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Subject: ‘Christmas’

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Saint Boniface gave pagans the first Christmas tree

Posted in Christmas, Customs, Historical articles, History, Religion, Saints on Wednesday, 26 February 2014

This edited article about Saint Boniface first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 571 published on 23 December 1972.

Saint Boniface,  picture, image, illustration
Saint Boniface, Saxon Missionary, shown cutting down "Thunderer's Oak" which was sacred to the god Woden, by Michael Godfrey

There is no doubt that many of the customs which we observe around Christmas time belong to religions that are much older than Christianity. In the bleak northern lands, from which so many of our ancestors came, Midwinter’s Day, which falls in the same week as our Christmas, was always a time of strange rites and festivities. Some say that it is from the old Norse legends that the popular figure of Father Christmas comes, for he is really a memory of the old god Woton (who we also remember in “Wednesday” – Woton’s day) driving across the winter storm clouds in his sleigh! The decoration of the house with evergreens, the lighting of candles, the burning of the yule log, are all signs of the promise of the returning Spring, and the hope of longer days of sunshine.

All this has since been linked up with our Christmas festivity, and is as harmless and enjoyable today as it was long ago. But these old pagan religions had a darker side which, happily, we have long since abandoned. In very ancient times people had the idea that the gods and goddesses who controlled such vital things as the sun and rain, thunder and lightning, or a successful harvest, were often jealous and angry. They had to be soothed and coaxed, and even fed with delicacies, and the best way of doing this was by offering them sacrifices. Of the offerings made to the gods, the most terrible of all was that of living people, for there were some who believed that only the death of a human person was enough to win the favour of these terrible forces. Many a family must have gone in terror of losing one of its members in this way, through the mistaken demands of their priests and rulers.

Human sacrifice lasted far longer in Northern Europe than it did in the lands to which Christianity had spread. Not much more than a thousand years ago it was still being practised in parts of Scandinavia and Germany. These were still wild, uncivilised lands, which neither the law of the Roman empire nor the influence of the Christian religion had yet reached.

It was no wonder that the bravest of men hesitated when they were asked to go to such places and preach the Christian message of peace and love. It was left in the end to an Englishman from Devon to make the “breakthrough.” Born at Crediton in about 680 A.D., his original name was Wynfrith. “Boniface” was a nickname, and had nothing to do with his appearance; it is the Latin for “doer of good.”

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Father Christmas receives thousands of letters from children

Posted in Christmas, Customs on Wednesday, 26 February 2014

This edited article about Christmas first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 571 published on 23 December 1972.

Victorian Christmas Card,  picture, image, illustration
Victorian children posting letters to Father Christmas

“Dere Santa Claus, please could you bring me a pram for my doll Patsy, what you brort me last Krismas. She is growing now, and I can hardly carry her.”

That letter was just one among the many thousands addressed to Father Christmas last December. Indeed, the immense amount of mail handled by post offices all over the world, just before Yuletide, invariably includes a substantial number of requests intended for him.

Bearing such fanciful addresses as Icicle Palace, Fairyland, Reindeer House, or Toyland, as well as less imaginary places like the North Pole, Greenland, Lapland, or Eskimoland, the correspondence comes from children who are not content with the old custom of calling to him up the chimney. Instead they write to him, describing the gifts they would like him to bring on Christmas Eve, and then pop the letter into a postbox.

The London headquarters of Britain’s postal service alone deals with about 10,000 such items each Christmas. They are even more widely known in the U.S.A., and the post office regulations there include definite instructions for dealing with Father Christmas’s fan mail.

All these letters are opened and read. Any which indicate poverty are handed to charities founded for its relief. Private benefactors, as well as members of the charities, are asked to assume the role of Santa, ensuring that no needy child writing to him shall have its hopes go unanswered.

Altogether, about 250,000 requests of this sort are found in the mail throughout America each December. A separate section of the postal laws requires every postmaster in the country to take all due care of the correspondence, and to see that it is dealt with in the way just described.

