Psychiatry and Christmas part 1

Home / Christmas / Psychiatry and Christmas part 1

Sigmund Freud is known to have celebrated Christmas, and his followers in the psychiatric profession have not ignored the season in their quest for understanding the deepest secrets of the human personality.

Dr. Adrianus de Groot, for example, claims that the folk customs surrounding St. Nicholas represent all the stages of the human reproductive cycle from courtship to the production of offspring. “The symbolism could hardly be more characteristic,” states the good doctor, who helpfully emphasizes the clues we should have noticed “the riding on the rooftops of houses, the pouring down of sweets and other presents through the chimney, so that all these good things fall into the shoe or the barrel beside the fire.” Treasure is of course semen and the story of the three murdered students whom St Nicholas revives is the story of the “male triumvirate”; their death is the “death of the phallus.”

For Dr. Richard Sterba, female imagery is the key to unlocking the heart of Christmas. The chimney and the fireplace that Santa Claus uses to enter the house are the vagina and the vulva to the unconscious mind of the child and presents therefore come out of the birth canal. Santa Claus with his great belly is thus a pregnant woman. In fact the whole process of shopping, wrapping and keeping secrets is symbolic of pregnancy just as the exhaustion that follows the opening of presents resembles that experienced after giving birth.

A Christmas Carol’s Ebenezer Scrooge, who hoarded money, is diagnosed as anal-retentive by Freudians. Michael Steig reminds us of the link between feces and money and speaks of the “excremental vision” of Charles Dickens. (Other psychaiatrists have noted Dickens’s love of food and feasting and have pronounced him an “oral” personality. Dr. Walter Bortz points out that Scrooge was cured by Dickensian psychotherapy and urges sufferers of Christmas funk to follow Dickens’s prescription of indulgence coupled with generosity.

Santa Claus 1925

Home / Christmas / Santa Claus 1925

A marvellous bit of nostalgia from the pen of E.H. Shepherd, the famed illustrator of Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows. Note the  hooded garb of the British Father Christmas that distinguishes him from the North American Santa Claus. Note too just how early the myth of the Lapland home of the Gift-Bringer rivals the North Pole.

Two Christmas Season Breakings

Home / Christmas / Two Christmas Season Breakings

Breaking the New Year’s Cake

In Ireland a number of curious customs were enacted on New Year’s Eve to ensure prosperity for the family in the coming year. There was the necessity of eating a huge meal that resulted in December 31 being known as the Night of the Big Portion. In some parts of Ireland a loaf of bread or a cake was used to strike the door three times while a ritual verse was chanted in which misfortune was bidden to be off and happiness to enter. A variation on this called for a cake to be smashed against the door of the house or barn. (Not to be confused with the wedding custom of breaking the cake on the Irish bride’s head.)

Breaking the Witch

In many countries it was a question of much importance as to who would be the first person across the threshold of the house on Christmas or New Year’s Day. The lucky “first-footer” was usually a dark-haired male and the unluckiest were often women. In Wales if a woman was the first to enter the house on New Year little boys were assembled (sometimes hired) to parade through the house to counteract the evil effects brought by a female first-footer. This process was called “breaking the witch”.

Boy Bishops and Christmas Abbesses

Home / Christmas / Boy Bishops and Christmas Abbesses

In many medieval churches it was the custom on December 6, St. Nicholas’s Day, to elect a choir boy as a mock bishop. During his tenure (which lasted until Holy Innocents’ Day, December 28) he would wear a bishop’s robes, go about in procession, take offerings, preach, and give his blessing.

The earliest example of this custom comes from 961 when German King Conrad spent Christmas with the Bishop of Constance and visited the monastery at St Gall. The king entertained himself during the service by rolling apples into the aisles in an attempt to distract the boy bishop and his attendants from their solemn duties but they did not take the bait.

This practice grew partly out of Jesus’s teachings on the special relationship of children to the Kingdom of Heaven and partly out of the spirit of social inversion that marked Christmas-time celebrations in the Middle Ages. This custom was not restricted to boys — in the thirteenth century English nunneries allowed prayers and ceremonies to be performed by girls on Innocents’ Day. At Carrow Abbey the female equivalent of the Nicholas Bishop was the Christmas Abbess.

