Tag Archives: Weird 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 9 – Christmas in America

the-eggnog-riot

Christmas had enjoyed a chequered history in America. When the first Europeans fled there to escape religious persecution, many brought with them the traditions of misrule and chaos that had shaped the Christmas of the Middle Ages. The southern states had carried on celebrations much as their ancestors had before the Reformation with drinking, feasting, dancing, wild partying and – this being America – gunfire. Like in England, masked working-class revellers would wander from house to house demanding food and drink and threatening destruction.

In the North, colonies such as New England were founded by Puritans, so Christmas was largely opposed – and even banned outright – well into the nineteenth century. Although America’s foundation was hugely influenced by religious exiles fleeing persecution, it was not always the same religious exiles or beliefs. This was not too much of a problem at first – colonies were set up by people with shared beliefs and attitudes and America was too vast and sparsely populated for the different factions to need to mingle together. Tensions increased as American cities expanded in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. By the beginning of the nineteenth century there were particular difficulties in the cities of the northeast such as Boston, Philadelphia and New York.

The essential problem was a class divide. Working-class revellers would roam the streets at Christmas forming calithump bands – impromptu and tuneless orchestras of drunks with horns, whistles and pots and pans – making as much noise as possible. Mumming was popular and even today Philadelphia still celebrates New Year’s Day with a Mummers’ Parade. They would visit middle-class houses and put on bawdy shows with lewd jokes before demanding hospitality and gifts in return. The middle classes wanted peace and relaxation with their families. They did not welcome visits from drunken oiks swearing, drinking and putting on vulgar shows, especially when this unpleasantness was compounded by being asked to hand out gifts and food to the very people who were pestering them.

What’s more, drunken Christmas riots were a frequent occurrence. Perhaps the most vivid example was in 1826 when cadets at the US Military Academy in New York were banned from drinking at Christmas. A few decided to do so anyway but slipped a bit too much whisky in their eggnog. What began with nine cadets having a quiet drink on Christmas Eve ended up with a lieutenant knocked unconscious and one third of the cadets taking up arms against their superiors in the mistaken belief that they were about to be assaulted by the full might of the US Army.

“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters” is available now from Simon and Schuster.   The picture at the top is allegedly a painting of the Eggnog Riots but I’m not entirely sure who painted it and can only presume they captured it in its very early stages…

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“Bad Santas…” Advent Calendar: Day 8 – The Feast of Fools

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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.

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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 Six – Sinterklaas

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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[1], 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.


[1] Child safeguarding issues permitted.

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“Bad Santas…” Advent Calendar: December 4 – Saturnalia

Saturnalia was a Roman midwinter festival that involved the usual social rules being inverted. Social hierarchies were forgotten and people of all classes mingled together as equals. Gambling (usually illegal in Roman society) was permitted and the masters would give their slaves a banquet. The streets were full of singing, partying, Saturnalia greetings and novelty gifts. In later periods of Saturnalia, a slave or person of low social status was appointed the king of festivities. He was free to order people to do as he pleased and they had to obey. This could be seen as a clear predecessor to Medieval England’s Lord of Misrule, which also involved a common townsperson being given the power of a King.

As the Greek writer Lucian of Samosota put it in around ad 150, becoming the king of the festivities meant that ‘you can not only escape silly orders but can give them yourself, telling one man to shout out something disgraceful about himself, another to dance naked, pick up the flute-girl and carry her three times around the house’.

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

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“Bad Santas…” Advent Calendar – December 3 – “The Boy Bishop”

boy bishop - salisbury

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

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“Bad Santas…” Advent Calendar – December 2: The Kallikantzaroi

Kallikazantoroi

 

In Greece those twelve days of Christmas are also the time of the Kallikantzoroi.   The Kallikantzoroi spent the rest of the year underground and Greek tradition went that there was a tree of life that ran right through the Earth and acted as a scaffold to hold it in place. Without the tree, the Earth would simply collapse in on itself. The Kallikantzoroi are quite keen on world destruction and spend January to December sawing through the tree, hoping to snap it in half and bring down the Earth. By the end of the year only the slenderest of threads holds the tree together and the world is set to end at any second. But, just as the Kallikantzoroi are about to make the final cut, Christmas arrives and they are summoned above ground. By the time they return in early January, the tree has regrown and they have to start all over again.

Overground, their actions are sometimes mischievous – they play pranks, steal things or sow discord amongst communities. Other times they might overturn furniture and destroy possessions or they might move on to the inhabitants – beating people savagely or even aping Perchta and ripping out intestines.

What’s more, parents knew that any baby born over the twelve days of Christmas might be spirited away during the night and fated to spend eternity as one of these strange, sinister creatures (or at least turning into one for twelve nights each year).   Binding newborn babies with tresses of straw and garlic would ensure the creatures could not get near them.

But how did you stop a Kallikantzoroi from getting near your house in the first place?  One thing the Kallikantzoroi could not do was to count beyond two – the number three was seen as a holy number by the Greeks.  The creatures would count ‘one, two’ and get confused, lose count and have to start again. The Kallikantzoroi were easy to trick by simply placing a colander outside the front door. The creatures would feel compelled to count the holes and, of course, would not be able to do so. Their confusion and failure to count would keep them occupied until sunrise – at which point the household would be safe until darkness fell again.

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

Image by Mel Four.

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“Bad Santas….” Advent Calendar – December 1: Frau Perchta

Frau Perchta

Frau Perchta was a demonic witch who stalked Medievel Central Europe punishing anyone who dared to displease her.

In Tyrol, Frau Perchta appeared as a mischievous, dishevelled old woman. In other places her appearance could depend on how you perceived her and whether you had pleased her. If you were faithful, obedient and observed her rituals, Perchta would appear to you as a staggeringly attractive woman of divine beauty. If you angered her she would appear as a demonic, horned monster with a ferocious bloodlust.

Her most common form of attack was to sneak into your house in the dead of night during the winter and creep up to your room where you were sleeping. The goddess would then take out a knife and, whilst you slept unaware, she would slit your stomach open and remove your innards and your intestines. She’d then replace those innards with pebbles and straw and sew you back up so whoever discovered your corpse the next morning would find absolutely no signs of physical damage. In the days before regular autopsies, nobody would ever prove that you had not simply and peacefully passed away in your sleep.

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

The illustration is by Mel Four and is taken from the book.

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