Robertson Davies on Christmas Books

Home / Christmas / Robertson Davies on Christmas Books

The following by Canadian literary giant Robertson Davies appeared in the New York Times in December, 1991:

There are many people — happy people, it usually appears — whose thoughts at Christmas always turn to books. The notion of a Christmas tree with no books under it is repugnant and unnatural to them. I had the good luck to be born into such a family and, although my brothers and I were happy with such insubstantial gifts as skates, toboggans and the like, we would have been greatly disappointed if there had been no books. My father expected the latest Wodehouse, and some vast wad of political recollections — “The Life and Letters of Walter H. Page” when I was very young, and the awesome six volumes of Lloyd George’s war memoirs much later, were the sort of thing that he, and he alone in our family, could read — and my mother wanted and received novels of idyllic rural life by Mary Webb or Sheila Kaye-Smith.

For me, a standby for years was the annual collected volume of the English boys’ magazine Chums, through which I chewed greedily, consuming the historical serial (the boy who did wonders in the army of Wellington or the navy of Nelson); the contemporary serial (the boy whose mother sacrificed to send him to a good school — these were all boarding schools — and who emerged victorious from some scandal in which he had been accused of theft or secret drinking, and carried the school to victory in the great cricket match); the comic serial, about disruptive groups of boy conjurers, boy ventriloquists and boy contortionists who reduced their schools to chaos and their masters to nervous prostration by their sidesplitting japes and wheezes. These wondrous boys were not in the least like the boys I knew in Canada, but that merely gave them the appeal of the exotic. In between the pages of the serials, I read the articles about careers (civil servant, church organist, veterinarian) and about how to make a serviceable violin out of a cigar box and some picture wire.

I particularly relished a column of comic backchat between two wags named Roland Butter and Hammond Deggs. Here is a sample of their wares. R.B.: “Why did the djinn sham pain and whine?” H.D.: “I dunno.” R.B.: “Because the stout porter bit ‘er.” H.D.: “Oh, crumbs!” It was not until much later in life when I came under the spell of Demon Rum that I savored the full richness of that one.

Before Christmas there was always a period of expectancy during which my parents urged me to read Dickens’s “Christmas Carol.” Every year I tried and every year Christmas Day arrived to find that I had got no further than the appearance of Marley’s ghost. I was a slow reader, moving my lips and hearing every word, but I knew the story. It was inescapable. At school no Christmas passed without several children being dragooned into a re-enactment of the Cratchits’ Christmas dinner, for the entertainment of parents. Early in life I developed a distaste for the Cratchits that time has not sweetened. I do not think I was an embittered child, but the Cratchits’ aggressive worthiness, their bravely borne poverty, their exultation over that wretched goose, disgusted me. I particularly disliked Tiny Tim (a part always played by a girl because girls had superior powers of looking moribund and worthy at the same time), and when he chirped, “God bless us every one!” my mental response was akin to Sam Goldwyn’s famous phrase, “Include me out.”

Plough Monday

Home / Christmas / Plough Monday

In England, the first Monday after Twelfth Day, January 6, when agricultural labourers return to work and, in many places, when Christmas decorations were taken down. It was also a time when decorated ploughs were paraded through the villages to raise money for the purchase of candles used in blessing the coming agricultural year — a ceremony in which a plough was brought into the church — or just simply for a party to mark the end of the holidays. The men who dragged the plough were called Plough Stots, Bullocks, Jacks or Jags and the implement itself was called the Fool. Should anyone refuse to make a donation the men ploughed up the yard in front of the house in revenge.

The superstitious connection between the plough and the fertility that is desired for the fields is seen in the folk belief that young women who draw the plow or even sit on it or touch it would soon be married and blessed with children. A related custom in Rumania was called plugusorul — boys took decorated ploughs from house to house accompanied by bells and pipers.

Plough Monday in modern England is frequently the occasion for morris-dancing and St. George plays.

“Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus”

Home / Christmas / “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus”

On September 21, 1897 The New York Sun, printed the following:

We take pleasure in answering thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of The Sun:

Dear Editor:

I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?

Virginia O’Hanlon

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the scepticism of a sceptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

 Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to have men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest men, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

 No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

The unsigned editorial, later revealed to be the work of Francis Pharcellus Church, was not given any prominence that day — it was the seventh article on the page and ran below commentaries on New York and Connecticut politics, the strength of the British navy, chainless bicycles and a Canadian railroad to the Yukon — but it soon became famous around the world. The exchange between Church and Virginia O’Hanlon was reprinted every year until the newspaper ceased publication in 1950. Movies were made about the story; in 1932 NBC produced a cantata (probably the only editorial set to classical music); and in 1996 a musical by David Kirchenbaum and Myles McDonnel appeared.

