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.




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