoncolos appears in Bulgaria, Turkey, and Serbia and takes slightly different forms in each country but generally resembles a cross between the Devil and a sasquatch. In Turkey, his behaviour often involves standing on street corners on winter nights waiting for passers-by and asking them riddles. If the traveller gives an answer that includes the word ‘black’ then the Karakoncolos lets them go on their way. But if the passer-by fails to use that word, or indeed fails to answer at all, the Karakoncolos strikes them dead with a single blow. Sometimes his behaviour is more that of a trickster who takes the form of a woman or young girl and appears at people’s doors to con his way inside to be given food. Once inside the Karakoncolos feels compelled to imitate his host’s behaviour. One way of getting rid of him is to set fire to some silk or thread. The Karakancolos will respond in kind by setting his own fur on fire and, upon realising what he has done, will run from the house screaming to find water.

Sometimes the Karakoncolos turns up at people’s houses for more sinister reasons. They sometimes use their powers of disguise to pretend to be a loved one and lure the householder out into the snow. Once outside, the person finds themselves caught in a trance unable to move. They stand there frozen to the spot until the cold takes over and they wind up freezing to death. Another favourite trick of the creature in parts of Serbia is to sneak into houses and linger behind the doorways of children’s bedrooms. As the child goes through the doorway the Karakoncolos stretches out a hand and grabs the child by the neck before dragging them off to eat.

The Karakoncolos did not always kill its victims, however – particularly in Serbia it is known to use humans as its own personal taxi service. They again lure victims outside before placing them under a spell and leaping onto their back and forcing their captive to ferry them wherever they want to go. The exhausted person is only released at dawn.

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

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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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