An Interesting Artefact

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There has always been tension in popular culture between an emphasis on the Nativity as the central feature of Christmas and the focus on the Gift-Bringer (Santa Claus, Père Noël, De Weihnachtsmann, etc. and his or her gifts. Religiously conservative Americans have tried to show subordination of Santa to the Baby Jesus by showing him kneeling by the cradle as in this ornament.

Another approach, unique in my experience, is the work of a Russian wood-carver who has the Father Christmas figure revealing the Nativity scene beneath his robe.



The First Christmas Trees In History?

Home / Christmas / The First Christmas Trees In History?

The question of where the first Christmas tree was erected has had three contestants: an outdoor pole of greenery in London and trees set up by German merchants in Latvia and in Estonia. The following article can be found on this site: No sources are given for any of the claims here and I’m more than a little doubtful of them but I will be checking them out. 

Evergreen trees have played a part in human beliefs over millennia. The Christmas tree as we know it, though, is a quite recent invention. The Honourable Guild of Bakers in Freiburg is credited with setting one up first in 1419. At the time, Freiburg was part of the Holy Roman Empire; it is situated in the former Grand Duchy of Baden in the modern state of Baden-Wurttemberg in Germany.

According to tradition, a fir tree was put up in the Hospital of The Holy Ghost for The Poor for Christmas in 1419. The tree was then decorated with honey cookies, nuts, and dried fruits. It is said to have remained standing until New Year’s Day when it was ‘shaken down’ and the children were allowed to eat the decoration. While it is possible that it happened that way, there is no supportive evidence to be found anywhere but is still included in history works as late as 2007.

In fact, the good bakers of Freiburg were contravening church law. During the first millennium, the Christian Church had forbidden the adornment of trees on all kinds of occasions as heathen superstition. Despite that, adorning the home with evergreens during winter never went out of fashion. In the Brocarda, the canonical legal code for the Diocese of Worms written by Bishop Burchard between 1008 and 1012, the prohibition was included as a matter of course. Its inclusion shows that the matter was still of relevance.

As late as 1508, priests in Alsatian churches were preaching sermons against the heathen superstition of keeping evergreens in homes and giving presents to people. But a copper plate print by Lucas Cranach the elder of 1509 shows the first picture of a Christmas tree that we recognise as such; he showed it adorned with stars and lights. There must have been a market for selling a print like that with a profit or he wouldn’t have done it.

The accounts of the Humanistic Library of Sélestat situated 30 miles from Freiburg in the Alsace shows an entry in 1521 reading: “Paid four Shillings to the forester to guard the trees as of St. Thomas” (21st of December). The entry shows that the amount of trees taken from communal woods was becoming a problem.

First proof positive of a Christmas tree in writing is provided for Strasburg Cathedral (Alsace, France) in 1539; it is at the same time the first instance of a public display of a tree for Christmas documented anywhere. By 1600, Christmas trees could be found in the houses of rich citizens all over Strasburg.

It was Duchess Dorothea Sibyl of Brieg (part of the Kingdom of Bohemia) who first adorned a Christmas tree with candles in 1611. Continental European princes took to the idea and the Imperial family in Vienna had a tree set up for each member of the family separately to display their individual Christmas presents underneath.

Men of Good Will

Home / Christmas / Men of Good Will

One of the loveliest of the 347 short stories written by Giovanni Guareschi is “Men of Good Will” which was published in 1948. As usual the plot centres around the relationship between the village priest Don Camillo and the Communist mayor Peppone. 

Men of Good Will

Christmas was approaching and it was high time to get the figures of the crèche out of their drawer so that they might be cleaned, touched up here and there and any stains carefully removed. It was late at night but Don Camillo was still at work in the rectory. He heard a knock on the window and, seeing that it was Peppone, went to open the door.

Peppone sat down while Don Camillo resumed his work, and neither of them spoke for quite a long time.

“Hell and damnation!” exclaimed Peppone suddenly and furiously.

