Little Known Victorian Legends of Christmas Past

Originally published in the Smithfield Times magazine.

By Jim Ignasher

 

An old legend explains why robins were once a symbol of Christmas.

     Mention the words “Victorian Christmas”, and all sorts of idyllic images worthy of a Charles Dickens novel come to mind. And speaking of Dickens, we all know his tale, “A Christmas Carol”, but did you ever stop to think that it’s actually a ghost story? Although out of fashion today, telling ghost stories during the Holiday Season was once a popular pastime, as was the telling of ancient Christmas legends. These legends came in all forms. Some were designed to frighten children into being good, while others were more whimsical, or spiritual.  

     For example, every kid today knows the story of Santa Claus, a kindly white-bearded man who brings toys and gifts to good little boys and girls, but more than a century ago children knew a Santa that also carried a switch for whipping those who’d misbehaved. This “Avenging Santa” manifested from ancient legends of evil creatures such as the Krampus, or the witch Frau Perchta, who prowled the world at Christmas time snatching children who’d been bad.

     The European legend of Belsnickle relates to a man dressed in rags who roams the countryside carrying a switch in one hand and a bag of gifts in the other, dispensing both according to each child’s behavior during the previous year.  

     From Iceland comes the legend of the Jolasveinar, thirteen gnome-like creatures that come down from the mountains at Christmas time and play pranks on the populace by hiding things, slamming doors, and harassing pets and farm animals. Bad children were warned about them.

     Another story tells how children who hang their stocking over the fire place on Christmas Eve had better wait until morning to see what Santa brought, lest they find a stocking full of soot and ashes.        

     Before the days of electric lights, the Victorian’s lit their Christmas trees with small candles. There are a few legends surrounding the origins of the Christmas tree, some of which were likely obscure even in the 19th century. One of French origin tells of a thirteenth century knight who beheld a vision of a giant fur tree covered with lighted candles, some upright, others upside down, with the Baby Jesus resting at the top with a halo around his head. The knight asked a priest what it meant, and was told the candles symbolized human beings, both good and bad, and that Jesus was their Savior.

     Another legend, told in an 1885 newspaper, tells of a modern-day Jesus visiting earth on Christmas Eve, and asking a passer-by why people had trees lit with candles in their homes? The man, not realizing who he’s speaking with, explains that it’s Christmas Eve, and that those are Christmas trees, to which Jesus asks “And why is Christmas Eve celebrated? And what is the meaning of the Christmas trees?”      

     In response, the man invites Jesus to his home to eat with his family. After the meal, the man escorts his guest into the living room where a tree adorned with lighted candles stood in a corner. “Heinrich,” said the man to his son, “what is Christmas Eve and why do we plant the Christmas tree?”

     “Because it’s the eve of the birth of Jesus our Lord,” he replied, “and to commemorate His love and sacrifice we plant the Christmas tree and fill it with gifts for one another.”

     The children then sang some carols and Jesus was deeply moved. After blessing them he went on his way with tears of joy in his eyes. It is then the family realizes who their guest was. It is said that where every tear fell a new evergreen sprouted, so that there would always be enough Christmas trees throughout the land.  

     There’s also a legend involving St. Ansgarius explaining why the balsam fir was chosen as the first Christmas tree. Its triangular shape represents the Holy Trinity. It stands as high as hope, as wide as love, and bears the sign of the cross on every bough.  

     The pink Sainfoin flower also figures into Christmas. According to French lore, seeds of this plant were in the straw that lined the crib of Jesus the night he was born. When Jesus was placed in the bed, the seeds suddenly sprouted and grew into flowers that formed a crown about his head.

     In Spain it was said that rosemary gives off its sweet scent at Christmas because Mary hung the tiny frock which she’d used to wrap Jesus on rosemary bushes to dry.        

     Birds are also included in Christmas folklore, and were once a common illustration on early Christmas cards.    

     There’s one legend that tells how the common robin came to have red feathers on its chest. On the night Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a plain brown-feathered Robin sat watching from the rafters of the manger. There was a small fire burning to keep the Holy Family warm, but when they fell asleep the embers died down until just a few faint coals could be seen. Fearing that the baby Jesus would get cold, the robin swooped down and hovered over the coals flapping its wings. In a short time he’d fanned the embers back into flames, but in doing so scorched the feathers on his chest. Despite the pain, the bird continued to keep the fire going until morning. Ever since that night, the bird was no longer a plain brown, and has worn the red fathers as a reward for his gift of warmth.

     People once put bird’s nests in their Christmas trees for it was said they brought good luck.

     And lastly, a nice story called “The Christmas Tree Chair”, which was presented as fact in a 1909 newspaper. There was a man who’d saved the trunk of every family Christmas tree since his daughter was born. After thirteen years, he brought the wood to a furniture maker who created a rustic, but comfortable chair, which was presented to the daughter on Christmas Eve as an heirloom gift of a lifetime.  

     And to all, a good night.