In other words, every postmaster in the U.S.A. is an official agent of Santa Claus, and no matter what the address on a letter intended for him, delivery is usually effected.

In Britain, the fate of Father Christmas missives depends on whether they bear the sender’s address or not. If they do, they are returned as “undeliverable.”

The remainder are usually destroyed, but this doesn’t mean that the post office staff are heartless. When an exceptionally pathetic letter to Santa Claus has been opened, postal workers have jointly bought the wanted gift and delivered it with a note “from Santa,” if the child has quoted his or her address.

Returned letters often achieve their purpose, too, for in this way parents are made aware of the present which will give the most delight.

Correspondence addressed to Father Christmas sometimes contains advice to help him. One young “fan” feared that Santa might enter the wrong chimney, so a carefully drawn picture of the house roof was enclosed, with an arrow pointing to the correct one!

Another thoughtful boy finished his letter with a little sum showing clearly the total cost of the presents he wanted.

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The American professor who reinvented a jolly Santa Claus

Posted in America, Christmas, Customs, Historical articles, History, Literature, Saints on Wednesday, 26 February 2014

This edited article about Christmas first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 571 published on 23 December 1972.

Dr Clement Moore,  picture, image, illustration
Dr Clement Moore reading his Christmas poem to his children

Yuletide without Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, as we often call him, would be a sorry festival indeed. Many people believe that this famous character is named after Saint Nicholas, who was born in Patara, Asia Minor, and who became Bishop of Myra, in Turkey, 16 centuries ago.

His generosity was renowned, and he travelled widely distributing gifts to the poor without revealing his identity.

The best-known of these missions was the occasion when he dropped three bags of gold down the chimney of a peasant’s hut, to provide a wedding dowry for each of three daughters living there, thus enabling them to marry.

Yet this is only a part of the Santa Claus story. In fact the Father Christmas of today differs considerably from the Santa Claus of old.

Only in comparatively recent, times has he assumed the jolly appearance he displays nowadays. For centuries he was represented as a staid old gentleman who handed out Christmas presents in the manner of a guest-speaker at a school prize-giving event.

He had no reindeer or sleigh to take him on his round on Christmas Eve, and did not live in the Frozen North.

Oddly enough it was an American professor who “re-made” Santa and to whom the whole world is indebted for transforming him into a jovial, red-cloaked character beloved by countless children.

It was in 1822 that Dr Clement C. Moore, of Columbia University, New York, set out in a horsedrawn sleigh to deliver Christmas presents to friends around the snow-covered city.

As he drove through the crisp night air, he recalled that his nine children had long clamoured for a poem about Saint Nicholas, and by the time he reached home again he had mentally composed a string of verses beginning:

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care.
In hope that Saint Nicholas soon would be there.

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The magic ritual of bringing in the Yule log

Posted in Christmas, Customs, Historical articles, History, Religion on Wednesday, 26 February 2014

This edited article about Christmas first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 571 published on 23 December 1972.

Bringing in the Yule Log,  picture, image, illustration
Bringing in the Yule Log by Angus McBride

The Elizabethan household had, for months, seen a bustling team of servants busily preparing for the forthcoming festivities. Huge quantities of food and drink had been brought into the house to be stored up for all the feasting that was to take place. Joints of beef and venison, peacocks, geese, swans and capons, cakes and sweetmeats had been carefully prepared and cooked by worried-looking cooks, anxious to make a perfect feast.

Giggling, excited housemaids had collected holly, ivy, rosemary, firs and laurels in bundlefuls and had decorated the main rooms of the house with them.

