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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.

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A drop in the ocean: In the old asylums

‘Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’ interrogates the original ideal that the asylum represented – a place of refuge, sanctuary and care – and asks whether and how it could be reclaimed. This blog series intends to showcase as many different voices and perspectives from people with lived experience of mental ill health and explore their ideas of personal asylum.

This post is from David Beales, an artist and writer who showed work in Bethlem Gallery’s ‘Reclaiming Asylum’ exhibition. In his own words, David confronts the issue of prejudice against the mentally ill by using informative illustration and captions to raise awareness of the problems confronting the mentally ill in the community.

 

Industrial Therapy

Industrial Therapy | Patients could make a few extra pounds a week by working in the industrial therapy department. Some preferred this to sitting idly on the ward.

Though there were overcrowded dormitories in the old asylums and patients were caught in a poverty trap, usually inmates for life, it was not all grim. The food may have been overcooked, but it was at least regular and on time. In one hospital I remember (and they tended to be similar) there were films in the hall on Wednesday afternoons: pre-war black and white films, ghostly projections on a large, old roll down screen, with the dated dialogue and classical music soundtrack adding to the eerie effect.

A percussion band performed on the hall stage on Thursdays. A woman played what sounded a bit like slowed down stride music, a melodic improvisation on an upright piano, while the members of the band played triangle, clappers and tambourines. Patients from the locked geriatric and senile dementia wards, some ambulant, a few in wheelchairs, were led or pushed by nurses to the hall to sit on tubular steel and Formica chairs in the hall and spend some time away from the ward.

There was a games night when the tables and chairs were brought out in the main hall so that patients could play draughts, chess, snakes and ladders, or dominoes. In another hospital there was bingo night where patients could win a loose cigarette or a bar of chocolate for a line; a bag of five loose cigarettes for a house.

The hospitals interacted too. There were evening skittles matches against teams from other hospitals and in the summer there were cricket matches or a summer fete on the cricket pitch; at one time there were prizes for painting, drawing, cakes, jam and tapestry. There were yearly trips to the seaside. Coaches were hired and patients were each given 50p spending money by a member of staff who doled out the coins from a bag as he walked up and down the aisle of the coach.

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Guy Ward | There was little privacy in the dormitory, often there were no curtains around the beds.

There was camaraderie in the Guy ward dormitory, where the introductory conversations, and paranoid inquisitions that accompanied Terry Burns’ referral to that ward, subsided and metamorphosed into impromptu group therapy sessions. These were mainly for Terry’s benefit as he confronted his anxieties. The few of us who could hold a conversation patiently let him talk; we were his audience and confidantes. His anger burnt out as he found some stability and was able to drink without becoming aggressive, and confront and conquer his prejudices to find some stability and contentment before drinking on medication brought despair again.

Though patients in the old asylums often lived in terrible conditions, they left the psychiatric units with more beds and staff. The staff, when they could rely on the psychiatric hospitals to take chronically ill patients, consequently had more time to help patients suffering from anorexia, agoraphobia and post manic phase depression.

A patient who was admitted because they suffered from agoraphobia would be encouraged by a nurse to take a few steps outside the ward. When the patient had managed to take more steps down the drive leading to the ward, they were encouraged to walk to the phone box under a covered walkway a make a phone call. As they gained confidence they were encouraged to walk to the shops with the nurse so they could do some shopping. The rewards were also practical, preparing the patient for their return to the community.

I saw a patient suffering from anorexia nervosa kept in isolation, except for a nurse posted outside her side room door while she slowly reached a target weight. She was rewarded with a trip to the day room. When she reached the next target weight she was, like the agoraphobic patient, rewarded with a trip to the shops.

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A Day Room | In 1980 patients recieved £7 a week. Pensioners were given just £2 pounds a week or in some cases nothing as it was thought that the hospital took care of their needs.

Patients suffering from bi-polar disorder could rest and recover after a manic episode on the wards. The elderly bereaved, often men who had relied on their wives and had to learn living skills, used to be able do this in occupational therapy departments. These treatments may still be available, but for fewer patients than in the past. There were day hospitals, day units and occupational therapy departments for day patients, inextricably closed along with the large hospitals.

Day patients seem to be a thing of the past. Instead, patients in the community are left unmonitored in the community, sometimes in squalor, sometimes even sleeping rough or ending up in prison.

Before the hospitals were closed, the psychiatric units could operate a walk-in open door policy on week days. Patients could see the day hospital nurse and if they thought you were ill you might see a duty doctor on the same day. Now there are more patients but fewer beds. Now there are waiting lists.

