Fantabulous Festive Facts

I don’t know about you, but I believe in keeping Christmas traditional. That is to say, spend the entire festive period in a food-and-alcohol-based stupor, slumped in front of the television watching Doctor Who at the family home while the sis screeches like a banshee.I was most pleased with the presents I received this year and, I hope, so were my folks. Londonwise, I was given the book Mother London by Michael Moorcock, which is one of the great London novels, and a history of Eel Pie Island in Twickenham. Eel Pie Island is one of the strangest places in London, if not the strangest, and I really need to write an entry about it one of these days.

The marvellous thing about working in London is that Christmas shopping is really easy. Bloomsbury and environs have an abundance of shops ideal for unique presents. The Ma’s present came from Persephone Books in Lamb’s Conduit Street. Persephone, which I have mentioned before in these pages, is an independent bookshop/publisher which specialises in excellent nineteenth and twentieth century books by female authors that have gone out of print. The Sis’ present came from the Bloomsbury branch of Waterstones, which has an extensive selection of history books. The Sis is a fan of historical stuff, you see. I ended up having a pleasant conversation about London history with the shop assistant. It’s nice to meet a shop assistant who really knows their stuff – the bro tells me he had a frustrating time with one of the staff at Waterstones in Richmond, whose spelling was so atrocious that she couldn’t find any of the books he was trying to find (searching on the system for Evlin War’s Vyle Bodys and Ernest Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Armes apparently drew a blank). The Bro’s present came from Gosh! Comics opposite the British Museum, which to my mind is one of the best comic shops in London if not the best, particularly if you’re looking for indie and classic stuff. The only present I couldn’t find in Bloomsbury was the Da’s, which was an antique Hornby Dublo (that’s “train set” to you) railway carriage – I found it on a model railway dealer’s stall in Tolworth.

But I’m sure you didn’t come here to read about me (although if you did, thanks!). Here, in lieu of something more London-based, are some Festive Facts I’ve accumulated over the years.

  • Thomas Nast's depiction of Merry Old Santa.Despite what they may want you to think, Coca-Cola did not invent the modern depiction of Santa Claus. Rather, the modern version of Santa Claus is an amalgam of many different winter gift-givers, dating back to Odin and the Tree-Father of Norse mythology. The tradition of leaving out carrots and hay for Odin’s flying horse in exchange for gifts was absorbed, along with many other Yule traditions, into the European version of the Christian festival of Christmas. The Christian Saint Nicholas (or Sinterklaas), a man famous for his generosity, came to be identified with this gift-giving tradition. In the nineteenth century, this gift-giver was merged with the Danish elf Tomte and the British Father Christmas. Contrary to popular belief, Father Christmas and Santa Claus are not quite the same person – Father Christmas was traditionally a personification of Christmas rather than a gift-giver (like Old Father Time or Old Father Thames). He was traditionally depicted as a huge man in fur-lined green robes – think the Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol – although Yr. Humble Chronicler has seen Victorian pictures of him in red and blue robes. The various elements of the Christmas gift-giver were ultimately assembled in America as a result of immigration from all over Europe.
  • If any one man can be said to have created the modern Santa, that man is Thomas Nast. Nast was one of the great American cartoonists, who can also be credited with creating the Republican elephant, the Democratic donkey and the modern image of Uncle Sam among other potent symbols. His version of Santa, shown just above there, was drawn in 1863 for Harper’s Weekly. It incorporated elements of the jolly fat elf seen in the legends of Tomte and The Night Before Christmas with the larger-than-life Brian Blessed-esque Father Christmas and the white beard and red robes of Sinterklaas. While Haddon H. Sundblom’s Coca-Cola portrait of Santa is a fine piece of festive artwork, it’s just one of a number of Nast descendents. If one were to be cynical (which I never am, of course), one might point out that it’s a pretty fine piece of corporate brainwashing to make people associate the pleasant feelings of their childhood Christmases with the great taste of Coca-Cola. And yet even though I know this, I’ve got a glass of Coke at my elbow right now.
  • The Christmas tree is another pagan tradition absorbed into Christmas, originating with the story of Odin hanging from the bough of an oak tree. These pagan origins are acknowledged in Christian lore. Saint Boniface supposedly came across a bunch of pagans worshipping at an oak tree and, being a total buzzkill, he cut it down. He then found a pine sapling growing among the roots, which he took as a symbol of the rightness of Christian faith (I think if I was a pagan, I would have taken this as a sign that Odin can’t be cut down so easily, but there you go). The evergreen is a potent sign of everlasting life, which of course is very much a Christan thing. Contrary to popular belief, the Christmas tree was not introduced to Britain by Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria. In fact, it was introduced by King George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte. Victoria and Albert, however, did popularise the tree by being depicted around it in engravings published at the time.
  • The tradition of the Christmas turkey is, as you might imagine, an American custom. In medieval England, a peacock or boar was preferred. At some point between the medieval era and the nineteenth century, goose became the popular Christmas bird in Britain. Norfolk is the great poultry-farming region of Britain, and before the arrival of the railways the geese had to be physically walked from Norfolk to London. For this, the birds were fitted with dear little shoes to protect their feet. And no, I have no idea how one herds geese, which are not exactly pack animals nor especially docile (they are regarded by poultry farmers as being better than guard dogs).
  • A common observation made around Christmas time is that the mince pie – a favourite in Britain around Christmas – does not contain mince.  Stranger still, the spicy, fruity substance that fills the pie is known as “mincemeat.” In fact, in the medieval era, mincemeat did indeed contain minced meat. It was common for sweet and savoury substances to be mixed in the medieval banquet – for instance, sugary comfits were often used to decorate joints of meat. The spices were also believed to help preserve the meat. I’ve not come across this theory in any of my sources, but one might also suggest that if the meat had gone off, the fruit and spices would disguise the taste. In the nineteenth century, actual meat was removed from the recipe, but beef suet remained. Tastes changed, and eventually people realised that beef fat and fruit were totally gross together.

So, in conclusion, may I wish you a very happy remains-of-Christmas. I advise you to continue eating and drinking as much as possible – you can feel guilty about it in January.

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Filed under 18th century, 19th century, 20th Century, Arts, Bloomsbury, Booze, Churches, Current events, Food, Geography, History, Literature, London, Medieval London, Not even trying to be on-topic, Only loosely about London, Rambling on and on, Randomness, Shopping, Weird shops, West End

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