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 #8


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 #2

חנוכה – Hanukkah

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.

Hanukkah menorah
Hanukkah menorah by Ilya Krivoruk Pikiwiki Israel. License: CC-BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5), via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Lead dreidel (IOW-918A57)
Lead dreidel (IOW-918A57). Copyright: Isle of Wight Council. License: CC-BY