Patients now may have to wait months before they can see a psychiatrist, and then find that there are no day resources in the area, no beds free and little the doctor can do besides prescribe tablets and refer the patient to cognitive behavioural therapy. This may be a course of half a dozen one-hour sessions with a therapist; hardly enough time for in-depth psychoanalysis.

Film above made for the Bethlem Gallery: David speaks to Michaela Ross about his work.

It is easier to identify the problems than to solve them. The recent announcement that there will be no increase in the amount of money the government can give the NHS means that there will be no reinstatement of day resources for the mentally ill.

Some patients have for a while, years in fact, attended user led initiatives. Art workshops like Centrepieces at Hall Place in Bexleyheath and Cool Tan Arts in Southwark. Or the Dragon Café, where patients meet at the crypt of St George the Martyr in Borough High Street, also in Southwark. It was started by Sarah Wheeler, to whom the book that accompanies Wellcome Collection’s exhibition, Mike Jay’s Bedlam: This Way Madness Lies, is dedicated.

Pictures from another art workshop, the Italian La Tinaia collective formed in 1975 in a disused hospital farmhouse by healthcare professionals, can be seen in the exhibition and book. Hopefully these will inspire others to start similar projects. They do not have to be art focussed. Drop-ins would help and why not ask community centres and churches if they can help? After all, someone got permission to use the crypt of St George’s church in Southwark to use the premises.

Day resources can provide sanctuary, refuge, asylum and respite from a world that seems to increasingly care less about the plight of the care in the community patient as time marches on.

David writes about these and other subjects in his book The Road to the Asylum about the mental health service, bohemian South London in the seventies and the casualties of society who often ended up in the old asylums.

Bedlam: the asylum and beyond‘ is on until 15 January 2017.

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Strike a pose: Performance categories

This blog series guides you through a brief history of ballroom culture and voguing. From the beginnings in New York to modern voguing and performance categories, Duane Nasis explores this dance culture.

Initially conceived as ‘posing’, Vogue performance as we know it today has developed into three distinct styles which, in competition, are mutually exclusive. Continue reading

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Strike a pose: The international ballroom scene

This blog series guides you through a brief history of ballroom culture and voguing. From the beginnings in New York to modern voguing and performance categories, Duane Nasis explores this dance culture.

“I want to take voguing to Paris, and make the real Paris burn,” declared Willi Ninja in 1990’s ‘Paris is Burning’. Almost a generation later and Paris has one of Europe’s most vibrant and authoritative ballroom scenes cultivated and nourished from the start by Lasseindra Ninja.

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Strike a pose: UK Vogue

This blog series guides you through a brief history of ballroom culture and voguing. From the beginnings in New York to modern voguing and performance categories, Duane Nasis explores this dance culture.

When voguing came to the UK it was entering an environment with its own multifaceted history of subversive cultural practices. From cabaret and pantomime to glam rock and punk, Britain’s relative acceptance of queerness meant that social tensions tended towards lines of class rather than race, which was crucial to the DNA of New York ballroom.

However, a direct link between subversive youth culture and New York ballroom was forged when iconoclast Malcolm McLaren, an early adopter of hip-hop and Chicago House, teamed with Willi Ninja on the track ‘Deep in Vogue’ released in 1989 (a year before Madonna’s infamous ‘Vogue’).

By this point early vogue houses in the UK had already formed by professional dancers who travelled extensively to and from New York, but who were consigned to perform in the exclusive arena of private events and fashion shows rather than evolving within the clubs, which hindered growth.

Over two decades after the release of ‘Deep in Vogue’ there is now a ballroom culture developing in London rooted in club culture and nourished by UK & European chapters of iconic New York Houses such as Kahn, Lanvin, Milan, Mizrahi, Ninja, Revlon, UltraOmni, and Magnifique.

Members of the London Ballroom Scene and friends will be performing at Friday Late Spectacular: Body Language on Friday 4 November.

Duane Nasis is an Old Way Voguer and Art Director, who creates and develops concepts for various moving image projects from stop-motion animation and commercials to music videos. 

Featured image: House of Child, Pam Hogg ‘School for Scandal’ fashion show c. early 90s

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Strike a pose: Vogue’s emergence

This blog series guides you through a brief history of ballroom culture and voguing. From the beginnings in New York to modern voguing and performance categories, Duane Nasis explores this dance culture.

By the 80s, aside from evolving to become a mecca for gay and trans People Of Colour, the ballroom scene in Harlem had developed it’s own unique set of performance conventions.

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