Tag Archives: christmas

What the heck is Boxing Day, anyway?

Christmas has thus far been a 100% success, and now I’m settling down for the traditional Boxing Day power-down. Many will be out in the sales, fighting for bargains. Personally, I’m a bit old-fashioned, and treat the whole thing as basically “like Christmas Day, only more mellow.” If my choice is between fighting my way up Oxford Street and sitting around eating turkey and drinking port, you know which one I’m going for.

Boxing Day is a holiday that only really exists in Britain and Commonwealth countries, and seems to mystify those from other countries. It’s really quite simple. It’s a bank holday to help you recover from Christmas. It falls on the Feast of Stephen, when Good King Wenceslas looked out (there was nothing on TV except the Bond movie, and he’d already seen Live and Let Die like ten times).

I’ve heard alternative theories as to the origin of the name. One is that it was the day when boxing matches were held. While there are many sporting events traditionally held on 26th December, including boxing in Italy and several African countries, this explanation has been dismissed by experts as “like totally retarded.” Another is that it’s when the churches broke open their poor boxes for distribution to the needy, or put boxes out for collections. However, the explanation that seems most widely accepted is that it was when households would distribute Christmas gifts of trinkets, food or money – to servants. The name seems to have first appeared in the seventeenth century, when earthenware boxes were the favoured containers. Such servants would largely be household staff, but later on this expanded to include postmen, chimney sweeps and anyone else who had helped the household during the year. Through the twentieth century, households grew smaller, employing fewer servants. Technological innovation also made running a house less labour-intensive, so the tradition of Christmas boxes died out. Except… not entirely. It’s still common to give a little something to your dustman, paper boy, secretary etc., only we don’t call it “boxing” any more.

Although Boxing Day is a largely British and Commonwealth phenomenon, it’s also a Christian festival. St Stephen’s Day also falls on the 26th, and various countries have their own ways of marking the occasion. In Ireland, there’s the Feast of the Wren, when groups of revellers would go from door to door, singing and dancing and carrying a dead wren on a stick. Feathers from this wren were supposed to be a charm against shipwreck. Latterly, a live or fake wren has been used instead, because seriously, guys. In Catalonia, there is a feast where local cuisine as well as the remains of the Christmas feast are served, which sounds more like my kind of party. Returning to Britain, the tradition in Wales was to flog your female servants with branches of holly for no reason. Ironically, there are no celebrations in Serbia, the country for which St Stephen is the patron saint.

I’m not sure exactly when it became this horrendous shopping day, but quite frankly I cannot be arsed with that sort of thing. I did my struggling through the shops in the week before Christmas and have no desire to repeat the experience.

Therefore, my plan is to continue with the gluttony and materialism until I pass out, before going for the traditional Quiet Pint with Friends. Merry Christmas, chums.

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Oh yes it is

Pantomime is one of those British Christmas institutions as traditional as mince pies and the Doctor Who special (incidentally, did you see it yesterday? So good). It’s one of those things that’s a little bit difficult to explain to someone unfamiliar with the concept – it’s a play usually based on a fairy tale, but there are jokes and songs and you usually have a famous man dressed as a woman or a famous woman dressed as a man and at some point everyone is contractually obliged to shout “Oh no it isn’t!” followed by “Oh yes it is!” The whole thing should be very camp and self-aware and strive to avoid major innovation. Basically, it’s pretty much the opposite of conventional theatre. As I sit here with my Boxing Day breakfast (two slices of stollen, a Stilton sandwich, coffee festived-up with brandy butter), it might be nice to look into the history of this weird art.

And no, he wasn't short of work when he did this.

Although it’s come to be known as a peculiarly British phenomenon, the origins of pantomime go back to the ancient Greeks, who regarded it as something to keep the plebs happy. Lots of singing, dancing and vulgar humour, but Serious Dramatists considered it utterly beneath their contempt.

Similar forms of entertainment survived into Britain in the eighteenth century, which is when the story of modern pantomime really begins. To understand this early-modern panto, you have to understand a bit about theatre of that era.

You’d have more than one show on the bill. There would be a formal play (or ballet, or opera), what you or I would normally think of when we go to the theatre. But there would also be something more populist beforehand as a warm-up act, something with lots of jokes and songs to grab the audience’s attention and get them on the performers’ side. Audiences in those days would openly and loudly talk during the show, the wealthy would parade around, orange peel would be thrown, people would come and go as they pleased and it was not unknown for the performers to be heckled so much that they would change the bill right there and then. The opener was, yes, a pantomime.

Pantomimes were deliberately formulaic. They had to be instantly understandable to everyone. No matter what the story, they featured a stock set of characters and devices and – this was significant – no dialogue. Licensing laws were strict. Pantomime performers were not regarded as true actors and so, by that rather snobbish logic, could not be licensed to perform spoken drama. There were various cheats – you couldn’t speak, but you could sing, you could write on a big board, you could rhyme. And nobody paid much attention to a couple of words here and there. But really, it was down to instantly recognisable conventions and physical performers to carry the thing.

