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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

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’. Continue reading

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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

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. Continue reading

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.