The story of the Nativity has been represented in many different formats throughout history.The Virgin Mary and child have been depicted in paintings, sculpture and even on more functional objects. It is a story that is known to all across the Christian world and many more beyond that. It’s no surprise that scenes from the Nativity have been used throughout history to not only recount the story but to also serve a much wider purpose.
The story in summary is as follows: Mary receives word from the Angel Gabriel that she is pregnant with the son of God. Not long after this, Mary and her husband Joseph traveled to Bethlehem to register in the census of Quirinius. At this time, the Roman occupation of Judea called for a record of everyone living in the province by ordering that they return to their town of birth. In the case of Mary, as the wife of Joseph, she had to return to her husband’s town. Being heavily pregnant at the time, Mary made the journey on a donkey or mule. They arrive at Bethlehem to find nowhere to stay. All that was available was a small stable, which would provide nothing more than shelter. It was here that Mary gave birth, placing her child in a manger. The child was named Yeshua (ישוע), which later became Jesus as the story was translated into other languages.
At this time, an angel appeared to shepherds on a nearby hill and announced the birth. Elsewhere, a star is noted as having guided the three Magi (or Wise men) to Bethlehem. These wise men arrive 12 days after Christmas, bringing gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh to the child. However when Herod, king of Judea, hears of the birth of a new messiah, he orders all new-born males to be killed. Thus Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt with their child.
These scenes have persisted in religious iconography throughout history and have been used within the Christian world as a sign of authority and piety. Although aspects of the story of the Nativity have been depicted in a variety of different ways, standards were developed to make the scenes easily recognisable. Medieval seal matrices often depicted scenes from the Nativity and would have most likely belonged to senior officials at monasteries or churches. Many examples have been recorded on the PAS database showing how these standards of depicting specific scenes developed throughout the Medieval period. Most common are the Virgin Mary and Child designs (WILT-5F2594), with around 54 examples recorded with the PAS alone. Less common scenes include the Star in the sky that guided the three wise men to Bethlehem (SWYOR-457EF7) and the flight to Egypt ( IHS-5084E2).
It has to be remembered that Christmas is not only about the children who are rewarded for being nice. Many countries have stories to encourage all children to be well behaved in the build up to Christmas. In some countries they are told that they will receive something instead of presents, such as coal, or even worse they won’t receive any presents at all. In many parts of the world, the figure of father Christmas has an opposite who deals out punishment to those who misbehave. In France there is La Pere Fouettard and in Iceland is the Yuletide cat, but a story originating in the Alpine regions of Central Europe has become increasingly popular worldwide in recent years through TV and film. In the German speaking regions of the Alps, on the night before the feast of St Nicholas (6th December), it is said that Krampus pays a visit to all the naughty children of the world.
Krampus’ appearance draws heavily on early Christian representations of the devil; covered in fur, two large horns and hooves instead of feet. This mount recorded on the PAS datbase (NARC-2E4314) shows the sort of image that comes to mind when thinking of Krampus. It comes from a toy or vessel, though it is unlikely that it was associated with the folklore of Krampus. In many religions, winter is seen as a time when evil spirits are most active. Many festivals that are celebrated at this time of year involve light, which often originated in a desire to keep away evil spirits. These traditions have since developed into the practices observed today. This can include lighting candles (Hanukkah and Advent) or letting off fireworks (Diwali).
According to the legend of Krampus, children who have been naughty are kidnapped and beaten with ruten (bundles of birch branches). In some towns festivals are held where young adults dress up as Krampus and race through the streets, no doubt fueled by Glühwein, scaring children and adults alike. In recent years this aspect of the festive season has become more and more popular in the United States, with a recent boom in its home country of Austria as well (Basu and Little, 2014). Whether as a means to relieve the stress associated with this time of year or simply as an excuse to scare children, more and more people are choosing to dress up as this Christmas devil.
Reference: Basu, T and Little, B. 2014. Krampus the Christmas Devil Is Coming to More Towns. So Where’s He From? National Geographic online: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/12/141222-krampus-christmas-devil-demon-krampusnacht/[Last viewed: 08/12/2015].
A popular song at this time of year is “The twelve days of Christmas”. The song was first recorded in English in AD1780 in a book entitled “mirth without mischief”, which was aimed at children as a sort of memory game. The twelve days relate to the days after Christmas day, leading up to Epiphany on the 6th January. This is the day on which it is believed the three Magi arrived to greet the new-born baby Jesus. It would often be sung as a game of forfeits, with a new item being added with each child that sings. If a child forgot one of the objects in the series, they would have to do a forfeit..
The meaning of the gifts within the song has caused some debate. The five gold rings were often assumed to be rings worn on the finger as seen in illustrations from that era (see right). However, an alternative was suggested by William Stuart Baring-Gould (1962, 197) who believed it referred to five “ringed pheasants”, as all other gifts up until that point had been birds. Several of the other items appear to have changed throughout history, yet golden finger-rings seem to have persisted. probably because the desire for gold jewellery far outweighed the desire for game birds.
The five gold rings below (PAS-833958) are dated to the Late Bronze Age (1150-750BC). They are all of a similar shape, though they vary in size and style. The larger two are believed to be neck rings, whilst the smaller examples are likely to be bracelets. They were found within a ceramic vessel, suggesting the objects had been deposited intentionally. Much like the rings in the song, these five gold rings were possibly given as a gift to the Gods (though not necessarily on the 5th day of Christmas). There is a lot of debate about why objects were intentionally buried in the past, with each explanation being as likely as the next. As more and more hoards are being uncovered and making their way into museum collections, we are learning a great deal about these fascinating practices in the past.
These objects fell under the Treasure Act 1996 and have subsequently been acquired by the British Museum. The British Museum currently has an exhibition on Prehistoric and Roman hoards in room 69a.
Reference: Baring-Gould, W. S. and Baring-Gould, C. 1962. The Annotated Mother Goose. New York: Bramhall House.
A popular image associated with Christmas today is the Christmas tree. Believed to have derived from a pre-Christian practice of bringing evergreen boughs indoors during the winter season as a symbol of everlasting life, the tree has become a staple of most Western households at Christmas. Prince Albert has been credited with introducing Christmas tree’s to Britain during the mid-19th century, but this is a common misconception. Prince Albert popularized the Christmas tree but it was already a common feature of the royal household at Christmas time before the Victorian era.
The custom originated in Germany and was introduced into England under the reign of George III. His wife, German born Queen Caroline, decorated a tree for her family in the 1790s, and there is record of a tree at a children’s party given by a member of Queen Caroline’s court in AD1821. This tradition stayed largely within the Royal family until the later 19th century. It became common to see decorated Christmas trees in public spaces, until Post war anti-German feeling reduced their popularity for a short while. It wasn’t until the 1920s that family trees in each household became a common sight.
The German practice originally had wax candles burning on the tree (definitely a fire hazard by today’s standards) which was soon replaced by lightbulbs after electricity became more widespread. Nowadays trees are decorated with a wide array of objects to make them even more festive. The trees themselves rapidly became a symbol used to identify the Christmas period and can be seen on many visual representations of the season. The object pictured (SF7562) was not originally intended to represent a Christmas tree, though the green colouration brought on by oxidation makes it seem much more festive. It would have originally been a bright golden colour and would have decorated a leather strap in the 16th century.
Sledges and sleighs of various types have been used through history in the colder parts of the world. Whether to transport goods or people, their association with snow and winter has made them a frequent feature on festive scenes for Christmas cards and paintings. Attaching bells to sleighs has occurred throughout history for a variety of reasons. As these were the fastest vehicles around, the sound of the bells would alert pedestrians to the presence of the fast approaching sleigh. It has also been argued that the presence of bells on sleighs might have been used to herald the arrival of someone important. In either case, the purpose is to draw attention to the vehicle as it approaches.
The distinctive sound of the bells would have varied depending on the type of metal used and the thickness of the bell itself. A bell recorded on the PAS database (LANCUM-B13680) here is made of a lead-tin alloy. However, the sound this bell made would not be like the faint tinkling often associated with sleighs. Although it is impossible to say whether this bell was used on a sleigh, it would have likely been used on some form of animal harness at some point in the 17th-19th century.
The bell is also decorated with a series of leaf designs which appear to resemble holly. Decorating a bell with this seasonal foliage would suggest that the object was intended to be used around the festive season. The association of Holly with the word “holy” is a common misconception. In fact the word more likely originates from an Indo-European word meaning “prickly”. However, for a long time holly has been a common feature of Christmas decoration. The use of holly during winter festivals is believed to go back to pre-Roman times in Britain, though its adoption within the Christian holiday is still uncertain. Parallels have been made with the crucifixion, as some believe the crown of thorns mentioned in the bible was actually made of holly. Hence in many North European languages the name for holly is Christ thorn. Today we decorate our houses with the leaves in much the same way as we do with Christmas trees.
Many religions celebrate festivals during the winter period. It is a time when the days are shortest and people tend to stay indoors to avoid the cold. Of course winter occurs at different points in the calendar in different parts of the world, so many festivals that are celebrated worldwide will not necessarily take place during winter. Nonetheless, religions originating in the Northern Hemisphere tend to have festivals at some point between October and February, as it is at this point that the northern hemisphere is pointed away from the sun and the shortest days are experienced.
Many winter festivals use light as a focus for the practices that are observed, often to combat the darkness throughout the winter months. One such holiday is Hanukkah. The Jewish festival of Hanukkah begins at the 25th day of Kislev, and concludes on the 2nd or 3rd day of Tevet of the Jewish calendar. Due to differences with the Gregorian calendar, this date varies from one year to the next in the Western world. This year (2015) Hanukkah began at sunset on the 6th December and ends today, on the 14th. The festival is in memory of the miracle that occurred during the rededication of the “Second Temple” in Jerusalem, c. 165 BC. There was only enough oil for one day found within the temple, but the oil managed to last for eight days. This gave enough time for more kosher oil to be produced for use in the temple. Thus it was decreed that an eight day festival would take place to celebrate this event. Today people light one candle on the menorah (nine branched candleholder) each day, with a single candle burning throughout the entire festival to commemorate the eight day miracle.
One common practice throughout the holiday is to spin a dreidel, like the example pictured below (IOW-918A57). The game involves placing markers, often chocolate coins, in a “pot” with each letter on the dreidel corresponding to a particular action. The actions have changed throughout time, but the basic idea is that this is a game of chance, where you could lose all your tokens or gain a lot more. Several of these small lead dreidels have been found across the UK and recorded with the PAS.