Mr Joseph Grimaldi

The inventor of the modern pantomime is often regarded as the legendary clown, Joseph Grimaldi, seen right. He was undoubtedly the first modern clown, and really deserves an entry in his own right. His father (of the same name) was also a brilliant clown, part-time dentist and utter bastard. Young Joey was raised by a father who was physically and emotionally abusive to the point of psychosis (for instance, Grimaldi pere once faked his own death just to see if his sons really loved him). Grimaldi Junior was plagued by depression and insecurity throughout his life – he would often joke that “I make you laugh at night, but I am grim-all-day.” He invented modern clown makeup, and it’s psychologically interesting that a man so uncomfortable with himself should transform himself so completely for the stage. In comedy, he found a means of feeding his insatiable need for affection, and so it’s no surprise that he became a popular and beloved performer.

His first great pantomime triumph was Mother Goose in 1806. To call him the “inventor” of modern pantomime is to unfairly deprive everyone else of well-deserved credit. It was actually created as a last-minute thing. Thomas Dibden was the usual author of Christmas pantomimes for Covent Garden Theatre, but that year, nobody had thought to approach him. It was only a few short weeks before curtain-up that the theatre’s management asked him, “So, how’s this year’s panto coming along?” Panicked, Dibden wrote a low-tech panto requiring no elaborate special effects or routines, tailored for a short rehearsal period.

The resulting show was far better than anyone could have hoped – helped by a clever script and Grimaldi’s naturalistic physical comedy. It was wildly popular, running right until the following Christmas. And so it became the standard model for the pantomimes that followed.

Quite apart from the actual merits of the show, pantomime became a far less restricted form of performance than conventional theatre. Being regarded as low art, the censors didn’t pay much attention. Satire and sexual innuendo were standard, the latter generally coming from the panto dame. The dame, being a man in drag, could get away with lewdness that an actual woman couldn’t. Similarly, the convention of having the principal boy played by a woman was largely so that you could legitimately have a woman showing her legs off.

Other traditions were added and removed over the years. The characters became less rigidly “stock” as the ban on spoken pantomime was abandoned, though the principal boy and the dame remained. The panto horse, two actors in a silly animal costume, became another standard element. The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, pioneered the use of celebrities as a draw in the late 19th century.

These days, it’s regarded as something for the kids – innuendo is still an element, of course, but it goes straight over the children’s heads. If it doesn’t, well, they’re already corrupted anyway.

It’s also regarded as a means for keeping B-list celebs in the limelight, though lately a lot of really quite legit celebrities have been trying their hand, partly I suspect because it’s fun. The picture above is from the Wimbledon pantomime last year, which boasted Pamela Anderson, Paul O’Grady, Ruby Wax and BRIAN BLESSED! in its cast. Sir Ian McKellen enjoys a good panto, as seen up top there, and BRIAN BLESSED! and Christopher Biggins are well-known for hamming it up on an annual basis.

The big ones in London these days are Wimbledon and Hackney. Wimbledon tends to do the big star-studded shows, while Hackney aims for something resolutely traditional but critically acclaimed. However, most reasonably-sized theatres outside the West End will put a show on, and they do tend to do pretty well. The glory days of pantomime are certainly not… wait for it… behind us!

No? Oh, please yourselves. Merry Christmas, chums.

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The Bloomsbury Christmas

A common complaint levelled against Britain is the weather. Speaking personally, I don’t mind it. I’m a cold-weather person myself. When it gets hot I either tend to get snappy and irritable or – to the relief of all – suffer from heat stroke. I overheat incredibly easily. In short, cold = good. What I’ll agree on, though, is that we tend to get our weather at the wrong time. We’ll get a sudden heatwave in September, or a week of rain in August. Most irritating of all is our snow. This never comes when it should, at least not in London. When we get proper snow (that is, snow that lies on the ground as opposed to the lame five-minute flurry that melts on impact), it’ll usually be in February or November or some other time when it does nothing but annoy.

Despite numerous Hollywood portrayals of rosy-cheeked carol singers huddled under a gas lamp in the snow at Christmas time (oh, hey Bridget Jones’ Diary, I didn’t see you there), white Christmases don’t really happen here. Of all the major population centres of Britain, we have by far the lowest number of white Christmases. The highest, by the way, is Aberdeen. This is largely due to the fact that London is a city of seven million people, countless animals and God-only-knows how many machines and electrical devices, all of which produce heat. And I’m afraid to say, all you people who live in less populous and colder climes who put money on it this year, white Christmases are measured from London (if a snowflake lands on the roof of the London Weather Centre on 25th December, it’s officially a white Christmas). Also, unlike many of its neighbours, Britain is warmed by the Gulf Stream, making white Christmases even less likely. Bing Crosby can dream all he likes. So.

That meant that last Monday, when we not only had snow but had it lie, was particularly unusual. I love the snow. I think it’s one of those rare occasions when it’s justifiable to regress to childhood. Others being Halloween, Christmas and birthdays, if your childhood involved heinous amounts of alcohol (mine did).

Unfortunately, not everyone agrees. There’s always a lot of moaning when it starts snowing. And yeah, okay, it delays the trains and means a lot of places have to close, but still, snoooooow! I mean, come on, at least it gives you an excuse not to go into work.

Oh, and inevitably we had the papers getting all snarky about claims that trains were held up because the snow was too fluffy. The media, of course, like this sort of thing because it means they can sneer at the railways. In fact, fluffy snow is not a stupid excuse. The reason fluffy snow causes so much trouble on the railways is that the flakes are small and light enough to get sucked in through electric trains’ air intakes and thus into the workings. AND NOW YOU KNOW.

In the meantime, here are some photos I took around Bloomsbury and environs before the snow started to melt.

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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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