“Couldn’t you find a better place to blaspheme than in my house?” inquired Don Camillo quietly. “How about your own headquarters?”

“You can’t even swear there any more,” muttered Peppone. “Because if you do, someone asks for an explanation.”

Don Camillo put a little white paint on Saint Joseph’s beard.

“No decent man can live in this filthy world!” exclaimed Peppone after a pause.

“How does that concern you?” Don Camillo asked. “Have you by any chance become a decent man?”

“I’ve never been anything else.”

“There now! And – never would have thought it.” Don Camillo continued his retouching of Saint Joseph’s beard. Then he began to tidy up the saint’s clothing.

“How long will you be over that job?” asked Peppone angrily.

“If you’d give me a hand it would go quicker.”

Peppone was a mechanic and he had hands as big as shovels and enormous fingers that gave an impression of clumsiness. But when anybody wanted a watch repaired they took it to Peppone. He could streamline the body of a car or the spokes of a wheel like a master painter. “Are you crazy! Can you see me touching up saints?” he muttered. “You haven’t by any chance mistaken me for your bellringer?”

Don Camillo fished in the bottom of the open drawer and brought out a pink and white object about the size of a sparrow: it was the Holy Infant.

Peppone never could remember how he came to find it in his hands, but he took up a little brush and began working carefully. He and Don Camillo sat on either side of the table, unable to see each other’s faces because of the lamp between them.

“It’s a rotten world,” said Peppone. “If you have something to say, you don’t dare trust anyone. don’t even trust myself.”

Don Camillo seemed to be absorbed in his task: the Madonna’s whole face required repainting. “Do you trust me?” he asked casually.

“I don’t know,” said Peppone.

“Try telling me something and then you’ll know.”

Peppone completed the repainting of the Baby’s eyes, which were the most difficult part. Then he touched up the red of the tiny lips. “I’d like to give it all up,” said Peppone, “but it can’t be done.”

“What stops you?”

“Stops me? With an iron bar in my hand I could stand up to a regiment!”

“Are you afraid?”

“I’ve never been afraid in my life!”

” I have, Peppone. Sometimes I am frightened.”

Peppone dipped his brush in the paint. “Well; so am I, sometimes,” he said, and his voice was almost inaudible.

Don Camillo sighed. “A bullet was within four inches of my head. If I hadn’t drawn my head back at that exact moment, I would have been done for. It was a miracle.”

Peppone had completed the Baby’s face and was now working with pink paint on His body. “I’m sorry I missed,” he mumbled, “but I was too far off and the cherry trees were in the way.” Don Camillo’s brush ceased to move.

“Brusco had been keeping watch for three nights around the Pizzi house to protect the boy he must have seen who it was that fired at his father through the window, and whoever did it knows it. Meanwhile, I was watching your house because I was certain the murderer knew that you also knew who killed Pizzi.”

“Who is he?”

“I don’t know,” replied Peppone, “I saw him from a distance creeping up to the chapel window. But I wasn’t in time to fire before he did. As soon as he fired, I shot at him and missed.” “Thank God,” said Don Camillo. “I know how you shoot and we can say that there were two miracles.”

“Who can it be? Only you and the boy can tell.”

Don Camillo spoke slowly. “Yes, Peppone, I do know; but I cannot break the secrecy of the confessional.”

Peppone sighed and continued his painting.

“There is something wrong,” he said suddenly. “They all look at me with different eyes, now. All of them, even Brusco.”

“And Brusco is thinking the same thing as you are, and so are the rest of them,” replied Don Camillo. “Each is afraid of the others, and every time anyone speaks he feels as if he must defend himself.”

“But why?”

“Shall we leave politics out of it, Peppone?”

Peppone sighed again. “I feel as if were in jail,” he said gloomily.

“There is a way out of every jail in this world,” replied Don Camillo. “Jails can only confine the body and the body matters so little.”

