James Daybell and Sam Willis share 10 facts from history that look at the festive period in a different light…
The custom of friends and family exchanging cards during the festive season was a Victorian invention, with the first commercial card produced in 1843 by Henry Cole. From the 1870s onwards, the introduction of the half-penny stamp made postage more affordable, which boosted the popularity of sending cards. Many examples of 19th-century greetings cards survive in collections of scrapbooks held in libraries around the country.
Among the cheerful Yuletide messages – many of which were distinctly secular – a number strike a more sinister, spiteful note. Examples include an image of a dead robin, a child boiled in a teapot, a clown sneaking up on a policeman to assault him, and sinister-looking snowmen. And finally, of course, nothing quite says happy Christmas like a depiction of a frog murdering a fellow frog with a dagger to the soft underbelly and then running off with the dead frog’s money. And the message? “May you have a Merry Christmas, unlike this unfortunate amphibian.”
Obscenity and subversion
Christmas was a time for subversion during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period, when snowmen were regularly built as winter effigies. During the cold winter of 1510–11, the citizens of Brussels built around 110 individual snowmen. Some of these depicted folklore figures such as unicorns and mermaids, and others explored religious and political themes. Meanwhile, some used extreme sexual and scatological imagery. One of the more sexualised sculptures could be found in Rozendal, the city’s red light district. It depicted a naked prostitute and a “dog… ensconced between her legs”.
Of the more scatalogical was a snow-cow that delivered “turds, farts and stinking”. There was also a defecating centaur; a “manneken pis” fountain depicting a small boy urinating into the mouth of a drinker; and a drunk drowning in his own excrement. Jolly Frosty the snowman, it seems, has vulgar ancestors.
Hard luck stories
In the past, Christmas was a time full of superstition and thought to be fraught with bad luck. The robin, for example, is viewed today by most as a charming symbol of wintertime, and one that adorns many a festive card. Yet in Gloucestershire in the 1950s, there is evidence that some greeted the receipt of such cards with horror. This stemmed from the widespread belief that a wild bird entering the house signified an impending death in the family.
Likewise, if holly was brought into the house at any time of year – with the exception of Christmas – it was seen as a harbinger of death, and even in the Christmas period was either burned or ceremonially disposed of once the festive period was over. In the early 19th century, it was bad luck for fire to leave the house on Christmas day, which meant that, in a time before commercial ‘lucifer’ matches, neighbours would not share light from their fires to ignite wood or candles. To ask a neighbour for a light was a gross insult.
Romantic accounts of Saint Nicholas descending chimneys to deposit presents in stockings – stories that first flourished in the US during the 19th century – stem from earlier traditions connected to evil spirits. The chimney throughout European folklore was associated with the supernatural and as an entry point into the home, whether for good or evil. In Greece and Serbia, for example, Kallikantzaroi or Christmas goblins, were believed to live underground for most of the year, surfacing during the 12 days of Christmas to slip down chimneys in order to wreak havoc.
A way of preventing these evil beings from descending your chimney was to light a Yule log over the festive season. A further precaution was to throw a pair of foul-smelling shoes onto the flames.
Magical shoe fillers
Shoes were not simply a noxious deterrent for evil sprites, but also a precursor to the now customary stockings as receptacles for Yuletide gifts. Earlier depictions of Saint Nicholas associate him with dropping gold coins down the chimney. In 16th-century Holland, this led to the tradition of children placing their shoes on the hearth on the eve of the feast of Saint Nicholas, and awaking in the morning to find them filled with gifts and sweets. In Italian folklore, an old woman named Befana (the ‘Christmas witch’) delivered gifts to children on the eve of epiphany (6 January), slipping them into shoes left by the fireplace. These earlier chimney-related traditions no doubt passed into usage in the US via migration.
Christmas cheer has long been in short supply for China’s seahorses. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
In recent years animal charities have highlighted how the festive season can be miserable for animals – and festive animal cruelty has a long history. In A Child’s Christmas in Wales (1954) the brilliant poet (and cantankerous inebriate) Dylan Thomas offers a semi-fictional, autobiographical account of a young boy’s experience of Christmas during the first half of the 20th century. It was a time of year when, according to Thomas, it “was always snowing”. One passage describes two boys waiting in the snow “hands wrapped in socks” and armed with snowballs to attack the local cats. The wanton mischievousness of these boys, sketched in a moment of poetic genius as “Eskimo-footed arctic marksmen”, opens a door into a well-documented history of mistreatment of cats.
Cats are not the only animals to find Christmas miserable. Another species that has had a rough time of it at Christmas is the seahorse. An endangered species but favoured as a remedy in traditional Chinese medicine (it is said to cure a flagging libido), for more than a century seahorses have also been caught and sold for their popularity as Christmas decorations.
Eruptions of violence
Christmas has often been as much about violence and rioting as it has about sharing and caring. It is well known that Oliver Cromwell and the puritans sought to abolish Christmas, which they viewed as a “popish superstition”. One parliamentary ordinance in June 1647 threatened with punishment anyone who celebrated this festival. This ban did not go down well in all quarters. In December 1647 many of the citizens of Canterbury defied it, taking to the streets to riot. The pamphlet Canter-bury Christmas: Or a True Relation of the Insurrection in Canterbury on Christmas Day Last describes how shops that stayed open on this holy day were ransacked. The city’s mayor, aldermen and constables were attacked, and the sheriff knocked down, his head “fearfully broke, it was gods mercy his brains were not beat out”.
In America in 1776, early in the American Revolutionary War, the rebel militia guarding the maritime route to Fort Ticonderoga, New York state, was a simmering pot of class and cultural rivalry, a situation exacerbated by cold and boredom in the winter darkness. Extra alcohol on Christmas day saw an eruption of violence as soldiers turned on each other like hungry dogs. A recently discovered personal account noted how Pennsylvania soldiers “armed with guns, bayonets and swords, by force entered the tents and huts of [Massachusetts] officers and soldiers, dragging many out of doors naked and wounding them, robbing and plundering”.
Chimneys often contain artefacts that have been bricked in or lodged up the flue. Serendipity has left us with one of the most interesting types of documents to be discovered in chimneys: children’s letters to Father Christmas. For historians, they are a joy. “I want a baby doll and a waterproof with a hood and a pair of gloves and a toffee apple and a gold penny and a silver sixpence and a long toffee,” wrote the breathless Alfred and Hannah Howard in 1911 before placing the letter in the fire. The letter started to burn before being picked up by a draft and whisked to safety on a tiny shelf inside the chimney of the family home in Dublin. It was discovered by a couple renovating the house 81 years later. Such letters can be magical because they don’t just record a list of material objects, but also a child’s hopes and fears, too.
Carrots with everything!
During the world wars, with rationing imposed and the supply lines of the British empire greatly reduced, luxury Christmas treats were a pipe dream. More humble ingredients had to be used. The carrot, in particular, was much lauded as a versatile and plentiful foodstuff, so much so that during the Second World War a recipe booklet was produced with instructions for thrifty carrot-based dishes, including carrot soups, carrot savoury, carrot croquettes and the war-and-peace pudding.
An alternative to Christmas pudding – and first produced in Canada during the First World War – the war-and-peace pudding was made with carrots instead of mincemeat. It consisted of flour, breadcrumbs, suet, and grated raw potato and carrot to bulk out the mixed dried fruit and spice – and note the lack of fortified spirits. So popular was this that many never went back to eating a richer pudding.
Lord Meath stirs ingredients for the Empire Christmas pudding, destined for the royal dinner table in 1927. (Photo by Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)
The pudding of empire
A very different kind of Christmas pudding was enjoyed by George V and his family at Sandringham on Christmas Day in 1927. The pud was produced by none other than the royal chef, André Cédard, who used in his recipe ingredients from around the empire: currants from Australia, raisins from South Africa, minced apple from Canada, demerara sugar from the West Indies, ground cloves from Zanzibar and brandy from Cyprus. Lord Meath of the Royal Colonial Institute called it “a symbol of unity of empire” and desired that every household in the country should eat such a pudding as a way of supporting the trade of empire.
James Daybell is professor of early modern British history at the University of Plymouth. Sam Willis is a historian, writer and broadcaster who specialises in maritime history. The duo are the authors and presenters of the Histories of the Unexpected books, podcast and live show
This article was first published in the Christmas 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine