Festive Finds: PAS Christmas Countdown #12

The Nativity

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 Nativity by Hugo van der Goes (c. AD 1440-1482).
The Nativity by Hugo van der Goes (c. AD 1440-1482). License: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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).

14th century Virgin and child seal matrix (WILT-5F2594).
14th century Virgin and child seal matrix (WILT-5F2594). Copyright: Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum. License: CC-BY
Mary fleeing on a mule with Jesus (IHS-5084E2).
Mary fleeing on a mule with Jesus (IHS-5084E2). Copyright: I. Szymanski. License: CC-BY.
13th century "Star" seal matrix (SWYOR-457EF7).
13th century “Star” seal matrix (SWYOR-457EF7). Copyright: West Yorkshire Archaeology Service. License: CC-BY.

Festive Finds: PAS Christmas Countdown #11

Reliquary

Gold Reliquary
16th century gold reliquary depicting the names of the three wise men. (ESS-2C4836) Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme .License: CC-BY

During the Medieval period life was governed by the Church and Bible. Everything you did during your earthly life would impact your soul after death and decide if you went to heaven or hell and how long you would spend in purgatory. A part of this highly religious life was the idea of pilgrimage, a journey to a holy place or shrine to ask for the Saints help or as a form of penance for sins. Undertaking a pilgrimage could help your soul in the afterlife. When visiting these holy places, relics and reliquaries could be purchased as proof that you had completed the pilgrimage and it was believed that relics were still connected to the Saint and had supernatural powers. Relics usually came in the form of a piece of the Saint, such as a body part, or something that the Saint had touched. Many were kept in reliquaries, a container for the relics, often decorated with scenes from the life of the saint in question.

One such reliquary is recorded on the PAS database (ESS-2C4836). This gold reliquary is in the form of a lozenge shaped pendant with a removable back panel. The front and back panels are engraved with biblical images. One of the side panels is engraved with a foliate design, with the other three depicting the names most commonly given to the three wise men in the nativity: Gaspar, Melcior, Baltasar (Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar). The three wise men are mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew where he calls them ‘Magi’ and states that they bought with them the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. This has given rise to the idea that there were only three Magi, one for each gift, although the total number is never mentioned. It is thought that the three gifts have symbolic meanings, although never mentioned in the Bible. Gold is seen as a symbol of Christ’s divinity, frankincense is burnt in worship and therefore indicative of Christ’s willingness to become a sacrifice and myrrh was used in embalming and foretells the suffering he would go through as a man.

The reliquary is currently on display in room 2 at the British Museum.

The Three Magi
Three Wise Men. Made at Hohenburg Abbey, France, 1185 by Herrad of Landsberg. From a reproduction by Christian Maurice Engelhardt, 1818 (Hortus Deliciarum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Festive Finds: PAS Christmas Countdown #10

Modern Day Santa Claus

Thomas Nast's depiction of Santa Claus
Portrait of Santa Claus, Published 1881. Thomas Nast [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
In modern day Western society Father Christmas is instantly recognisable, by his red and white clothes, white beard and sleigh full of presents. He is an image of Christmas spirit, goodwill to all men and for children a magical man who gives them gifts. How did this version of Santa Claus develop from the much more pious Saint Nicholas?

The origins of the real Saint Nicholas, on which the modern day Santa Claus is based, was discussed yesterday. Within the Christian World Saint Nicolas’ popularity had grown and his story merged with local myth. The earliest reference in England comes from the fifteenth century, when a carol entitled “Sir Christëmas” appears, often credited to Rev. Richard Smart, Rector of Plymtree, Devon (AD 1435-1477) and again with Ben Johnson’s seventeenth-century “Captaine Christmas”, although the early English version of Santa Claus was a Yule-tide visitor, not a gift-giver. The modern Father Christmas became popular in the Victorian era.

One of the most famous versions is the Dutch Sinterklaas, an elderly and serious man with white hair and beard. He wears a long red cape, rides a white horse and carries a book that lists whether each child has been good or bad and gives gifts on the 5th December, the night before Saint Nicholas’ day.

The Americans gave us the image of the jolly man in a red suit. Washington Irving adapted the Sinterklaas legend and between AD 1804 and 1821, Santa Claus becomes an elf dressed in fur in an arctic landscape. This version gained popularity with many familiar aspects being added during AD1863-1886. Thomas Nast drew illustrations of Santa Claus where he is portrayed as a fat, white bearded elf, wearing a spotted red-brown suit with the base of the jacket trimmed in white fur. In 1885, Louis Prang added the black boots and belt, a bright red suit trimmed with white fur and a white tassel hat. By the 1920’s the red suit became standardized and is thought to be based on the red robes that Bishops wore and not based on Coca Cola’s colours, a popular misconception.

