December 6

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The Feast of St Nicholas

At one time, Nicholas was, aside from the Virgin Mary, the most powerful of saints, prayed to for aid by Christians of all sorts and the patron of hundreds of churches from Iceland to Turkey. After the Protestant Reformation he fell on hard times; in the twentieth century he fell even lower at the hands of Pope Paul VI. But thanks to a love of Christmas his reputation is arising once more.

Legend says that Nicholas was born into a rich family living in what is now Turkey in the days of the late Roman empire. He became a priest and then a bishop of Myra in southern Asia Minor. Nicholas is said to have been at the 325 Council of Nicaea, which was held to determine whether Christ was truly divine, and where he supposedly struck Arius, the arch-heretic, a blow to the head. He developed a reputation for charity and miracle working which, after his death, led him to be venerated all across Europe. In one incident he was able to fly and rescue a sinking boat, leading him to be the patron saint of sailors; in another he resurrected three young scholars who had been pickled in a cask by a cannibal innkeeper, making him the patron saint of students, barrel makers and pickle makers; in another he dropped off gifts of money secretly at night to a poor family, saving the daughters from lives of prostitution, thus becoming the patron of maidens, marriage and a magical gift bringer to children.

By the year 1200 stories had spread of his giving gifts to children on the eve of his feast day, December 6. For 300 years he came by night on his white horse and left treats in the shoes of good children (and threatening bad or lazy kids with a good beating.) In the 1500s the cult of saints was abolished in Protestant lands and Nicholas was replaced in much of Europe as Christmas Gift-bringer by the Christ Child. However his legend was taken to North America by Dutch settlers where tales of good Sinterklaas lingered in the public imagination. Early in the 1800s New York poets, writers and illustrators reimagined him as “Santa Claus”, the figure who took the world of Christmas giving by storm, becoming a global superstar in the twentieth century.

Lately, however, Santa Claus has been subject to a campaign of resistance in those countries where he displaced traditional gift givers. In Spain, supporters of the Three Kings want the Magi returned to centre stage while in Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands, societies for the restoration of the legend of St Nicholas have placed the old fellow back in the hearts of children.

December 5

St Nicholas Eve

I have hundreds of German and Austro-Hungarian Christmas cards from World War I but this is the sole example I have of one that employs St Nicholas. Though the saint was a popular gift-bringer in German-speaking Catholic territories, he seems to have had no place on such cards. It is the Christ Child (Christkindl) or a Santa Claus (der Weihnachtsmann) figure who appears as the bearer of supernatural bounty.

Accompanying St Nicholas is Krampus, a beloved figure in Austria and some neighbouring areas. Krampus is portrayed as a demon who will threaten kids with chains, switches, or a pack into which he will throw bad children. Between the two is the Christmas angel. In Hungarian and German is the wish “Merry Christmas”

December 4

On this day in 1829 British imperialists, intent on maximizing their looting of the subcontinent and of grinding the face of the Indian natives further into the dust, abolished suttee, the Hindu practice whereby a widow is burnt alive on the funeral pyre of her husband. Not content with this brutal imposition of Western values on a rich and ancient culture, the British forced yet more of their middle-class Christian morality on helpless Asian populations: they would go on to wipe out Thugee (ritual murder in service of the goddess Kali which claimed 40,000 victims a year), human sacrifice, infanticide, piracy, head-hunting, foot-binding and slavery. Fortunately for cultural relativists everywhere, the British were eventually driven out of India and suttee has been revived.

On this day in 1974 the doddering existentialist Jean Paul Sartre visited the German anarchist Andreas Baader in prison. In his account of the meeting, Sartre mentions little of what he said to the jailed terrorist, but he might well have chosen to comfort him with this quote from his 1943 masterwork Being and Nothingness: “Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth.” No doubt buoyed up by this encouraging message, Baader would go on to kill himself in his cell.

On this day in 1977 Jean-Bedel Bokassa, ruler of the Central African Empire, crowned himself. This former army sergeant and practicing cannibal was the darling of the government of France which paid $20,000,000 for the day’s festivities, which were modeled on the coronation of that other jewel in the crown of French democracy, Napoleon Bonaparte.