Church (1839-1906) was a strange choice for the task, given him by editor William Mitchell.  The veteran reporter (he had been a war correspondent during the American Civil War) was childless and had had no particular bent toward Christmas philosophizing. Only on his death was he revealed to be the author of a piece of immortal Yuletide prose. Virginia O’Hanlon lived to a ripe old age and died in 1971.

Père Noël

Home / Christmas / Père Noël

In most of the France the gift-bringer is Père Noël, a tall old man with a white beard clothed more like England’s Father Christmas than the American Santa Claus: in a long hooded robe edged with white fur. Like Santa he carries a sack (in some areas, a basket) filled with toys but, lacking a sleigh and reindeer, he travels about with a donkey. On Christmas Eve he enters the house down the chimney and leaves presents for children underneath the tree or in their shoes which are placed by the crèche or the fireplace. It is customary for children to leave him a snack along with some fodder for his donkey. An earlier French gift-bringer was the figure representing the Christ Child known as Le Petit Jésus or Le Petit Noël but this has largely been displaced by Père Noël who first appeared under this name in 1855.

Begging Visits

Home / Christmas / Begging Visits

Ever since the Middle Ages people have used the Christmas season to go door-to-door soliciting charity in return for a song or good wishes for the coming year. In Alsace in 1462 visitors dressed as the Magi are recorded as having gone about on the eve of Epiphany. Sixteenth-century English sources noted the custom of the Wassail Wenches on Twelfth Night. In Yorkshire lads used to go “Christmas ceshing” — knocking on the door and shouting “Wish you a Merry Christmas, mistress and master.” Similar English begging visits were called “gooding”. “doling” or “mumping” and often took place on St Thomas Day. Plough Boys go begging on Plough Monday while the Silvesterklausen tradition in Switzerland takes place on New Year’s Eve. Klöpflngehen occurs in south Germany throughout Advent. In North America belsnickling and Newfoundland mumming sought hospitality more than charity. In Brazil the Reisados solicit donations for the celebration of Epiphany.

These visits were framed in such a way that a blessing was always exchanged for money or hospitality. In those cases where a gift was not forthcoming curses were often uttered. In pre-revolutionary Russia carolers sang kolyadki, songs of blessing that could turn into wishes for a bad harvest or sick cattle if little gifts were not forthcoming. On the Greek island of Chios groups of children revile the housewife who has run out of treats to pass out on Christmas Eve: they make uncomplimentary remarks and wish her cloven feet. Their remarks would be hard-pressed to surpass the venom of this malediction found on the Scottish island of South Uist:

The curse of God and the New Year be on you
And the scath of the plaintive buzzard,
Of the hen-harrier, of the raven, of the eagle,
And the scath of the sneaking fox.
The scath of the dog and cat be on you,
Of the boar, of the badger and of the ghoul,
Of the hipped bear and of the wild wolf,
And the scath of the foul polecat.

In central and eastern Europe the Star Boys still parade, though now the money collected is often directed toward Third World development. In the Austrian village of Oberndorf where “Silent Night” was first written, boatmen who were unable to work during the winter months used to go about at Christmas soliciting donations to see them through until spring. The custom died for a time when modern social welfare attitudes were adopted by the government but it was revived in the twentieth-century in a different form. Now groups of men walk round with their lanterns, bells and a Christmas crib atop a pole collecting money for charity. Even though the true begging visit has declined, Christmas is still the season for encouraging charity as shown by the example of the Salvation Army with its street-corner kettles.

Some social historians distinguish between those visitors who are seeking charity — such as the wassail wenches or those doleing or mumping on St Thomas Day — and those after only a spot of hospitality in return for good wishes — these latter they call “luck visits.” Customs such as wassailing or Nwefoundland mumming would fall into this category.


Home / Christmas / Pasteles

Pasteles are a traditional Spanish Caribbean Christmas food. Similar to tamales they are banana or plantain leaves filled with a variety of stuffings, tied and steamed. They are often made communally by groups of women,  some chopping, some stuffing, some wrapping. A Venezuelan dish that resembles pasteles is hallacas; in Nicaragua the equivalent is nacatamales.

 A Puerto Rican song proclaims:

Si me dan pasteles,
Dénmelos calientes,
Qui pasteles fríos,
Empachan la gente.

If you serve pasteles
Bring them steaming hot.
I’ll end up with heartburn
If steaming hot they’re not.