Recorded on the PAS database is a modern lead Santa Claus (NLM-CA8AE8) wearing a rode and hat which are both fur-trimmed, with a beard and moustache. In the crook of his left arm is a small Christmas tree. This ornament highlights how the modern version of Santa Claus has become, for many, an important figure in the celebration of Christmas.

Santa Claus Figurine
Modern lead figurine of Santa Claus (NLM-CA8AE8). Copyright: North Lincolnshire Museum. License: CC-BY

 

 

 

Festive Finds: PAS Christmas Countdown #9

Origins of Saint Nicholas

St Nicholas Pilgrim Badge
15th century gilded silver pilgrim badge depicting Saint Nicholas and three children. (SF8047) Copyright: The Portable Antiquities Scheme. License: CC-BY

The jolly man in the red and white who brings children presents every Christmas Eve in his sleigh pulled by reindeer is the result of hundreds of years of stories, legends, tradition and marketing campaigns. The ‘real’ Father Christmas hasn’t been completely forgotten, with popular culture even referring to him as ‘Saint Nic’.

Saint Nicholas was born in Patara (now in modern day Turkey) during the third century BC. He came from a wealthy family and was raised as a Christian. After the death of his parents, he used his inheritance to help those suffering and was made Bishop of Myra at a young age. Saint Nicholas became known for his generosity to the sick, his love for children and his concern for sailors, thus becoming the Patron Saint of children and sailor, as well as merchants, archers and students. During the rule of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, Nicholas was exiled for his faith and imprisoned. Nicholas died on 6th December AD343, giving rise to the celebration of this date as Saint Nicholas Day.

St Nicholas and three boys
Saint Nicholas resurrecting three children, at the beginning of the reading for 6 December. Author Unknown, ‘Stowe Breviary’, 1322–25 (image: Public Domain)

Saint Nicholas popularity grew due to the stories told of his great deeds and soon his cult rivalled that of Virgin Marys’. One of the most well-known stories is Saint Nicholas and the three daughters. Each of the daughters wanted to marry but hadn’t enough dowry. Saint Nicholas threw two purses through the window and the third down the chimney where it fell into a hanging stocking.

Another story of Saint Nicholas’ miracles is a later addition and based on a misunderstanding. In many images Saint Nicholas is pictured with gold discs or balls but many thought they were children’s heads. This gave rise to the story that three boys had been tricked and killed by an innkeeper (butcher in the French version) and placed in a barrel. Saint Nicholas visits the inn, dreams of the crime and resurrects the boys. This story is a retelling of a much earlier tale, recorded by Cicero in his “on divination” in 44BC. Cicero’s version also includes a murderous innkeeper, though the victim is a friend of the protagonist.

These stories are a few examples of his good deeds but gave rise to the idea that Saint Nicolas was mainly a protector of children and gift giver. His story grew and Saint Nicholas was incorporated into other local myths. A pilgrim badge recorded on the PAS database (SF8047) depicts Saint Nicholas with three children sitting in a crescent moon, possibly a representation of the barrel, although the badge could also relate to the three daughters story. Tomorrow will continue the story of Saint Nicholas and how the Saint turned into the myth we know today.

Festive Finds: PAS Christmas Countdown #8

Krampus

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.

Front of devil mount (NARC-2E4314).
Front view of devil mount (NARC-2E4314). Copyright: Northamptonshire County Council. License: CC-BY
Horned devil in the style of Krampus (NARC-2E4314).
Horned devil in the style of Krampus (NARC-2E4314). Copyright: Northamptonshire County Council. License: CC-BY

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].

Nikolaus and Krampus, by unknown.
Nikolaus and Krampus, by unknown (not stated in the source). License: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

Festive Finds: PAS Christmas Countdown #7

Twelve Days of Christmas

Five Gold Rings, by Anonymous.
Five Gold Rings, by Anonymous. License: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Five Bronze Age gold rings and pot.
Five Bronze Age gold rings and pot (PAS-833958). Copyright British Museum. License: CC-BY
Five Bronze Age gold rings (PAS-833958).
Five Bronze Age gold rings (PAS-833958). Copyright: The British Museum. License: CC-BY

Festive Finds: PAS Christmas Countdown #6

Christmas Trees

Christmas Tree, by Viggo Johansen.
Christmas Tree, by Viggo Johansen. License: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Guinea of George III (WILT-E6FA34).
Guinea of George III (WILT-E6FA34). Copyright: Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum. License: CC-BY.

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.

