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”

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 23

In today’s image a French soldier of World War I confronts the Hun with a piece of artillery. Its resemblance to the traditional Yule log-shaped Christmas dessert, gives us the caption “la buche de noël”.

The “75” on the cannon tells us this is the justly-famous “French 75”, a rapid-firing, highly-accurate weapon with a hydro-pneumatic recoil device.

So famous was the gun that a cocktail was named after it. To make a “French 75” mix 2 ounces of gin with a half-ounce of simple syrup and a half-ounce of lemon juice. Shake, pour over ice and add 5 ounces of champagne. Serve in a highball glass.

November 21

Today’s wartime Christmas cards come to you from the Dominion of Canada. When Canada entered the Great War in 1914 it did so automatically as part of the British Empire. When Britain declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939, Canada was able to come to a separate decision on whether to join the struggle. A week after the British declaration the Canadian Parliament voted to sign on.

The first two cards, both from early in the war, show that the Union flag was  still the one to wave in a patriotic fashion rather than the Canadian Ensign.

In both Canada and the USA Christmas cards were used to raise money for the war effort. Here is a French Canadian version.

The captions read “Gifts that will hasten victory” and “A Guarantee of Peace and Liberty. We must all contribute, so that is why I am sending you these War Savings stamps with my best wishes for the New Year. It is the best investment we can make to ensure a lasting peace.”

November 18

Today’s Christmas cards in wartime come to you from the Spanish Civil War, a nasty fratricidal struggle waged from 1936-1939, pitting the forces of right-wing rebels (backed by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy) against the left-wing republican government  (backed by the Soviet Union and an army of foreign volunteers called the International Brigades.)

Thousands of Marxist sympathizers from the United States (the Lincoln-Washington Battalion), Canada (the McKenzie-Papineau Battalion), Germany (the Ernst Thälmann Battalion), Italians (Garibaldi Battalion), etc., fought and died in battles against Francoist armies. Theirs is a tragic story, full of misunderstanding and hostility in their own countries and of betrayal by the Comintern, with moments of genuine heroism. 

St Knut’s Day

On January 13, known as St Knut’s Day or Hilarymas, Swedish and Finnish children enjoy one last festive party and then the decorations and trees are taken down. The folk saying is “Twentieth day Knut, Driveth Yule out.”

 It was once common to throw Christmas trees into the streets once they had been stripped bare of treats but this is now treated as a public nuisance and is subject to fines.

Bolsheviks Attack Christmas

Marxist and Nazi totalitarian governments cannot abide a faith that challenges their ideological supremacy, so religion must be destroyed or controlled. In the young Soviet Union, the task of ridiculing religion was first put into the hands of the Communist youth league, the Komsomol.

On Orthodox Christmas Eve[1], January 6, 1923, activists launched the “Komsomol Christmas”. In the new capital city, Moscow, and across the Soviet Union, demonstrators held a series of parades with provocative and often obscene floats designed to denigrate religion. Clowns capered and sang the “Internationale”, a figure of God embraced a naked woman, Christmas trees were topped with red stars, staged trials judged Christianity, and mock priests and rabbis intoned lewd parodies of religious services. In a “Carnival of the Gods”, Christianity was linked to paganism and the Moscow parade ended with images of Buddha, Christ, Mohammed and Osiris all being burned on the bonfire. Komsomol youth went from house to house singing an parodic version of the Christmas Troparion hymn of the Orthodox Church.

Activists confronted believers emerging from church services, taunting them. In Odessa demonstrators burnt effigies of Moses and Jehovah in the main square. In Pskov, an orchestra was enlisted to entertain while militants buried “Counter-Revolution” and immolated the old gods. Anti-religious plays such as “The Liberation of Truth” were staged as were parodies of Orthodox rites where readings from scientific literature replaces the scriptures.

[1] In the Orthodox Church, Christmas is celebrated on December 25, but according to the Julian calendar; the Soviet state (and most of the rest of the world) followed the Gregorian calendar which in the twentieth century differed by thirteen days.

Childermas

December 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, commemorates the murder of the male babies of Bethlehem by King Herod. In England the day was known as Childermas (or Dyzemas) and was considered an ill-omened time; few would want, for example, to be married on that date. Not only was no business conducted on that day, but the day of the week on which it fell was deemed unlucky for the rest of the year. In Ireland it was Lá Crostna na Bliana, the “cross day of the year” when no new enterprise was begun. Many sailors would not sail on that day; on the Aran isles no one was buried on Childermas (or the day of the week on which it occurred); and in Cornwall to wash on that day was to doom one of your relatives to death.

Childermas was also a day for ritual beatings. The seventeenth-century writer Gregorie notes the custom of whipping children in the morning of that day so that Herod’s murderousness “might stick the closer; and, in a moderate proportion, to act over the crueltie again in kind.”