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.


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.


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.


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.


Inspired: Alchemists and housewives around a long table

Sometimes provocative and always interesting, this series of shorter stories can be inspired by pretty much anything in Wellcome Collection and offers a quick insight into some of the themes we explore. This one comes from Elissavet Ntoulia.

Working in a museum that explores the human condition, you develop the skill of spotting connections between elements that at first glance seem to randomly coexist. Sometimes inspiration comes from as trivial a thing as the choice of furniture: a long table in our Reading Room, for example, situated at the centre of a section exploring the themes of Alchemy and Food. Other sections explore only a single theme, like Body or Pain. So why have Alchemy and Food been paired together?

Possible answers are connected to human curiosity for experimentation and the quest to understand the body’s relationship with nature and the wider universe. Continue reading

Object of the month: Eat 22 (An interview with Ellie Harrison)

For one year and one day, commencing on her 22nd birthday on 11 March 2001 and ending on her 23rd, Ellie Harrison photographed everything that she ate. The resulting film and book entitled Eat 22 can currently be seen in Medicine Now. Nearly 12 years after the project was completed, Charlie Morgan spoke to her for Object of the Month.

Ellie Harrison, Eat 22

Ellie Harrison, Eat 22

Ellie Harrison has always been interested in food. When she created Eat 22 it was the first of a wider series of ‘data collecting’ projects in which she painstakingly recorded details of her own life. In 2006 Ellie officially quit data collecting and instead of looking inwards at herself began to use art to look out at “what was going on in wider political and social systems”. Yet despite this she is still drawn back to food as a subject matter. In 2009 she produced Vending Machine, a normal machine reprogrammed to only release crisps when news of the recession came up on the BBC News RSS feed. Through projects like this she is attempting to create a “direct link between wider economic and political events and our food supply” and to examine “the absurd consequences of the capitalist system” of which “the obesity epidemic is one and climate change is another”. It was in the context of this change in approach that I spoke to Ellie about her enduring interest in food.

Charlie Morgan: In Medicine Now, Eat 22 is in a section about obesity, and I know obesity and our relationship to food is something you are interested in now. At the time did you actually think about it in those terms?

Ellie Harrison: No I wasn’t really; it’s funny actually because when I came to the launch at the Wellcome Collection in 2007 I just found it hilarious that my piece of work was right behind the John Isaacs thing. I had never really thought about that piece in relation to obesity, I don’t know whether I took offence at the fact that it had been bunged in the obesity section, I might have done actually at the time! But now I think it makes perfect sense, and actually I’ve just made a film for a project I did called The Other Forecast in which I’m wearing a fat suit because I’m talking about increased rates of obesity.

CM: One thing that I always find interesting is that when people read through the book of Eat 22 they are in a sense just looking at pictures of you eating food, but they also quickly learn quite a lot about where you’re studying, where your family live, where you work and so forth. You produced the book in a sort of diary format but what were your thoughts behind providing that additional information, did you ever think that someone could look through it and piece together bits of your life?

EH: I just wanted to be as thorough as possible when I was doing it, but I guess I always have a sick fantasy that people might look it and piece together bits of my life! I think everybody has that same sick fantasy now; everybody’s publishing information online, everybody sort of hopes that people will be interested in the minutiae of their everyday lives. But I think I was really unconscious of all of that when I was doing it because I was so young and it’s only in hindsight that I’ve thought more about the process of making this private information public and why you would want to do that. I’ve thought about what it might mean perhaps in terms of an attempt for some sort of immortality through documenting something that will live on longer than you do, I mean that’s probably one of the reasons why a lot of artists make work.

I never knew it was going to end up in the Wellcome Collection and I never knew it was going to make the impact that it did. It just seemed to strike a chord with people all over the world who were able to identify with it and it really sort of snowballed in terms of the press coverage that it got. It’s quite weird thinking back on it now because I was a different person then and when I look back at my life, yeah, you can extract all of that information about what I was like then, but I guess I’m quite different now.

CM: You’ve said now you think of yourself as quite young when you produced Eat 22, do you think it was a product of your age?

EH: It was definitely a product of my age but also of technology. I was at university and I learnt how to do basic web design, and also digital cameras were just being released around then. I got one of the earliest digital cameras which was a 0.8 megapixel camera and it seems really backward now, but if it hadn’t have been for those developments in technology I don’t think it would have been possible.

At the time I was a student learning about the internet and it just seemed such an amazing tool for an artist. It was really liberating to be able to communicate directly with an audience in a way that just wasn’t possible before. As an artist working in a more traditional field your fate is in the hands of exhibition curators, critics and others who choose what to show, and I just saw the internet as an amazing tool to bypass all of that, a really democratic way of getting information out.

I was really inspired by that and had all of those things not come together at the same point in my life then it may not have happened.

