The Secrets Of Santa
Christmas isn’t all sweetness and light. Some of the old yuletide imagery conjured in songs and stories and on cards is best left behind, especially with its uncomfortable ethnic connotations.
Devils armed with whips and demons dragging off naughty children formed the basis of common yuletide stories in Northern Europe, while the Krampus, a horned creature of Austro-Bavarian Alpine folklore, was a monstrous green-tinted figure who punished misbehaving children. In traditional parades such as the Krampuslauf or Krampus run, young men dress as the Krampus. The Krampus has recently moved into mainstream culture in America, with a film even named after him.
Coal-eyed imps also scampered about terrorizing children in much Pre-Saint Nicholas literature. The Jólakötturinn was an Icelandic cannibalistic Christmas cat, and while Germany had the most frightening collection of anti-Santas, France had Père Fouettard, or ‘Father Whipper’, the child-chopping mad butcher.
John Grossman is the owner of one of the world’s largest collections of Victorian and Edwardian artifacts and ephemera, and wrote ‘Christmas Curiosities: Odd, Dark, and Forgotten Christmas’ with the intention of reminding us about some of the things we’ve forgotten.
The modern Santa’s red and white outfit probably mimicked the vestments of the original Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra in the 4th Century, but the American image we adopted was cemented into place by a Coca-Cola illustrator who added the fat suit, white trims and big fluffy beard, basing the look on Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ (which begins ‘’Twas the Night Before Christmas’). Coca Cola is now weirdly tied to Christianity.
A number of Dickens’ Christmas stories have now vanished, including ‘A Christmas Tree’ and the eerie ‘Haunted’, a magical tale about a seasonal gift passed on with tragic consequences. Many fine Christmas ghost tales designed to be annually told around a fire have been lost. In these, trains are marooned in snowdrifts, cottages and castles become places of imprisonment for gathered guests, ghosts visit with warnings and children rarely feature at all.
The young had Christmas shows to look forward to, but much has been trimmed from these, too. More popular than ‘Peter Pan’ was ‘Where The Rainbow Ends’, which began at the Savoy in 1911 and continued for decades. The original version has strong and rather sinister tones of patriotism and christianity in which saintly St George fights clearly Semitic foreigners before slaying the dragon.
While modern pantomimes have gaudy costumes, pop hits and double-entendres, Christmas at London’s two surviving music halls, Wilton’s and the Hackney Empire, can see veterans like Roy Hudd unearthing forgotten music hall routines with elaborate wordplay taken from unauthored Victorian scripts. Filled with topical jokes, such entertainments were written at great speed and were never meant to be preserved for posterity. I saw Hudd’s panto last year which involved an elaborate Victorian routine of physical movement and wordplay only the dextrous could memorise.
Almost every writer employed by a newspaper or magazine has at one time or another been required to ‘do something for the Christmas issue’, whether short fiction or a heartwarming seasonal feature. Such work is usually evanescent and quickly buried, but trying typing in ’20 Famous Christmas Stories’ and you’ll be confronted with a selection of tales from authors as diverse as Tolstoy and Wilde, as well as memorable stories from less remembered authors.