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.
A painting in our Medicine Man gallery shows a man in a field with a long white beard, dressed flamboyantly in a green tunic and trousers and a ‘shaman’ style fox-skin headdress. He was William Price, an eccentric Welsh doctor attracted to the cult of Druidism, something that was very popular in Wales in the Victorian era. Fleeing to Paris to escape capture for his activity in the Chartist movement, he claimed that the engravings of a 2,000 year old stone in the Louvre had ‘spoken’ to him revealing that his first born son would become a Druid Messiah.
For the druids, as well as for the pagan Scandinavians and Germanic people of northern Europe, the coming of the winter solstice was one of the most significant moments of the year and many Christmas traditions can be traced back to it. On 21 December, the ancient Celtic festival of Alban Arthuan marked the celebration of both the shortest day of the year and the rebirth of the sun. During this mid-winter celebration (also known as Yule) the practice of burning the Yule log was carried out to honour the Great Mother Goddess while the Yule tree was decorated, usually with pines symbolising stellar entities which hold important significance for pagans.
Evergreen trees were brought in the house, holding the promise of the eventual coming of spring because of their perseverance through winter. The habit of decorating evergreens persisted with the advent of Christianity, where apples with their biblical associations were preferred as decorations. Prince Albert’s German upbringing and the image of the Royal family around a Christmas tree cemented this tradition as part of the holiday in Britain and subsequently in the US.
The druids venerated the sacred oak tree and the mistletoe that grows rarely as a parasite on it. Gathered at both solstices, the mistletoe was used to make an elixir to cure infertility and the effect of poisons. Its mystical associations passed on to the Greeks and into the Middle Ages when it was hung from the ceiling as protection against evil spirits and witches.
Despite the milder climate of southern Europe, December was also a month of celebration as expressed in the Roman festival of Saturnalia. It started on 17 December and included the celebration of the birth of the sun god Mithras on 25 December. Kissing under the mistletoe may have been first found at Saturnalia because of the strong associations of the mistletoe with fertility, but what we know with more certainty is that some centuries later the mistletoe offered the perfect excuse for Victorian men and women to show public affection to their loved ones without causing a moral outcry.
As Christianity spread, and despite the fact that Jesus had most probably been a spring baby, the pagan traditions practiced for centuries were too many to be ignored and so the Church chose December to officially celebrate his holy birth.
Pomanders: smells like Christmas
The Christmas period is well known for stimulating the senses, with taste and smell taking central stage. The sweet aroma of oranges and the intriguing scent of spices awaken loving childhood memories in most of us today, but in plague-stricken Europe they were literally considered life saviours.
According to the miasma theory, disease could travel through bad air so being surrounded by pleasant odours acted as a protective shield. Carrying a pomander on the belt or around the neck was favoured by both men and women and the wealthier the person the more elaborate the design of the pomander. The word pomander (meaning an apple of amber, from the French pomme d’ambre) can apply both to a ball of fragrant substances and its container. Some pomanders had a spherical shape and, when opened, would reveal different sections, similar to an orange cut into pieces, into which its wearer would place several different scents.
By the 18th century, pomanders took the form that we recognise today: an orange studded with cloves and other spices and it made its appearance during Christmas time. Citrus fruits’ essential presence at festive celebrations also has to do with their colour: resembling the rich hue of gold and other precious things, oranges and tangerines have been regarded as tokens of prosperity, wealth and luck in Europe, US, China and Japan.
The story of the gold left by St Nicholas in three poor girls’ stockings drying by the fireplace (in order for them to get happily married) may have something to do with the tradition of placing the fruit in Christmas stockings today.
In the next Christmas post you’ll find out more about St Nicholas, the saint behind Santa Claus, as well as the history of some British Christmas treats.
Elissavet is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.