CM: Just going back to something that you mentioned before when you spoke about the interest in Eat 22 snowballing, did you ever get replies from people doing the same sort of project?

EH: A little bit, on the website there’s a links page to other projects that were happening around the same time. I became aware of other people who were doing similar things and I remember corresponding with quite a lot of them. We had a sort of shared experience because it does have such an impact on your life. It did dramatically change my eating habits and I felt really restricted all the time because I couldn’t go anywhere without the camera. People ask me if I ever cared about what I would eat because it would look bad and that wasn’t ever a concern. It was more a concern with the amount of work involved in processing all the images: that was the biggest thing that was likely to deter me from eating. Everything I ate was more work!

CM: The concerns you had (or didn’t have) lead on to comments we often hear in Medicine Now. Sometimes when people visit the gallery and read Eat 22 they can be quite judgemental about what you eat: the amount you eat, whether or not they think it’s healthy. At the time did you ever become judgemental about yourself?

EH: I never really thought about that at all. I went into it thinking that I could produce a realistic picture of everything that I’d eaten, but it did end up changing what I ate. I think I did have a worse diet then than I have now: because I was a dirty student for half of it! I was eating Pot Noodles, I was eating ice creams and packets of crisps and I never really eat stuff like that now. I think I had a faster metabolism back then!

CM: With regards to eating habits – and this is probably the question we get asked the most in Medicine Now – to what extent did Eat 22 affect your eating habits after the project had finished?

EH: Afterwards, because it was such a novelty to be free and not to be being watched the whole time, I did eat more than I should have done. I think it probably takes about a year to recover, to just go back to normal and to remember what normal is. I wouldn’t recommend it as a diet!

It is useful for creating awareness of what you’re eating and nutritionists do recommend food diaries. But I was reading a blog post today about fad diets and how you can get really into them and they can really work for a short space of time but then there’s always going to be a backlash when you stop, and I think it would be unsustainable to try to attempt to do something like that for ever. It’s always going to end somewhere and there’s always going to be some sort of backlash.

CM: Finally, how did people around you react? Did you end up damaging any friendships as a result of the project?

EH: Not really because it didn’t really impact on other people’s lives in such a massive way. My friends and family took some of the photos but I developed a way of taking a lot of the photos myself.

CM: The original selfies.

EH: Yeah, the original selfies exactly. I discovered that if I turned a pint glass upside down and then I balanced the camera on top of the pint glass I could take a picture of myself on the timer very easily. I probably did a lot more than half of them that way, so I think for everybody else involved it still remained a relative novelty.

Ellie Harrison is currently running the Bring Back British Rail campaign and working on a number of artistic projects. She can be contacted through her website.

Charlie Morgan is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Packed Lunch: Breastfeeding

A mother breastfeeding her child. Wellcome Images

A mother breastfeeding her child. Wellcome Images

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I had a bone to pick as I walked into the Forum for this Packed Lunch on breastfeeding. In January, while on maternity leave, I remember quite clearly reading an article about how it could be harmful to breastfeed babies for too long. There I was in my pajamas, breastfeeding my six-month-old, reading this on my iPhone. Incidentally, I had started introducing fresh fruit and vegetables – actually on Christmas Day – but that was more out of my baby snatching a carrot and a parsnip off my plate than anything else.

The article’s ideas questioned government advice and WHO recommendations, both of which I took quite seriously. At the time, I had enough to worry about without these unknown scientists undermining something I felt proud to have accomplished – giving my baby the best start to life. It wasn’t helped by reading the study had industry funding – I imagined greedy formula and baby food manufacturers rubbing their hands with the publication of this article.

Now, as I sit down, I look around to see if there are any other fuming mothers, ready for a fight. I spot only one mother – breastfeeding happily, I note – and two (visibly) pregnant women. The researcher, Mary Fewtrell from the Institute of Child Health at UCL, sat – somewhat nervously, I thought – waiting to be grilled, no doubt.

And interestingly enough, not five minutes in, she mentions that she wasn’t entirely happy with the billing for this talk – and the representation in the media. She fully supports breastfeeding, she says, and is a member of the NCT and has been a breastfeeding counselor. And as for industry funding, she says apparently that’s quite a normal thing to have – they have no say in experimental design or publication. I still don’t know how I feel about that, to be honest. I’d rather the money come from elsewhere.

So then, what was her motivation for the article, published in the BMJ? If you only read the news, you’d think she was out to undermine all breastfeeding mothers. But Fewtrell says actually, she’s trying to address the lack of data supporting these recommendations. She points out that WHO’s stance, taken in 2001, was based on a systematic review by scientists, who actually also called for more randomized trials. She says she’d rather get more people to even try breastfeeding – because of the very strong evidence over the reduction of risk of infection, in addition to other lesser-supported benefits in brain development, for example – than try and make mothers feel guilty for not meeting a goalpost of 6 months. This makes sense to me.

