Tag Archives: Traditional Christmas

“Bad Santas…” Advent Calendar Day 23 – The Mysterious Disappearance of Diedrich Knickerbocker

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The story of Santa Claus starts, as every good story should, with the link between a missing historian, a famous dessert, a pair of women’s underwear and the New York professional basketball team.

The missing historian in question was the New York amateur historian Diedrich Knickerbocker. Knickerbocker was of Dutch ancestry and his major historical research project A History of New York, which was published in 1809, told the story of the early Dutch settlers to what was then New Amsterdam.

Knickerbocker himself had disappeared by the time of publishing. He had been staying in the Columbian Hotel in New York but had disappeared without paying. The manuscript for the book was found amongst his belongings and the landlord, keen to recoup his lost rent, decided to publish the book. Adverts were placed in the local newspapers trying to find Diedrich Knickerbocker but the mystery of his disappearance remained unsolved for many months. Even after the truth was discovered, Diedrich Knickerbocker was never seen again. To this day, his body has never been found.

Nonetheless, Knickerbocker’s research is significant as it shows the point where St Nicholas became Santa. He describes the Christmas traditions of the first Dutch settlers, the building of the Church of St Nicholas (the first church ever built in New York) and the place that St Nicholas’s Day took in the hearts of early New Yorkers. He explains how St Nicholas flew over the houses in a cart pulled by horses and would shimmy down chimneys to deliver gifts. Essentially the description was so vivid that Knickerbocker became the first man to chronicle the modern Santa Claus.

There were two very small problems with all of this. The first is that Diedrich Knickerbocker never actually existed. The second is that the ‘traditional celebrations’ he described were entirely fictional.

In actual fact Knickerbocker’s History of New York was an elaborate joke by the then-unknown writer Washington Irving, who would later become famous as the writer of ‘Rip Van Winkle’ and ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. It was intended as a satire of stolid, worthy and pompous history books, and the debacle around Dietrich Knickerbocker was partly a joke and partly a publicity stunt that had several unexpected consequences.

Firstly, Diedrich Knickerbocker himself, for a man who never existed, turned out to be distinctly influential. The word Knickerbocker became a slang term for New Yorkers with Dutch ancestry and ultimately New York itself. The New York Knicks and the Knickerbocker Glory ice cream sundae both take their name from the fictional character. When the book was published in England, the illustrations were done by Charles Dickens’s illustrator – a man named George Cruikshank. Cruikshank’s drawings of old-style Dutch trousers resembled ladies undergarments of the day and ultimately led to female underwear being referred to as ‘knickers’.

Secondly, whilst Irving’s traditions of St Nicholas in New York were almost certainly invented by him on the spot, they turned out to be surprisingly popular. St Nicholas might not have been known to fly through the skies and climb down chimneys before Irving’s writings but he quickly gained a reputation for it.

Washington Irving’s influence on  Christmas does not end there. In 1819 and 1820 whilst living in England he published The Sketch Book, which included a series of stories set in a fictional country house named Bracebridge Hall that popularised English Christmas traditions of the past in America (and indeed in England too). Along with Charles Dickens, Irving’s writings did more than anyone to promote the idyllic traditional Christmas and set out the customs and traditions that form part of our ideal Christmas today. Much like Dickens’s Christmas stories, Washington Irving’s tales purported to capture the spirit of Christmas traditions of yesteryear but actually helped invent much of what we now think of as the ‘traditional’ Christmas. Although Irving had spent a lot of time at Aston Hall near Birmingham, he later admitted he never actually witnessed any of the Christmas traditions that he described.

“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters” is available now from Simon and Schuster.  As far as I can establish, the image of Washington Irving  is by John Wesley Jarvis, the image of a Knickerblocker Glory comes from http://knickerbockersicecreamparlour.co.uk, the New York Knicks’ logo belongs to them and I took the image of women’s knickers from Wikipedia.

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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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