Wellcome Collection might not be the first place to pop into your head when you think of Christmas. But it turns out that a holiday full of indulgence, excess and merriment is very revealing about the human condition. Elissavet Ntoulia explores how our objects can tell some unexpected Christmas stories in this two part series leading up to the big day.
Spoiler: Santa Claus isn’t real
Apologies for shattering any remaining childhood hopes, but a jolly grandfather figure dressed in red and white riding his reindeer sleigh full of presents through the Christmas sky from the North Pole to your house has never existed.
The legend of Santa Claus can be traced back to a real person though. Saint Nicholas was a Greek monk born in Myra (in modern day Turkey) around 280 A.D. He was known to help the poor and the sick. By the Renaissance he was the most popular saint in Europe, especially in Holland where he was called Sinter Klaas. Sinter Klaas stories reached the other side of the Atlantic with Dutch immigrants and they became more popular when Washington Irving referred to him as the patron saint of New York in his 1809 book ‘The History of New York’.
The invention of the modern Santa Claus is mostly thanks to an 1822 Christmas poem by Clarke Moore, an Episcopal minister. He described a ‘right jolly old elf’ supernaturally descending/ascending the chimney to leave presents to the deserving children. Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist at Harper’s Weekly, gave Santa all his accessories and helpers in 1881, including the red suit with the white fur trim, the North Pole workshop and elves (and not, as widely believed, Coca-Cola).
Of course, multinational companies like Coca-Cola could not help but notice the great marketing opportunity, thereby turning him into a global Christmas icon.
However, mankind’s fear of darkness continues to fuel folk legends in Europe with beasts, goblins and witches very much still present in the popular imagination. Germany’s Krampus is the terrifying counterpart of St. Nicholas; he literally beats the naughty children into being nice.
Krampus appears in many forms, but always terrifying and beast-like. He often carries chains, thought to symbolise the binding of the devil by the Christian church.
Italy’s Befana is a witch who rides a broomstick to deliver presents down the chimney, trying to undo the wrong she did when she gave the wise men wrong directions on their way to the baby Jesus. In Greece and other Balkan countries, little demons called kallikantzaros surface from their underground dwellings at Christmas. They stay on earth until 6 January wreaking trouble and chaos.
In England, Father Christmas was initially a large, merry old man dressed in green assisting with the adult festivities of eating and drinking. He was not connected with children or gift-giving until the Victorian times. Such a figure (though not named Father Christmas) appears in an 1843 John Leech illustration for Dickens’ Christmas Carol.
When it comes to food around Christmas time, we need to take the economic reality of each historical period into account. Fruits that were often dried (like currants) and spices were among the exotic and luxurious goods the trade routes brought to Europe. Spices were particularly precious and used as currency, medicine and preservatives in pre-refrigerator times. The origins of the two most popular sweet Christmas treats in Britain, mince pie and plum pudding, are rather spicy.
Meat was a rare treat for the majority of people, but its consumption around Christmas didn’t just serve a festive function, but also a practical one (and it was mostly a privilege for the well-off, rather than the working class). Animals were killed in autumn as it was difficult to feed them through the winter. Meat was preserved in standing ‘pyes’, also called ‘coffins’ because of their rectangular shape, together with lots of dried fruit and butter.
Similarly, large thick, sweet-sour pottages with spiced meat full of dried fruits were cooked slowly for hours in one big cauldron in medieval houses. By the time of Elizabeth I, prunes were added in such pottages and they came to be known as plum pottage: the direct ancestor of the Christmas plum pudding.
Mince pies and plum puddings became sweeter in the 18th century when sugar was cheaper to buy, arriving from the slave plantations in West Africa in large quantities. By the 19th century, they are featured meat-free in recipes from famous cookbooks’ such as the ‘Author’s Christmas Pudding’ in Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845) and Isabella Beeton’s The Book of Household Management (1861).
The same year that Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, a book that helped to shape the quintessential spirit of Victorian Christmas, the first Christmas card was made. It was a commission by Henry Cole, the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, to J C Horsley. Christmas cards became an overnight sensation, helped by improvements in postal services.
So send the Christmas cards that you keep putting off, wrap the presents, fill your mouth with a sweet mince pie and have yourself a very merry Christmas and happy holidays.
Elissavet is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.