Christmas tree shaped mount (SF7562).
Christmas tree shaped mount (SF7562). Copyright: Suffolk County Council Archaeology Service. License: CC-BY

Festive Finds: PAS Christmas Countdown #5

Boy Bishop Tokens

19th century depiction of a Boy Bishop attended by his canons. Unknown Author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
19th century depiction of a Boy Bishop attended by his canons. Unknown Author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
The idea of boy bishops was a tradition that was popular in Western Europe during the medieval period but reached its height during the 16th century, continuing in some places until the 19th century. The custom of the Boy Bishop originated from Saint Nicholas due to his appointed as the Bishop of Myra at a young age.

The act of choosing a Boy Bishop would commence on Saint Nicholas’ Day, 6th December. A choir boy would be chosen to take over the role of bishop until the Holy Innocents Day, 28th December. The boy chosen as acting Bishop would be dressed in full episcopal regalia. He would lead processions, could declare holidays and give out sweets, gifts and tokens.

It is these lead tokens that have survived and with a numerous amount recorded on the database, suggests that it was a popular tradition. The lead tokens would have been handed out by the Boy Bishop and could be spent or exchanged, most likely for sweetmeats or alms.

Boy Bishop Token
16th century lead alloy Boy Bishop token. (BH-8C4A60) Copyright: St. Albans District Council. License: CC-BY

The main place of manufacture for these tokens was in Bury St Edmunds, with the majority being found in Suffolk, although tokens have been found much further afield and there were other places of manufacture including Ipswich and possibly Ely.

The obverse usually depicts the head of Saint Nicholas or a Bishop’s mitre and often reads ‘SANCTE NICOLAE’ (Saint Nicholas) with the legend provoking prayers ORA PRO NOBIS (pray for us). The reverse is divided into quadrants by a long cross, with three pellets contained in each quadrant. The legend often reads ‘AVE REX GENTIS’ (Ave Rex Gentis [Anglorum] – behold King of the English people), a reference to an anthem sung to St. Edmund in Bury Abbey.

Festive Finds: PAS Christmas Countdown #4

Sleigh Bells

"Figure, horse and sleigh in snow" by Cornelius Krieghoff.
“Figure, horse and sleigh in snow” by Cornelius Krieghoff. License: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Sleigh bells (LANCUM-B13680)
Sleigh bells (LANCUM-B13680). Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme. License: CC-BY

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.

Holly (Ilex-aquifolium).
Holly (Ilex-aquifolium), by Jürgen Howaldt. (Own work). CC BY-SA 2.0 de , via Wikimedia Commons.

Festive Finds: PAS Christmas Countdown #3

STAG HARNESS PENDANT

Stag Harness Pendant
Medieval Copper alloy harness pendant. (SF5207) Copyright: The Portable Antiquities Scheme. License: CC-BY

Reindeer and Christmas. The two words are so entwined and seem to fit together perfectly but reindeer haven’t always been associated with Christmas, so why are they today?

In early versions of the legend, Santa Claus rode a white horse to deliver presents, but as the Saint Nicolas myth merged with local folktale, other aspects were included in the myth. In Norse and Germanic mythology, Thor (God of Thunder) flies through the sky in a chariot pulled by two magical goats. It is possible the Saint Nicholas myth was combined with the well-known local myth of a chariot pulled by animals.

1804 a miniature representation of a reindeer and sleigh accompany Santa Claus, possibly taken from the Russian winter folk spirit, Father Frost, who drives a sled drawn by reindeer. In 1812 Washington Irving refers to St. Nicholas as:

“Riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon (sleigh)

wherein he brings his yearly presents to children.”

Ten years later in 1821, printer William Gilley published a booklet by an anonymous author where reindeer are introduced with Santa Claus for the first time,

“Old Sante Claus with much delight,

His reindeer drives this frosty night.

O’er chimney tops, and tracks of snow,

to bring his yearly gifts to you”.                

Names are given to the reindeer in 1822/23 in the poem ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ [or ‘’Twas the Night Before Christmas’] where it states that Santa drives a sleigh pulled by eight reindeers [Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder (Donner) and Blixem (Blitzen). Rudolph wasn’t introduced until 1939, the creation of Robert L. May.

This explains how reindeer came to guide Santa’s sleigh but not why reindeer were picked in the first place. During the 18th century in Scandinavian and Eastern European countries, reindeer were domesticated and often used (and still are today) for transportation like pulling sleds and sleighs. They were seen as mysterious creatures, suitable companions for the magical Santa Claus.

A harness pendant recorded on the database depicts a stag (SF5207), although with its protruding horns and slightly red nose, shares similarities to Santa’s reindeer. Stags were important during the medieval period and were described in bestiaries as an enemy of snakes. Because snakes were seen as a symbol of Satan, the stag became the symbol of Christ. The stag is associated with the soul wishing to become pure, with the white stag becoming the emblem of King Richard II.

Wilton Diptych Left Panel
Left panel from the Medieval Wilton Diptych, King Richard II wears a robe with his white stage emblem. Unknown Master, English or French [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.