Now, after the seemingly endless list of preparations, Christmas Eve had arrived, and all was ready to start the celebrations. As darkness fell, the housemaid kindled a fire in the open hearth, and the master, mistress, their children, and all the servants assembled in the main hall. It was time to go out into the forest and collect the huge tree trunk that had been cut the previous winter and left to season in the sun. They had selected the largest piece of wood that the huge hearth could accommodate. Suddenly, as the team of servants went out of the house, everyone felt that the excitement and rejoicing of Christmas time had truly begun.

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How Christmas may have changed in the Twenty-first Century

Posted in Christmas, Science, Space, Technology on Tuesday, 21 January 2014

This edited article about Christmas first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 519 published on 25 December 1971.

Santa on Mars, picture, image, illustration
Santa Claus on Mars

For astronauts sitting down to dinner in a space-station orbiting the Earth, it still looks like a traditional Christmas of three decades earlier.

The table and folding chairs may be made of a super-light titanium-aluminium alloy, but the goodies laid out for Christmas dinner are not space-age at all. There is roast turkey with chestnut stuffing, plum pudding, hot mince pie, and trifle.

These men, spending Christmas two hundred miles above the Earth, are lucky – their dinner stays on the table. The huge space station turns slowly like a giant wheel, so that centrifugal force creates a kind of artificial gravity. Otherwise the men, chairs and table, would be floating around in the pressurized cabin like fish in an aquarium, bumping into elusive turkey drumsticks and mince pies. Weightlessness might be amusing, for a while at least, but it would hardly be in the traditional Christmas spirit, and it would be scientifically impossible to pull crackers!

Five other astronauts, however, on a special space mission to the Planet Neptune, will have to stretch their imaginations to the limit to make things seem like Christmas at all. Their Christmas dinner will consist of turkey-flavoured protein powder moistened with distilled water, sucked slowly from polythene bags. Pulling crackers and untying presents will be out, but at least they will be able to play Christmas music from their tape-cassettes, and watch Christmas programmes on their transistorized colour TV.

On Earth, in a flat on the 385th floor of a super-skyscraper in Manchester, the Jones family is entertaining the Green family. The Greens have arrived from California after a journey of just under forty minutes by a hyper-sonic jet airliner, because their friends the Joneses promised to treat them to a traditional English Christmas dinner.

And the meal they are now enjoying is traditional, and perhaps even more English and “Christmassy” than it might have been if they had lived back in 1971, in spite of thirty years progress in science and technology.

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Pantomime – a peculiarly English form of theatrical entertainment

Posted in Actors, Christmas, Dance, Historical articles, History, Music, Theatre on Tuesday, 21 January 2014

This edited article about theatre first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 519 published on 25 December 1971.

Cinderella, picture, image, illustration
Cinderella by John Worsley

The best of all pantomimes and the most popular! No prizes for guessing which that is: it is Cinderella, of course, which, unlike all too many of today’s pantomimes, has a real story, and an unbeatable one.

And at the London Palladium this year, where they are putting on Cinderella, they’ve assembled a real star cast to match. So just before we take a look at the history of this glorious, glamorous, slightly “daft,” and very British form of entertainment, which is hardly known outside our islands, let us take a glance at what it costs to put on a show of this nature. At least £110,000!

Pantomime, which still attracts hundreds of thousands of the young and the young-in-heart up and down the country ever Christmas and for weeks afterwards, is big business!

British pantomime goes back to 1717, when a manager named John Rich staged the first one, which had been inspired by the old Italian entertainments known as Commedia dell’Arte. These featured such characters as Harlequin, the lovely Columbine, Pierrot and Pantaloon, and were true pantomime, being dumb shows with the action carried on in “mime” not speech as with today’s pantomimes.

Gradually, Clown became more important than Harlequin. The greatest of all Clowns was Joseph Grimaldi, born in 1778. When only five, he fell forty feet down a trapdoor on stage because his cat’s costume in a pantomime called Hurly Burly was so badly made that he could not see out of it.