Fewtrell also made an interesting point in that she says she feels pressure to say the ‘right’ thing when she publishes, to interpret the data in a way that supports something ‘good’. That’s not the way science should work, she says – the data needs to speak for itself, and she can’t bias it. All she can do is try to add to a body of evidence.  This makes sense too.

She’s now undertaking a randomized trial, based in Iceland (where breastfeeding rates are higher). The trial involved women who were still breastfeeding at 4 months, who were then asked to either continue breastfeeding exclusively until 6 months or begin introducing solids alongside breastmilk.

By the end, I felt somewhat mollified. I still have concerns about the way that science can be twisted in the media. In the case of breastfeeding (which isn’t easy at the best of times!), it can be extremely undermining to hear conflicting advice all the time. My baby’s now 14 months, and I feel confident I did the right thing by her – at least on that point. Now I can move on to worrying about her university tuition fees…

An extra yummy Packed Lunch

Donut design. flickr.com/jek-a-go-go

Donut design. flickr.com/jek-a-go-go

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When I heard that the latest Packed Lunch would be on food psychology, I immediately became very hungry. As the hours counted down the thought of ‘packed lunch’ and ‘food’ led me to an extra large helping of fish and chips…and a cheesecake.

Why do I lack such willpower when it comes to food? Is it something inherent in me, or is it the fault of those nasty devils in the kitchen, wafting their delicious smells of steaks and pies across our building? According to Professor Jane Wardle, health psychologist and Director of the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Centre at UCL, it’s a bit of both.

Wardle’s research focuses on the psychological factors influencing obesity.

Weight is highly heritable (we tend to resemble our biological parents), so for years people assumed that weight changes were almost entirely the result of your genes, and there have been several findings to support this. For example, researchers from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and colleagues found that people with a specific variant of a gene called FTO were heavier. But though there have been several headlines about the ‘obesity gene’ over the years, many appear to make only a small amount of difference in weight. It’s likely that a plethora of genes are involved in a web of interactions.  And their influence is likely to be affected by external factors too.

Moreover, the ballooning of obesity cases over the last 25 years belies a purely genetic influence. Such a rapid rise can’t all be due to genetic changes. So what is?

Lifestyle changes have made a difference, as is the rise in convenience foods and 24/7 advertising. And we react strongly to cues like the smell of food (as anyone who’s walked past a bakery will know) – something food outlets actively take advantage of.

Wardle thinks that some people are naturally more “food responsive”, getting more of a kick out of eating than others. These people may therefore be more vulnerable to the presence of a tasty treat or the devilish advertising around them. Be it a sweet or a savoury tooth, some people are more easily affected by external influences and less able to resist temptation.

In one experiment, Wardle gave a group of 8-12 year old children their favourite food for lunch. They were told they could to eat as much as they liked. The kids were then taken to a room to do puzzles – next to a large plate of sweets and biscuits. Again, the kids were told they could eat as many of these as they liked.

The researchers weighed the plate of sweets and biscuits before and after the experiment. Given that the children should have all been full, surely most of the treats would go untouched? The results were surprising. Some kids indeed ate little or none of the food, but others ate a lot. Their relative fullness appeared to have no effect on how much they ate.

Interestingly, the experiment showed that a child’s body weight was a good predictor of how much they would eat: those with larger weights were more likely to eat more, despite being ‘full’.

Wardle theorises that people vary in the strength or recognition of ‘full’ signals in their body: those who have weaker ‘stop’ signals will easily eat more than they need to. And this doesn’t mean they binge on donuts and KFC – the amount that they overstep might just be a small amount each meal, so they don’t notice. But over time this leads to a gain in weight.

Can we find ways to help people notice their internal stop signals, or consciously change their eating behaviours? The only intervention that has worked so far is the rather extreme vertical banded gastroplasty (VBG), also known as stomach stapling. Wardle also warned that, when it comes to dieting, anything that involves mentally resisting temptation is only a short-term fix and does not tend to change long-term behaviour.

One thing Wardle is experimenting with is ‘unconscious training’ using a cognitive task that trains subjects to unconsciously look away from a ‘bad word’. By replacing the words with pictures of food, she is looking at whether a few minutes of brain training could set you up to ignore food temptations for the rest of the day.

In the meantime, what can I do to cut down the calories and resist that mid-afternoon cake break? Wardle ended her talk with a few practical tips:

1)   go for regular meals at the same time and place to reduce impulse eating

2)   make each meal gradually healthier

3)   make them gradually a little smaller

4)   weigh yourself every day and plot this on a graph so you can track your progress.

I’m putting away that Mars bar right now…