 Like those other examples of misrule and social inversion, the Feast of Fools and the Feast of the Ass, the Boy Bishop was eventually suppressed. Henry VII of England had his own St. Nicholas Bishop, chosen from the choristers of the Chapel Royal, but his son Henry VIII forbade the custom in 1541, complaining that “children be strangely decked and appareled to counterfeit priests, bishops and women, and so be led with songs and dances from house to house, blessing the people and gathering of money and boys do sing mass and preach in the pulpit, with such other unfitting and inconvenient usages”. The Boy Bishop was briefly resurrected by Bloody Mary in 1555 but disappeared on her death in 1558. Vestiges remain in the Italian custom of children preaching before the Bambino and in some English churches and schools which began to revive the custom in the twentieth century.

Dancing and Christmas

Home / Christmas / Dancing and Christmas

Judging by the numerous prohibitions issued against it by Church authorities through the centuries, people have wanted to dance to celebrate Christmas for a long time. Dancing in churches was prohibited by the Council at Toledo in 590; in 692 another council in Byzantium warned against dancing during the Twelve Nights as did the Faculty of Theology in Paris in 1445 — in both cases they linked dancing to cross-dressing. In sixteenth-century Iceland, church decrees were issued against dancing on Yule Eve and in Scotland in 1574 fourteen women were arrested for “playing, dancing and singing filthy carols on Yule Day.” Despite these strictures Christmas and dancing continue to be linked.

In 1325 church authorities in Paris forbade clerics under pain of excommunication from participating in dances except at Christmas and the feasts of St Nicholas and Saint Catherine when certain round dances were part of the liturgy.

Nowadays, in Spain it is the “Dance of the Six” in the cathedral of Seville that opens the Christmas season — in front of the altar ten boys dance through a series of postures and movements that symbolize the mysteries of the Incarnation and Nativity. (In a rather less solemn manner in Cordoba, other Spaniards engage in “El Baile de los Locos”, the Dance of the Madmen. Led by El Loco Mayor, the chief madman, a mob of folk pretending to be demented dance though people’s houses during the Christmas season.) Dancing opens the Christmas season in Honduras as well — the Warini, the Christmas Herald is a masked dancer who goes house-to-house accompanied by singers and drummers. In Lalibela, Ethiopia on Christmas Day ceremonies include a dance by some of the priests who have accompanied the procession of the Coptic Ark of the Covenant. The Matachine dancers perform during Christmas in Mexico while in Canada numerous aboriginal tribes hold competitive powwows; in Tirol men dressed as bears dance in the streets while in northeastern Brazil the Bumba Meu-Boi involves dancers guised as bulls and donkeys. In Scotland “guisers” went door to door dancing at singing; in Cornwall such folk were called “geese dancers”.

 In Provence, at special Christmas services to honour their profession and its connection to the original Nativity, traditionally clad shepherds and shepherdesses sing and dance behind a ram pulling a cart with a lamb. Scandinavian families link hands on Christmas Eve and dance around the tree singing carols. In the United States there are few cities without a ballet company who will performThe Nutcracker over the Christmas holidays while in the rural west of the country those with a yen to dance can attend the Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball or the Sheepherders’ Overall Dance.

St Barbara’s Day

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St Barbara is the patron saint of blowing things up and of men concerned with explosions — miners, artillerymen, engineers, and firemen. Barbara was a legendary virgin of Lebanon at a time when Christianity was persecuted by the Roman authorities. Her father kept her locked in a tower where she was comforted by the sight of a fruit tree in bloom. Having converted to Christianity, she refused the pagan husband she was offered, an act for which she was punished by torture. When Barbara persisted in her faith, her father beheaded her — an unwise move because he was instantly struck dead by a bolt of lightning (thus explaining her patronage).

Her saint’s day, December 4, is the start of the Christmas season for the Christians of the Middle East and the occasion for a tradition involving blossoms.. In Germany, Austria, the Czech lands, and Slovakia a “Barbara twig” is cut from a cherry tree and placed in water. If it blooms on or before Christmas Eve the family will see a marriage in the year to come. In Provence and parts of the Middle East, wheat and lentils are sown on St. Barbara’s Day and if they germinate are served on Christmas

Cross-Dressing at Christmas

Home / Christmas / Cross-Dressing at Christmas

A clear signal that social inversion is in effect and that festive misrule and license will be tolerated temporarily is for one sex to assume the dress of another. This has its origins in the Roman feast of Saturnalia held in late December and it continued after the Christianization of Europe. Numerous edicts exist from the Middle Ages in which authorities decry transvestism at Christmas amongst the lower clergy and popular folk customs. In 1445 by the Paris Faculty of Theology complained: “Priests and clerks may be seen wearing masks and monstrous visages at the hours of office. They dance in the choir dressed as women, panders or minstrels.” The Staffordshire Horn Dance has a cross-dressing cast member called Maid Marian while guisers on the Scottish borders provide comic relief with the figure of Bessie the Besom, a man dressed as an old woman. In Newfoundland mumming both sexes will participate dressed as the other, with young women disguised as sailors and men known as “ownshooks” clad as women. In Nova Scotia the females who went belsnickling dressed as Wise Men were called Kris Kringles.

An interesting portrait

Home / Christmas / An interesting portrait

This is the world’s first oil painting of Santa Claus. It dates from 1837; the work is “Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas” by Robert Weir.  Weir (1803-89) was a member of the Knickerbocker circle and taught art at West Point Military Academy, where one of his pupils was James McNeil Whistler. His gift-bringer is caught in the act of ascending the chimney and (in homage to a gesture attributed to Saint Nicholas in both the Knickerbocker History and Moore’s poem) has turned to lay his finger aside of his nose. Weir produced several versions of this painting over the next few years which were exhibited to favourable response. Only in the first one could Santa Claus be described as jolly; all later depictions by Weir replace the amiable face with one wearing a manic leer.

This is not a comforting midnight visitor. With wild eyebrows, jagged teeth, and an ample collection of switches he might well be one of the sinister forest creatures of a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale but there are signs of his bishop’s rank and his Dutch origins as well. A rosary dangles from his waist while a processional cross (or sword, say some) is stuck in his belt. His cloak is an ecclesiastical mozzetta, coloured the official episcopal red and trimmed with white fur, (though few bishops are seen sticking a stump of a pipe in their hood.) Dutch tiles, the image of a windmill above the mantle, a broken pipe on the floor and a peeled orange (signifying the ruling Dutch dynasty) make clear Santa’s ethnic origins.

A Hue and Cry After Christmas

Home / Christmas / A Hue and Cry After Christmas


 A seventeenth-century English tract, written as part of the intense debate on the propriety of celebrating Christmas. The devout Protestants known as Puritans argued that Christmas was a popish and heathen invention and spoke against the feasting, merriment and revelry of the holiday. For a time under the Commonwealth of the 1650s they succeeded in making it illegal.

The author of An Hue and Cry After Christmas uses Old Christmas as the personification of the season and asks: “Any man or woman, that can give any knowledge or tell any tidings of an old, old, very old grey-bearded gentleman, called Christmas, who was wont to be a a very familiar guest and visit all sorts of people, both poor and rich, and used to appear in glittering gold, silk and silver, in the court, and in all shapes in the theatre in White Hall, and had ringing, feasts and jollity in all places, both in the city and the country for his coming — whoever can tell what is become of him, or where he may be found, let him bring him back again into England.”

“The Three Low Masses”

Home / Christmas / “The Three Low Masses”

A renowned French short story of 1875, “Les trois basses messes” by Alphonse Daudet (1840-97), supposedly based on a Provençal folk tale. The seventeenth-century priest Dom Balaguère is so greedy for his Christmas réveillon feast of truffled turkeys, pheasant, peacock, eel, trout and wine that he falls prey to the tempting of the Devil and rushes through his performance of the required three masses. God then decrees that the priest shall not enter heaven until he has celebrated 300 Christmas masses in his chapel where for centuries his ghost haunts the altar.

An elegant reading of the story can be found by clicking on this link.