December 3

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The birth of Bayezid II

In 1453, Mehmet the Conqueror took Constantinople for the Ottoman Turks, thus ending the Christian Roman Empire. Mehmet spent the rest of his life consolidating his gains by expanding into Europe and turning Constantinople into a glorious new capital for his regime. At the early age of forty-nine he died very suddenly; suspicions fell on a poisoner acting for his oldest son Bayezid, born on this day in 1447.

Bayezid claimed the throne but had to deal with the opposition of his brother Çem (or Jem). It was customary for a new sultan to murder all of his brothers and half-brothers so Çem fled to the Knights of St John, fierce enemies of the Turks; the Knights sent Çem to the pope who accepted a bribe from Bayezid to keep him locked up and not interfering in his rule.

Bayezid had a successful reign, warring against the Persians on his eastern border, mopping up more Christian territory, and taking advantage of the Spanish expulsion of their Jewish population. Bayezid sent Turkish ships to Spain to take on Jews wishing to migrate to Ottoman territory, laughing at the folly of Ferdinand and Isabella. “You venture to call Ferdinand a wise ruler,” he said to his courtiers, “he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!” Ironically, the pope held the same opinion and welcomed Jewish refugees into his Italian holdings.

Ottoman politics were often a blood sport. Late in life, Bayezid faced revolts by two of his sons. He defeated the rebellion of Ahmet but was deposed in 1512 by his son Selim (later known to history as “the Grim”). He died very shortly thereafter and is buried in Istanbul.

December 2

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1697 Dedication of the new St Paul’s Cathedral.

There has been a cathedral church dedicated to St Paul in London ever since the 600s. As fire and the ravages of time brought these buildings down there was always a desire to see them rebuilt. The fourth cathedral to occupy the present spot was begun after fire destroyed the third version in 1087. This was a massive stone structure that was completed only in 1314, in the Gothic style. This meant flying buttresses supporting tall walls filled with stained glass windows, pointed arches, imaginative decoration and a towering spire, 490 feet high. In 1561, shortly after the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign and the restoration of Protestantism, a lightning strike destroyed the spire. The building remained a centre of London life where far more than religious services were carried on. Critics complained that people would use “the south alley for usury and popery, the north for sorcery, and the horse fair in the midst for all kinds of bargains, meetings, brawlings, murders, conspiracies, and the font for ordinary payments of money.” Little wonder that one of the cathedral’s paid staff was the “dog-whipper” whose job it was to control the noise of animals in the church.

In the seventeenth century John Donne was the Dean of the cathedral and preached there often (go here for a virtual reconstruction of his Gunpowder Day sermon of 1622: http://vpcp.chass.ncsu.edu ). After the Puritans won the English Civil War the building was used as a barracks and stable. Its final disgrace came in 1666 when the Great Fire of London destroyed the timber-arched edifice. A new structure was started under the supervision of Christopher Wren. The first stone was laid in 1675 and the building was declared open for use on this day in 1697 but it took another 14 years before it was completed.

Wren’s building was massive with a dome that dominated the eastern prospect of London before the rash of grotesque skyscrapers marred the view in the late twentieth century.

December 1

1927 Birth of the first bikini model

Micheline Bernardini was an 18-year-old nude dancer at a Paris nightclub when she was chosen by designer Louis Réard to showcase his two-piece bathing suit which he dubbed “bikini” after a recent atomic bomb test site. Réard had been unable to find a reputable runway model to display his suit so he cast an eye on one for whom wearing clothes  was an exciting novelty.

Pictured at a public swimming pool in July 1946, Mademoiselle Bernardini is holding a little box into which her entire costume could be packed.

Beard’s creation was by no means the first two-piece bathing suit but its extreme brevity, particularly on the buttocks, and the clever name choice caused a sensation and spawned a whole industry.

La Bernardini later moved to Australia where she worked at the Tivoli Theatre, Melbourne. She married an American soldier and moved to the United States.