Christmas in Nicaragua

Home / Christmas / Christmas in Nicaragua

The Christmas season in Nicaragua begins on December 7 with La Purísima, the national holiday that marks the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. It’s a day of parades, songsand such exuberance that the celebrations are called La Noche de Gritería — The Night of the Screams. Fireworks called Volcanoes, Red Bombs, Roman Candles, Butterflies and Bottle Rockets light up the sky all night. Other signs of the season are the Christmas goods in the markets (gifts, candles, seasonal food and material for making or adding to the nacimiento ), carols and the setting up of the family crèche. Houses are decorated with poinsettias (called Flores de Pastor  — shepherd’s flowers — in Nicaragua), colourful paper decorations and pictures of the Nativity. Nine days before Christmas a special series of prayers, a novena, is said.

 Christmas Eve sees the preparation of the dinner that will be served in the evening:  making nacatamal wrapped in plantain leaves take a lot of work. Chicken is also likely on the menu with rice and beans; fruit, biscuits, squash cooked in honey, leche de burra,  and rum punch follow. After dinner people go to church for the midnight mass; many will wait in line after the service to kiss the doll representiung the baby Jesus in the church’s crèche. At home again they will open presents brought by El Niño, the Christ Child, and place his image in the family Nativity scene.

January 6 is Epiphany or Three Kings’ Day. Children will have put out their shoes the previous with a little grass in them for the camels of the Magi and in the morning they will find treats and little presents. It’s also a day for god-parents to visit their god-children and to bring them a small gift. At night the Christmas season ends with yet more fireworks.

Drink and Christmas

Home / Christmas / Drink and Christmas

One of the earliest English carols says:

Lordings, Christmas loves good drinking,
Wines of Gascoigne, France, Anjou,
English ale that drives out thinking,
Prince of liquors old or new.
Every neighbour shares the bowl,
Drinks of the spicy liquor deep,
Drinks his fill without control,
Till he drowns his care in sleep.

And now — by Christmas, jolly soul!
By this mansion’s generous sire!
By this wine, and by this bowl,
And all the joys they both inspire!
Here I’ll drink a health to all,
The glorious task shall first be mine:
And ever may foul luck befall
Him that to pledge me shall decline!

 Christmas has ben associated with festive drinking since the time of the late Roman Empire and every nation that celebrates Christmas brings to it its own favourite Christmas beverage. In England the wassail bowl was full at Christmas with ale, roasted apples and spices, served hot. Ale was referred to once as “nog” and when the Americans adopted the French “lait de poule”, a drink with eggs, sugar  and milk, they added liquor to make the modern eggnog. Christmas is Scandinavia is fuelled by glögg, a spiced wine similar to the glühwein which warms Germans and Austrians. In Ecuador they drink canelazo, a hot drink made of spiced tea and an anise-flavored brandy. Sorrel is the basis of the Jamaican Christmas drink. Rum punches gladden the heart of the Caribbean and Central America while in Denmark drinkers reach for special Christmas varieties of beer and schnapps. In Norway the best Christmas akevitt is that which has been transported in ship’s barrels twice across the Equator. Champagne is drunk on holiday occasions around the world (though Spaniards seem to prefer their own sparkling wine called cava.)

Whatever the beverage of choice drinking at Christmas symbolizes conviviality, hospitality and a celebration of relaxation from work. It also means that drinking to excess is a Yule-time problem and police forces around the world have special holiday enforcement of drinking-and-driving laws.


Home / Christmas / Kindelwiegen

 The veneration of the crèche which began in the Middle Ages led in Germany to the custom of Kindelwiegen or “Cradle Rocking”. At first the rocking was performed by priests who sang a duet about the Virgin and the Baby Jesus; the choir and congregation then joined in singing and dancing around the crib. Later the people were allowed to rock the cradle themselves. In the sixteenth century Protestants abandoned the custom, and even to Catholics the rocking seemed like an irreverent act, so the image of the Christ Child was removed to the altar while folk danced around it as Barnaby Googe relates:

Three Maisses every Priest doth sing upon that solemne day,

With offrings unto enery one, that so the more may play.

This done, a woodden childe in clowtes is on the aultar set

About the which both boyes and gyrles do daunce and trymly jet,

And Carrols sing in prayse of Christ, and for to helpe them heare,

The Organs aunswere every verse, with sweete and solemne cheare.

The Priestes doe rore aloude, and round about the parentes stande,

To see the sport, and with their voyce do helpe them and their hande.

In the eighteenth century it was performed every day between Christmas and Candlemas by boy-acolytes of Brixen Cathedral in Tyrol.  The rowdiness of the scene may be inferred from the printed instructions to the sacristan: “Be sure to take a stick or a thong of ox hide, for the boys are often misbehaved.” The custom fell into disuse but has been revived in some Catholic parishes in the 21st century.

Basque Christmas

Home / Christmas / Basque Christmas

Christmas is enthusiastically celebrated by the Basque inhabitants of northern Spain. