Happy Boxing Day!

To all those who have the day off or give a little extra after Christmas, have a great Dec 26! And to all the Canadians I know on WordPress, thanks for your follows, likes, comments and good will over the past year. Just remember, it’s bad luck to have Canadian Tire money left at New Year’s and this is the best day to use them. So get out there, give (to yourselves) like Santa and save like Scrooge!


If he’s a father, where are his kids?

St Nicolas – he has so much to say, he needed his own post. The prototype for holiday gift-bringers – unless you count Odin the Yule-father but that’s just too much to deal with – St Nick has had so many changes it’s hard to keep track of all the stockings he’s filled.

So who is this guy who’s supposed to come into houses the night of Dec 24th and leave things, this reverse burglar? He’s got numerous aliases, so that’s suspicious. Let’s name them, just for kicks:

Kris Kringle, Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Sir Christmas, Captain Christmas, Gregory.

Kris Kringle – Edmund Gwenn plays the part impeccably in Miracle on 34th Street but he may be too old for the part. Kris Kringle is a corruption of the German Krist Kindl – Christ Child. The word was also loaned out as Christingle, a children’s mass on Christmas Eve taken from the Moravian custom of the 18th C. But all-in-all it’s a good sounding name. Or, if you could hear it, the sound of frost growing and retreating on a windowpane – krissss kringle!

Santa Claus – St Nick’s American nom de guerre is loaned out from the Dutch Sinterklaas. Like Stuyvesant Square in New York City, this piece of Netherlander lore is firmly packed inside American culture. While we as kids believed with all our hearts that Coca Cola invented his fat face, white beard and red suit, it isn’t true. However, their artist – Haddon Sundblom – did inject Scandinavian elements like the drooping tasseled hat into the vision already created by Clement Clark Moore’s A Visit from St Nicolas.

Most illustrations of him in Moore’s poem are captioned “Santa Claus” instead of St Nicolas. L Frank Baum created a whole new life for him in the Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. A little lost babe taken in by a fairie, Santa – or Neclaus as Baum writes it – grows into a generous man not only giving toys but inventing them too. Huh.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, the name reached England in the 1870s. Hanging up stockings was already an old custom. This new fellow caused some confusion around it. One observer thought it was “Santa Cruz, the Holy Cross”. Another writes in 1879, ‘On Christmas Eve … some mythical being called Santiclaus will fill the stocking … From what region of the earth or air this benevolent Santiclaus takes flight I have not been able to ascertain.’

Father Christmas – as English as John Bull, Father Christmas was traditionally associated with feasting rather than gifting. He comes more from a personification of Yule, or midwinter, than St Nicolas. The figure of Yule himself stems from Odin who flew about the earth on the Winter Solstice bestowing good cheer.

Ben Jonson, playwright and Shakespeare superfriend, wrote a Christmas play for the royal court in 1616 – Christmas his Masque – where Christmas laughs off being left out of the season’s fun. ‘Christmas, Old Christmas, Christmas of London, and Captain Christmas’, as he calls himself. ‘I am Old Gregory Christmas still, and though I am come from Pope’s Head Alley, as good a Protestant as any in my parish.’

Presiding over festivals and seasonal entertainment, Father Christmas became the face of a backlash against the Puritan fight to cancel Christmas. The Puritans saw the season and all its trimmings as a Papist plot to rule England through misrule. That’s right. Many of America’s founders hated Christmas.

Victorians loved him. To them he was a sort of Falstaff of better personal character, pouring wine in Elizabethan dress-up. His image was soon greatly informed by the Ghost of Christmas Present in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. If you ever see him in a loose green robe, that’s the Christmas spirit right there.

And to answer my own question, Father Christmas has many sons. As Ben Jonson names them: Misrule, Carol, Mince Pie, Gambol, Post-and-Pan, New Year’s Gift, Mumming, Wassail, and Baby Cake. As many as Santa’s reindeer including Rudolph. I bet it’s Wassail who has the red nose.

Money is the next best thing to find in your shoes


The Feast of St Nicolas, Jan Steen, 1683-85

Hero to generations of Dutch children, St Nicolas has his day on Dec 6, the reported date of his death. Epitomized by coins secretly left in shoes, his abundant gift-giving is the saint’s most well-known reputation. Of course it is.

As well as the patron saint of thieves and pawnbrokers, this Turkish bishop became patron saint of children according to two legendary actions.

In one he revived three boys murdered by an innkeeper and in another surreptitiously paid a poor man not to prostitute his daughters. The boys had been salted to be sold as hams and unwittingly preserved for rescue. For the three daughters, St Nick just threw bags of gold at their house probably scaring their father straight as well as buying off his conscience.

In a different story of the three daughters, Nick throws the gold down the chimney where freshly washed stockings were hung with care to dry. In fell the gold. The bags are sometimes golden balls. Easier to throw they also resemble oranges allowing parents to explain to their deserving children why they can’t get gold every year.

Some bad behaviour was allowed on the day. One record from 1686 has school boys given the ‘priviledge to breake open their Masters Cellar-dore’. (John Aubrey, Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme) Boy bishops were also elected on Dec 6 and served until Dec 28 with all the rights of a real bishop including the awesome power of preaching a sermon. I assume a real bishop was nearby with a birch rod so his fresh counterpart would not be spared if he spoiled the moment. Some English towns named them St Nicolas for the duration of their office. Londoners liked the show so much, the parade of various Nicolases was banned in 1554 for unruliness as most 16th century Christmas celebrations were.

Clement Clarke Moore’s poem changes the bishop to a ‘right jolly old elf’. Fellow New Yorker Washington Irving brought St Nick to America first in A History of New York. Oloffe Van Kortlandt, one of the founders of the first Dutch colony in America, fell asleep under a tree. He saw St Nick riding in a wagon through the sky on his year’s charity. Nicolas, never one to desert a fellow Netherlander, parked nearby and lit his pipe at Oloffe’s fire.

In the smoke, Oloffe saw a city rise. Then, “laying his finger beside his nose”, St Nicolas winked and flew off. On waking, Oloffe founded the city of New Amsterdam where he had slept. He was a good citizen in everyone’s mind, as Irving writes, when he was asleep. If only he’d taken off his shoes. He might be rich too.

Winter – in the thick of it

Today was the Winter Solstice. That’s not news to any of you, I’m sure. To most in North America it’s the start of Winter. The official start. Growing up in Canada, I always knew Winter snuck in around Dec 1 – the calendar be damned. To many others, especially in northern Europe, it’s midwinter. Now, is this just a colloquialism or do they really mean it? Was my childhood self right that Winter came earlier than the learned astronomer said, when I felt that chill go up my spine as November ended?

Ancient Celts and other Gaelic peoples marked the end of summer on Nov 1 or Samhain. The Venerable Bede mentions two periods of midwinter, early Yule and later Yule, December and January. This was later condensed to the 12 days around Christmas. Yule became merely a synonym for Christmas in the 11th C BCE.

Today was the astronomical start of the sun’s northward journey. It’s gone as far south as it can on its east-west track and now heads northwards. Apparently it appeared to pause in the sky around noon but I was told never to look at the sun so I took no notice.

To the learned astronomer, ranged in columns, it’s the start of Winter. To millions of Gaels in spirit, it’s merely the high point. To the rest of us, I suppose Winter should begin whenever we feel it. Today in the state of Maryland, the temps hit 70 Fahrenheit so Winter was delayed a day. So was this post because – did you get that – it was 70 today! In the middle of winter! Or the start of it. Or – oh, I don’t know! I saw a bee this afternoon crawling on the ground. I’m going out to ask him. Maybe he’ll sting me and I’ll forget all about it.

About that song…

12 days of Christmas12 days of Christmas12 days of Christmas

On the first day of Christmas that partridge in a pear tree is apparently French. Partridges are largely ground birds. According to the Annotated Mother Goose by William and Ceil Baring-Gould, the only partridge to perch in a tree is the Red Leg variety. A native to France, it was only successfully introduced to England in the 1770s leading scholars to believe the song has French roots. Citing the idea that the partridge abandons its young, the Baring-Goulds also speculate it points to the fickleness of the song’s gift-giver.

That pear tree might indicate an old Christmas superstition: backing into a pear tree and circling it three times was supposed to reveal a girl’s true love.

On the second day, the turtle doves – as with most doves – are a symbol of love and devotion.

On the third day, those French hens may come specifically from Brittany. That is, the Breton coast of France. And you should see how many antique shops and furniture stores called Three French Hens you get when you Google it.

On the fourth day, they’re not calling birds. Traditionally, they are colly birds. Or coal-black birds. Or, more directly, black birds. They do sing prettily.

