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Christmas: Part the second

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
Saint Nicholas of Myra and Bari, watercolour painting by M. Brindley, 1881.

Saint Nicholas of Myra and Bari, watercolour painting by M. Brindley, 1881.

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.

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Clip from Krampus.

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.

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Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present (illustrated by John Leech) resembles the image of Father Christmas.

Christmas food

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 Great British Bake Off’s Mary-Anne Boermans dipped into our historical recipe manuscripts for some Christmas Inspiration. You can read about her take on mince pies and plum pudding.

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.

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The first Christmas card, designed by John Callcott Horsley in 1843.

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.

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Christmas: Part the first

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.

Pagan beginnings
William Price of Llantrisant (1800-1893) in druidic attire as shown in the Medicine Man gallery

William Price of Llantrisant (1800-1893) in druidic attire as shown in our Medicine Man gallery.

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
Pomanders were often spherical, studded with precious stones or divided into sections for different fragrant substances.

Pomanders were often spherical, studded with precious stones or divided into sections for different fragrant substances.

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.

Pomanders started to appear at Christmas in the 18th century in the form of an orange studded with cloves and other spices.

Pomanders started to appear at Christmas in the 18th century in the form of an orange studded with cloves and other spices.

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.

What would Jesus eat?

For some, Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ; for others, it’s about eating as much food as possible. This month Charlie Morgan looks at a book that manages to combine both.

Angels serve Christ with food after his ordeal in the wilderness

Angels serve Christ with food after his ordeal in the wilderness

Among the many diet books in Medicine Now you can find one called Slim for Him. Often misconstrued as a 1950s ‘lose weight for your husband’ tract, the ‘Him’ of the title actually refers to God – and this is just one of a series of Christian diet books on display in the gallery. As the ever-expanding (no pun intended) weight loss industry collides with a history of religious dietary laws, publications such as God’s Answer to Fat and The Bible Diet (to name just two) are the inevitable result, but what do they actually say? More to the point, what can a religious diet offer that a secular one cannot? To find out, I decided to have a closer look at two of them.

Probably the most eye-catching Christian diet book in Medicine Now is the outrageously titled What Would Jesus Eat? The book starts with the proposition that ‘If you truly want to follow Jesus in every area of your life, you cannot ignore your eating habits,’ and as a Christian you would find it hard to disagree with that. It then proceeds to create a diet around what a historical Jesus Christ may have eaten at the start of the Common Era and, accordingly, the end result is far more archaeological than it is theological. Although recent studies have suggested that the Last Supper might have included delicacies such as grilled eels and orange slices, What Would Jesus Eat? sticks to a modern day ‘Mediterranean’ lifestyle and relies heavily on food such as pomegranates, fish and olive oil. Considering our traditional understandings of first century Galilean Jews, this is hardly surprising. Also unsurprising is the diet’s heavy reliance on bread.

Bread plays a large part in Christian doctrine, both literally and metaphorically. Jesus famously fed five thousand people with nothing but bread and fish, and modern Christians still regularly implore the Lord to ‘give us today our daily bread’. In What Would Jesus Eat? it’s a key foodstuff, and the author Don Colbert writes that not only did it have an ‘important role in the life and teachings of Jesus’ but also ‘Jesus knew that bread was the staple of man’s physical life’. Colbert is critical of some of today’s ‘baker’s loaves’ and suggests Jesus would have eaten something more similar to pitta bread, but overall he gives it positive coverage. When, however, we take a look at another book on display – God’s Diet – we begin to see an element of controversy.

God’s Diet is a very different book to What Would Jesus Eat? As opposed to taking its starting point as somewhere around the start of the Common Era, it goes much further back and bases its recommendations on which foods may or may not have been in the Garden of Eden. Clearly, this very problematic, but it immediately becomes more suspect when the author starts referring to the use of electric whisks and fridges – modern appliances that almost certainly would not have been in any sort of Garden of Eden. It also makes a number of historically incorrect assertions; for example, the book prominently claims that none of our ancestors ever died of clogged arteries, but recent excavations of mummies have revealed that they did indeed suffer from this exact ailment.

Returning to types of food, where God’s Diet notably differs from What Would Jesus Eat? is that it strictly prohibits the consumption of bread. The author states that ‘I bet [Adam and Eve] didn’t bake nicely crusted bread’ and on a list of ‘FOODS YOU CAN’T HAVE’ alongside candy, marshmallows and sweet pickles you can find, in capitalised letters, bread. In one quick move, bread has gone from being portrayed as a food that Jesus almost certainly ate (and so one that we definitely should) to one that Adam and Eve would never touch (and so one that we should also avoid). When one book asks ‘why not [follow Jesus] in our eating habits?’ and the other ‘why not eat just what God provided for us?’ yet neither can agree on where these intersect, the diet-conscious Christian is left in an awkward position.

Using just this one example, the upshot is that ultimately Christian diet books are as varied, confusing and dubious as their secular counterparts. Despite their apparent foundation in religious law, they appear to be much more a product of human desires than of divine rule. God’s Diet’s may continually repeat the mantra that ‘IF GOD DIDN’T MAKE IT, DON’T EAT IT’, but you have to wonder whether the author would still stick to this single rule if it could be somehow proven that Adam and Eve (and, of course, Lilith) ate Big Macs and Snickers Pie in the Garden of Eden. There is then little to suggest that those that live by Christian diet books are doing it for different reasons to those who adhere to Atkins or Cabbage Soup. Furthermore, there is even less to suggest that those writing them are basing them on anything other than widespread assumptions.

So our books might not reach the same conclusions on which diet works best but I think we can all agree that the holiday period really isn’t the time to be worrying about bread. Whatever Christmas means to you, make sure you enjoy some delicious food.

Charlie Morgan is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.