 

 

 

Vintage Christmas Cards Reveal That Santa Didn’t Always Wear Red

Originally Published in the Smithfield Times magazine, December, 2016

By Jim Ignasher  

 

An early Christmas postcard depicting a blue Santa Claus.

     If someone was asked to describe Santa Claus, they would most likely provide a description of Santa as we know him today – a big guy in a red suit, white beard, carrying a sack full of toys, flying in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. However, if the question was posed more than a century ago the answer would be entirely different.

     Santa has appeared in many forms over the years, beginning as a religious figure (St. Nicholas) in the 4th century, before morphing into Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, and finally the “jolly old elf” we know today.  

     The historical evidence can be found in antique Christmas cards produced between the 1870s and the 1920s, which offer an insight as to how Santa Claus has evolved over the last 160 years – give or take a decade. The origin of Christmas cards can be traced to the 1840’s, but it wasn’t until the later part of the 19th century that they became popular. These Victorian seasonal greetings were generally in the form of postcards, and were mass produced in countless designs that made the image of Santa Claus more popular than ever.

     Thomas Nast, an illustrator for Harper’s Magazine during the American Civil War and afterwards is generally credited with giving the world its first glimpse at what Santa might look like. Ironically, his first Santa illustration wasn’t revealed until after Christmas when it appeared on the cover of Harper’s on January 3, 1863. The black and white lithograph depicted Santa sitting in a sleigh pulled by reindeer wearing an outfit that made him look more like an early version of Uncle Sam than Saint Nick. Union troops are standing around the sled, and a banner saying “Welcome Santa Claus” can be seen in the distance.

     However, Nast continued to experiment with Santa’s image after the war, and in 1881 produced what is perhaps his best known version that laid the groundwork for what came later.

     Yet Nast wasn’t the only artist working on Santa’s image, and each had their own ideas as to how the man should appear, beginning with how he was dressed. Some had him in ankle-length heavy coats edged with thick fur, while others showed him wearing a long pull-over hooded garment, while still others depicted him dressed in a plain coat and pants with a red cape or shawl over the shoulders. And artists from Germany, Russia, Poland, and France, sometimes dressed him in the traditional vestments of their countries.

     Santa’s coats came in a multitude of colors, from greens, yellows, reds, and purples, to browns, blues, and even white. To make an observation, white doesn’t seem to make sense considering the guy spent his big night dropping down soot-lined chimneys. Perhaps that’s why many early illustrations depicted Santa’s coat(s) edged with dark fur instead of the bright white we’ve come to know. Santa’s boots and caps also varied in color and style from one artist to the next.    

A purple Santa.

     Despite Mr. Nast depicting Santa in a reindeer-powered sled, it’s interesting to note that many early representations had him walking his way around the world with the aid of a walking stick or cane, often carrying a Christmas tree or lantern in addition to his bundle of toys. And how he carried those toys also differed. Instead of the traditional cloth bag, some pictures show Santa with a large wicker basket strapped to his back, or one being carried by hand. There are other pictures that depict him with a knapsack, or pulling a small toy-laden sled behind him. Yet he eventually got around to the latest technology, for early 20th century images show him utilizing trains, balloons, airships, airplanes, and even flying automobiles, before he apparently decided that reindeer were more reliable for landing on rooftops.

     Some early postcards combined the religious aspect of the season where Santa can be seen making his rounds with a lighted church in the background. In some cases he’s accompanied by an angel, or the Baby Jesus riding on a donkey next to him.        

    One thing that every artist seemed to agree upon was that Santa had a white beard. It was only the length that was in dispute. Some had it nearly to his feet while others thought a short cropped beard was more dignified. As with the clothing, body shape and facial features were open to interpretation. Some depicted Santa as thin, or even gaunt, while others gave him a more rotund look. His face was usually depicted as unsmiling, or even stern, and he seldom wore glasses, but often carried a pipe. The pipe, by the way, didn’t go unnoticed by tobacco companies, who were quick to utilize Santa’s image to promote their products.              

     By the early 1900s the length of Santa’s coat began to grow shorter and it now included silver buttons. (One can wonder if this was more for the comfort of department store Santa’s which were beginning to appear.) Additionally, Santa’s simple rope or cord belt was replaced by a brown or black leather one sporting a shiny buckle.    

A red Santa with dark trim on his clothes.

     It’s generally believed that the “standard” image of Santa Claus that we’ve come to know today is due to the Coca Cola Company. In 1931, artist Haddon Sundblom created an illustration for a new ad campaign depicting a kind-looking, grand-fatherly Santa, wearing the soda company’s traditional red and white colors. The image was an immediate success, and helped solidify in the public’s mind as to what Santa Claus was supposed to look like. Coca Cola may not have invented the red and white Santa-suit combination, but their advertising certainly popularized it, and Santa has been commonly portrayed in that manner ever since.  

     Yet despite contemporary notions, there are many who feel that those “old world” Santa’s had a certain charm, which is why they’re still reproduced as figurines, tree ornaments, and even Christmas cards.

 

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