The Baby was now finished, and His bright coloring shone in Peppone’s huge dark hands. Peppone looked at Him and he seemed to feel in his palms the living warmth of that little body. He forgot all about being in jail.

He gently laid the Baby on the table and Don Camillo placed the Madonna near Him.

“My son is learning a poem for Christmas,” Peppone announced proudly. “Every evening hear his mother teaching it to him before he goes to sleep. He’s terrific!”

“I know,” agreed Don Camillo. “Remember how beautifully he recited the poem for the Bishop!”

Peppone stiffened. “That was one of the most rascally things you ever did!” he exclaimed. “I’ll get even with you yet.”

“There is plenty of time for getting even, or for dying, Don Camillo replied.

Then he took the figure of the ass and set it down close to the Madonna as she bent over Her Child. “That is Peppone’s son, and that is Peppone’s wife, and this one is Peppone,” said Don Camillo, laying his finger on the figure of the ass.

“And this one is Don Camillo!” exclaimed Peppone, seizing the figure of the ox and adding it to the group.

“Oh, well! Animals always understand each other,” said Don Camillo.

But Peppone said nothing, and for a time the two men sat in the dim light looking at the little group of figures on the table and listening to the silence that had settled over the Little World which no longer seemed ominous but instead full of peace.

Christmas in Colonial Virginia

Home / Christmas / Christmas in Colonial Virginia

An upper-class Virginia Christmas in 1773 on the “Nomini Hall” plantation:

By day the men rode to hounds or hunted the plentiful game – turkeys, ducks, pigeons, and geese – that abounded. At night, parties were made merry by music, dancing, and games that often went on until nearly dawn. Philip Fithian, a young divinity student from Princeton University who served as a tutor for the offspring of the wealthy planter, Robert Carter, has left us one of the few early accounts of a Virginia Christmas party.

Carter’s lands sprawled over 75,000 acres of countryside, and he could well afford to offer lavish entertainment. After breakfast-parties in Virginia started early in those days-Mr. Fithian tells of entering a large ballroom and seeing “several Minuets danced with great ease and propriety; after which the whole company Joined in country dances, and it was indeed beautiful to admiration to see such 3 number of young persons, set off by dress to the best advantage, moving easily to the sound of well performed Music, and with perfect regularity, tho’ apparently in the utmost disorder. The Dance continued til two, we dined at half after three-soon after dinner we repaired to the DancingRoom again… When it grew too dark to dance, the young gentlemen walked over to my room and we conversed til half after six. Meanwhile the great hall Was lit with hundreds of candles, and ‘looked luminous and splendid.’ Everyone then returned for more dancing and parlor games until supper was served.”

Christmas at Versailles

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In 1682 the French court moved from Paris to the new palace at Versailles where Louis XIV was lauded as “The Sun King”. His younger brother Philippe, Duc d’Orléans, was a successful general but also a scandal — an open homosexual, accused of necromancy, and one who made light of the Catholic religion. One mischievous anecdote of Orléans at Christmas is related in the memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon: 

His passionate desire, like that of his companions in morals, was this, that it would turn out that there is no God; but he had too much enlightenment to be an atheist; who is a particular kind of fool much more rare than is thought. This enlightenment importuned him; he tried to extinguish it and could not. A mortal soul would have been to him a resource; but he could not convince himself of its existence. A God and an immortal soul, threw him into sad straits, and yet he could not blind himself to the truth of both the one and the other. I can say then this, I only know of what religion he was not; nothing more. I am sure, however, that he was very ill at ease upon this point, and that if a dangerous illness had overtaken him, and he had had the time, he would have thrown himself into the hands of all the priests and all the Capuchins [Franciscans] of the town. His great foible was to pride himself upon his impiety and to wish to surpass in that everybody else.

I recollect that one Christmas-time, at Versailles, when he accompanied the King to morning prayers and to the three midnight masses, he surprised the Court by his continued application in reading a volume he had brought with him, and which appeared to be, a prayer book. The chief femme de chambre of Madame la Duchesse d’Orléans, much attached to the family, and very free as all good old domestics are, transfixed with joy at M. le Duc d’Orléans’s application to his book, complimented him upon it the next day, in the presence of others. M. le Duc d’Orléans allowed her to go on some time, and then said, “You are very silly, Madame Imbert. Do you know what I was reading? It was ‘Rabelais,’ that I brought with me for fear of being bored.”

The effect of this reply may be imagined. The thing was too true, and was pure braggadocio; for, without comparison of the places, or of the things, the music of the chapel was much superior to that of the opera, and to all the music of Europe; and at Christmas it surpassed itself. There was nothing so magnificent as the decoration of the chapel, or the manner in which it was lighted. It was full of people; the arches of the tribune were crowded with the Court ladies, in undress, but ready for conquest. There was nothing so surprising as the beauty of the spectacle. The ears were charmed also. M. le Duc d’Orléans loved music extremely; he could compose, and had amused himself by composing a kind of little opera, La Fare writing the words, which was performed before the King. This music of the chapel, therefore, might well have occupied him in the most agreeable manner, to say nothing of the brilliant scene, without his having recourse to Rabelais. But he must needs play the impious, and the wag.

Yule in York

Home / Christmas / Yule in York

It was the custom in medieval York for a Yuletide peace (called the “Youle-Girth”) to be proclaimed in which certain restrictions were cast aside for the Christmas season.

The sheriffs of the city would ride through the streets and make this proclamation:
O yes We command of our liege lords behalf the King of England (that God save and keepe), that the peace of the King be well keeped and maynteyned within the citty amid suburbs, by night and by day, &c. Also, that no common woman walke in the streets without a gray hood on her head, and a white wand in her hand, &c. Also the Sheriffes of the citty on St. Thomas Day the Apostle [December 21], before Youle, att tenne of the bell, shall come to All-hallow kirke on the pavement, and ther they shall heare a masse of St. Thomas in the high wheare (quire), and offer at the masse; and when the masse is done, they shall make a proclamation att the pillory of the Youle-Girth (in the forme that followes) by ther serjant: We commaund that the peace of our Lord the King be well keeped and mayntayned by night and by day, &c.  Also that no manner of man make no congregations nor assemblyes. Also that all manner of whores and thieves, dice players, carders, and all other unthrifty folke, be welcome to the towne, whether they come late or early, att the reverence of the high feast of Youle, till the twelve clays be passed.
“The proclamation made in forme aforesaid, the fower serjeants shall goe or ride (whether they will); and one of them shall have a horne of brasse, of the toll-bouth; and the other three serjeants shall every one of them have a horne, and so go forth to the fewer barres of the citty, and blow the Youle-Girth.”
By the 1700s the term “Youle-Girth” had come to mean something a little different:

An Epiphany Prank

Home / Christmas / An Epiphany Prank

From William Hone’s The Every-day Book; or, Everlasting Calendar of Popular Amusements, Sports, Pastimes, Ceremonies, Manners, Customs, and Events, Incident to Each of the Three Hundred and Sixty-Five Days, in Past and Present Times (London, 1826):

On Twelfth-night in London, boys assemble round the inviting shops of the pastrycooks, and dexterously nail the coat-tails of spectators, who venture near enough, to the bottoms of the window frames; or pin them together strongly by their clothes. Sometimes eight or ten persons find themselves thus connected. The dexterity and force of the nail driving is so quick and sure, that a single blow seldom fails of doing the business effectually. Withdrawal of the nail without a proper instrument is out of the question; and, consequently, the person nailed must either leave part of his coat, as a cognizance of his attachment, or quit the spot with a hole in it. At every nailing and pinning shouts of laughter arise from the perpetrators and the spectators. Yet it often happens to one who turns and smiles at the duress of another, that he also finds himself nailed. Efforts at extrication increase mirth, nor is the presence of a constable, who is usually employed to attend and preserve free “ingress, egress, and regress,” sufficiently awful to deter the offenders.