Later he found himself playing at Drury Lane and Sadler’s Wells on the same night. Pantomimes were then part of very long entertainments and young Joey would race between the two theatres. This, together with years of touring, undermined his health and he retired when he was only fifty.

In the “Harlequinade” of his day, which was the most important part of the entertainment, there would be marvellous bouts of horseplay. Clown would shoplift, with the foolish Pantaloon as accomplice, and the latter would get caught. A pot of paste would fall over a well-dressed gentleman, and a “red-hot poker” was constantly being applied to the seats of people’s pants! Happily, there is still plenty of this sort of horseplay today.

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King Wenceslas of Bohemia is immortalised in a favourite English carol

Posted in Christmas, Historical articles, History, Music, Royalty on Tuesday, 21 January 2014

This edited article about Christmas first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 519 published on 25 December 1971.

King Wenceslas, picture, image, illustration
King Wenceslas of Bohemia made peace with the Germans under Henry the First by C L Doughty

Christmas is traditionally a family time. The carol-singing, the present-giving, the dinner and the tree are all enjoyed in a family atmosphere of happiness and rejoicing and goodwill to all men.

A thousand years ago, however, there lived a young king who, try as he might, could not persuade his family to recognise the spirit of goodwill among themselves at Christmas or any other time.

Except for a Christmas carol, he would have long since been forgotten. But the carol, Good King Wenceslas, reminds us of him every year at Christmas time. And it poses the inevitable question, who was Wenceslas? Was he really the kind of king who would help an old man gather in his winter fuel? Or was he more likely to have clapped the man in jail?

For the answers to these questions we must consult the map of central Europe. A thousand years ago part of what is today called Czechoslovakia was called Bohemia. It was and continued to be for many centuries, a separate and important state of Europe.

Four rulers of Bohemia have been called Wenceslas, or Vaclar, as the Bohemians call it. Our King who looked out on the feast of Stephen was the first of these and his reign began about the year 921 AD.

He was about 13 or 14 years old when he succeeded his father Vratislav and he was still only in his twenties when he was murdered.

The court of Wenceslas suffered all the strife that any medieval court suffered when a boy inherited the throne. Greedy relatives were always about ready to kill suddenly to gain the crown for themselves; greedy neighbouring states were always on hand to rob the child’s kingdom of its independence in order to increase their own petty empires.

Young Wenceslas needed a strong protector and he had one. She was his grandmother Ludmila, the mother of the boy king’s father. Ludmila was a Christian, which was unusual in the Bohemia of her time, and she determined that Wenceslas would not only grow up to be a good king but a Christian one.

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Happy 2014/1914

Posted in Absurd, Anniversary, Christmas on Sunday, 22 December 2013

Here, as our way of wishing you a Happy 2014, are a number of New Year’s cards for 1914, including one that is a little odd.

Best wishes from everyone at Look and Learn!

Santa Claus is the patron saint of sailors, prisoners and Imperial Russia

Posted in Christmas, Customs, Historical articles, History, Religion, Saints on Wednesday, 13 November 2013

This edited article about Christmas originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 456 published on 10 October 1970.

Saint Nicholas, picture, image, illustration
Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra

The Father Christmas legend must be the most widely believed legend in the world today – for millions of young children hang up their stockings each year in eager anticipation of his visit.

His style of arrival, even his day of coming, varies a good deal from land to land. In Holland he comes as good Saint Nicholas, wearing a bishop’s mitre and aided by a mischievous Moorish servant, Piet (Pete). The pair arrive by ship from Spain on the fifth day of December. Most Dutch children put their clogs by the door or window to receive their presents – and they often leave a gift too, placing carrots or a handful of hay in the wooden shoes for the splendid white horse upon which the good man rides.

In other lands Father Christmas has other helpers. In Sweden he is aided by the Queen of Light, a blonde maiden with a coronet of candles; in Switzerland he has a wife; in Iceland he has a gang of gnomes, his adopted brothers; in Norway, he has little men called Jul Nisser to help him. In Germany he has a strong young servant, Knecht Rupprecht; in Russia, where he is known as Grandfather Frost, and arrives on New Year’s Eve, he is helped either by an old peasant woman named Babushka or the Snow Queen.