On the fifth day, those gold rings – again according to the inspired Baring-Goulds – may refer to the rings on the necks of the ringed pheasant. They may also be a corruption of goldspink, another name for the goldfinch. That would be a lot of pheasant. The goldfinch, I suppose, would not be for eating.

The Baring-Goulds thus point out the first seven days are filled with birds – especially so after those goose eggs hatch. I hope this lady really likes geese. I feel her true love might be laying it on a bit thick. Some people – when they don’t know what to give,  they go all out.

Doesn’t explain days eight through twelve. Is she supposed to keep those maids and lords and whatnot? They’re probably just hired for the day which goes to show people have over-spent on Christmas for centuries.

Lastly, those milk-maids. There’s no cows mentioned. So – what are they milking? Maybe the birds. The “true love” sure is.

12 Days of Christmas: Yet to Come

A partridge in a pear tree – that’s what the person in that song received from her true love after Christmas Day. And 12 days later in comes the – cripes! – 12 drummers drumming. Send them back. That’s a noisy end to Christmas.

The 12 days of Christmas cause some confusion today when trees are chucked to the curb on Dec 26. Christmas Day is actually the beginning to the Christmas season. 12 days pass to mark the time it took the Magi to reach Bethlehem. The 12th night begins to close the season’s celebrations. So brush up your Shakespeare and break out the ruffed collars, Twelfth Night is a Christmas play.

Traditionally, the 12 days are a time of revels, plays, mischief and visiting houses for food. Much of the merry-making was done in disguise, a fun holiday distraction in small communities where everyone knew each other on sight. The best wore horse-heads, would not speak and refused to leave until given something. The Puritans banned Christmas in the mid 1600s citing the drunkenness it supposedly caused.

The song is thought to have been used in a game of forfeits: see how far you can get without messing up the gifts and their days. Also believed to have ancient French origins – the partridge is a Red Leg partridge, native to France – it may describe the efforts of a “true love” to win back the favour of someone he failed to court properly. Typical.

The Christmas season actually extends far beyond 12th Night to Feb 2, the feast of Candlemas. But come Jan 6 people would go back to work. Or maybe it was Jan 7. People today can’t agree on when to start counting: Christmas Day or Dec 26, now known as Boxing Day and the best day in Canada. New toys, maybe some money to spend if you’re lucky and a day to do nothing at all. Unless you work in a store. Then it’s chaos.

So it’s the 18th…

And if you celebrate Christmas, you’re looking forward to good times. Hopefully. “It is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt,” says Dickens through the mouth of his charity solicitor in A Christmas Carol. That most popular of ghost stories wasn’t the only one Dickens wrote nor the only he published at Christmas.

The English of the 19th C had no lack of ghost stories. Telling ghost stories was a winter tradition for the English and probably Northern Europeans. Scandinavian myths are full of a enough strange tales to freeze the icy heart of Greenland forever. Dickens took the tradition to the fore. He included a Christmas ghost story in Pickwick Papers (1836), followed it up with A Christmas Carol and made the publication of “a ghostly little tale” a yearly habit for much of his career. One appropriately named Christmas Ghosts, a little tale of family ghosts.

So, if your Want this year only includes what to read and you love A Christmas Carol, here’s some additional antique holiday reading for your perusal between cups of nog and Irish cream:

The Goblins who Stole a Sexton: an early Dickens Christmas story more picaresque than the nostalgia of A Christmas Carol. A fun read nonetheless.

The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain: more sinister than Scrooge’s visit with a main character much more sympathetic from the start. Dickens is in high art here, his descriptions of a cold Winter night pushed right to the limit. Shades of Scrooge’s distraught love for his sister is a main force for the story.

Old Christmas, Washington Irving: on a 17 year stay in England, American author Irving made friends with the Bracebridges, an old country family. Squire Bracebridge, the family head, kept to the antiquated Christmas customs and did all he could to recreate them including the boar’s head brought in on a platter, the pageant led by the Lord of Misrule and the hanging of mistletoe. Visiting the family over Christmas Eve, Irving included a remembrance of the night and the following day in his Sketch Book (1826). The Bracebridge Christmas celebration was a bit of an oddity until then. Interest increased after Irving’s book hit big. Dickens himself was a fan of the whole book, influencing him to write The Pickwick Papers. Randolph Caldecott later illustrated these selections of the Sketch Book, publishing them as Old Christmas in 1886. If Dickens is credited with bringing Christmas back to the city, Irving can be considered to have brought it first from the dark fields of English country lore.