November 30

General Lee and Santa Claus was a children’s book of 1867 written by Louise Clack. It is set in the post-Civil War American South where three little girls, Lutie, Birdie and Minnie (the latter still a hardened rebel because of the memory of her father who died in the Confederate army) wonder at the absence of Santa Claus during the war years. They write to General Robert E. Lee as “the goodest man who ever lived” to ask him “whether Santa Claus loves the little rebel children, for we think that he don’t; because he has not come to see us for four Christmas Eves.” General Lee favours them with the following reply: in fact Santa Claus does love the children of the South but in 1861 Lee himself stopped Santa from delivering any toys to the Confederacy. He said: “Santa Claus, take every one of the toys you have back as far as Baltimore, sell them, and with the money you get buy medicines, bandages, ointments and delicacies for our sick and wounded men; do it and do it quickly — it will be all right with the children.” And Santa did so for the duration of the war.

General Lee and Santa Claus is remarkable for its very early connection of American politics and Christmas and as a Southern counterpoint to the Civl War cartoons of Thomas Nast who had made Santa Claus into a firm supporter of the Union. Clack’s depiction of little rebel girls desolate at their desertion by Santa Claus shows how important a figure he had become in the imaginations of American children. The American Civil War did much to accelerate the reception of Christmas in the U.S.A. as a holiday representing homecoming and family

November 29

Italians were not enthusiasts of the Christmas card craze early in the 20th century but I do have two examples from their country as it participated in World War I.

The first is a rather harmless attempt to evoke seasonal jollity by pairing children and a piece of artillery.

The second is more heart-felt. It shows an Italian woman in chains, presumably a metaphor for those of Italian stock languishing under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and a charge by the famous feather-helmed Bersaglieri infantry. Above them an angel signals divine approval of the war effort and the caption reads “Christmas of glory”.

November 28

1859 Death of Washington Irving
Washington Irving, born in 1783 just after close of the American Revolution, was named after that conflict’s hero. Although trained as a lawyer Irving made a name for himself as the first great American writer. His 1809 mock historical Diedrich Knickerbocker’s History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty introduced Americans to Saint Nicholas as a Christmas gift-bringer, featuring the saint winging his way over treetops in a wagon, smoking a pipe and “laying his finger beside his nose” before flying off — all extremely influential images in the development of the figure of Santa Claus.
The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., (1819-20) contained “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle”, two beloved short stories, but also five sketches about Christmas at Bracebridge Manor in England. His account of the Squire of Bracebridge’s attempts to recreate an old-fashioned Christmas complete with feudal hospitality and a procession with a boar’s head fascinated both Americans and Englishmen and helped lead to a revival of interest in Christmas at a time when the holiday was under attack from public indifference and the Industrial Revolution.
Irving never married, remaining true to the memory of his 17-year-old sweetheart who died of tuberculosis.

November 27

One day away from Advent, our look at Christmas in wartime takes us to Nazi Germany. If Hitler’s National Socialists (and especially the SS) had had their way Christmas would have been replaced by a pagan Julfest with festivities on the winter solstice instead of December 25. However, Christmas was too firmly rooted in German culture to be attacked so directly. Instead the Nazi state tried a campaign of bait and switch, offering material and ceremonies that looked like Christmas but which were really subversive of its Christian essence.

This is mostly clearly in evidence in an Advent calendar sent out to German families to use in the run-up to Christmas Day. There were no stories of the baby Jesus; rather, a forest-born Golden Child was featured. No angels on the tree but swastika-shaped ornaments; St Nicholas was replaced by Knecht Ruprecht who was linked in the text to Nordic mythology.

Note the whirling sun which evokes the solstice and the swastika.

The caption says “Soon Ruprecht will enter the house and empty his sack for me. I gave his white horse hay which he likes.”

The 1943 edition of the Advent calendar shows German soldiers mourning at the grave of a fallen comrade surrounding by vignettes of Nazi conquests: burning villages in Russia, sinking merchantmen in the Atlantic, grapes from France, etc. The next year, the last Christmas of the war, this advent calendar kept the image of the soldiers but removed the wreath of victories celebrating territories the Germans had been driven out of.