Santa Claus in his red robe riding in his sleigh pulled by reindeer is not a traditionally British figure. This version of the legend stems from America. Santa is quite a newcomer to the British Isles.

The St. Nicholas legend was carried to America by the Dutch, many of whom settled in New Amsterdam, now New York. They carried on the tradition of presents for children, and gradually he was combined with the more northern idea of the saint, wearing a red fur-trimmed cloak and snow boots.

His sleigh and magic reindeer were born in a poem published in 1823. The poem was written by Doctor Clement Clarke Moore, a professor of theology, who lived in New York. The poem describes a visit of Santa Claus (short for Saint Nicholas). Intended only for his own children it was sent by a friend to the editor of the Troy Sentinel of Troy Town, New York State.

The poem was published and the tradition of today’s Santa Claus was born. Before every Christmas he holds court in countless department stores, visits hospitals, orphanages, schools and children’s parties.

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The Victorians invented Christmas cards among other seasonal traditions

Posted in Art, Arts and Crafts, Christmas, Historical articles, History, Religion on Wednesday, 2 October 2013

This edited article about Christmas originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 415 published on 27 December 1969.

Christmas Card, picture, image, illustration
Four Christmas Scenes on a Victorian Christmas Card

It was in the 1840′s that Mr. Henry Cole decided that writing letters to all his relatives and friends at Christmastime was a tedious task.

Henry Cole, later Sir Henry Cole, first Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, asked an artist friend of his to design a card which he could send instead of letters at Christmastime. So his artist friend, John Calcott Horsley, did just this, though neither Cole nor Horsley realised that they started a fashion which we still keep.

The first Christmas card was sent in 1843.

Strange as it may seem to us now, the early Christmas cards were not religious. Perhaps the notion of putting such images on cards appeared improper to the Victorians. Equally strange, those early cards had no wintry scenes. They displayed hand-painted birds and flowers, and had lacy surrounds rather like Valentines. But they did have the Christmas greeting.

In 1867 the Fleet Street firm of Thierry thought up the idea of giving their cards a wintry, frosty look. Fine glass was blown on to them in thin bubbles. The bubbles burst, leaving a glittery appearance.

The most popular notion was to make the cards lively. One was a device to make people and scenes rise up like the toy theatres of the times. Another trick was to have paper tabs, or bits of silk cord, which, when pulled, made flowers spring up and doors and windows open.

One very charming card shows the front of a house with all windows curtained and the front door shut. Outside the house stand carol singers. When a tab is pulled the curtains lift up and the door opens. People are shown at every window, and at one window stand a boy and a girl by a Christmas tree. Just inside the front door is the master of the house with a jug of hot, steaming drink and a plate piled high with mince-pies for the singers.

Another means of giving life to the cards was that of envelopes to be opened up, which were stuck on the card itself. One card like this has a picture on it saying “Toy Box.” The flap and sides of the box open up to show pictures of toys.

Wintry scenes increased, complete with Father Christmas and robins, and a few cards started to show the Christmas story of Mary, Joseph and the Infant Jesus. However, the main themes were those of summer scenes, flowers and red-coated soldiers. The Victorians seemed to have loved soldiers as symbols of Christmas, just as we love pictures of olden-day coaches.

Around 1890 the comic Christmas card began to appear. One of these shows an imitation banknote with the words “Pay to the Bearer a Thousand Good Wishes.”

Many well-known artists became designers of Christmas cards, and among the best known of these was Kate Greenaway.

As the years passed by the Christmas card fashion grew and grew, and it is thought that by 1894 over 200,000 designs had been made.

What a long way the Christmas card has come from that first design made for a man who hated writing letters!