Tag Archives: St Nicholas

“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 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 Seven – Black Peter

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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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“Bad Santas…” Advent Calendar – Day 5: the Krampus

The Krampus

The Krampus is a demonic hell-beast resembling a horrifically mutated goat with a sadistically wide range of punishments and tortures.  He beat children with a birch rod on occasions, but he also had a whole repertoire of penalties that ranged from ripping out a girl’s pigtails to leading children off cliffs Pied Piper-style or tossing children onto a train that was on a one-way journey to a lake of fire. He especially enjoyed eating naughty children for Christmas dinner and he’d even carry a bathtub on his back just in case the mood took him to drown a child in a bathful of water – or sometimes ink – before fishing them out with his pitchfork to eat.

5 December was not only St Nicholas’s Eve but it was also Krampusnacht – the night when the Krampus was free to roam the Alpine streets, heading from house to house to demand tribute, often in the form of alcohol.  The Krampusse in question were really large groups of young men dressed up in self-made costumes of fur, masks and goats’ horns charging around the streets with birch rods and pitchforks getting increasingly drunk, accusing people they encounter of misbehaviour and threatening to beat them up as punishment. Genuine monsters from the fires of Hell would probably have caused less destruction.

Whilst many of these other Christmas characters peaked during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, interest in and enthusiasm for the Krampus seems to have grown over time and the Krampusnacht remains popular today.  The nineteenth-century invention of Christmas cards saw an explosion of Christmas images of the Krampus sent around the world. The images were generally intended to be comical and something about the mischievousness and malevolence of the character clearly appealed, for Krampus cards were extremely popular. One card shows him grabbing a girl by the pigtails trying to pull her hair out.  Another sees him in a motor car stealing children.  In yet another card he is dragging a group of children off the edge of a cliff, beating children or driving off in a cart with a child in a sack on his back. Yet another card shows a group of children opening a box wrapped with shiny Christmas paper only to find the Krampus hiding inside waiting for them.

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Some of the cards have a clear sexual twist. The Krampus is sometimes seen romancing attractive ladies and a couple of cards even show gigantic female Krampusse – far more woman than Krampus – chasing after adult men or carrying them away in her sack. This sexual theme for the Krampus would expand hugely after the sexual liberation in the 1960s, when cards often showed the fierce demonic figure invading the bedrooms of scantily clad women to beat them with his birch rod.

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For the most part, however, the Krampus remains a source of terror.  The Krampusnacht continues today and is as popular as ever and, whilst it is slightly more sanitised than its anarchic Medieval peak, it still makes for a surreal and terrifying experience.

Visit here for some more absolutely incredible Krampus images.*

“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas” by Paul Hawkins is published by Simon & Schuster and out now.  The Krampus image in the picture is by Mel Four and taken from the book.  The other Krampus pictures are from vintagepostcards and are mostly taken from Krampus.com

*(genuinely – it’s a link to the Atlantic and not affiliated to me in anyway!)

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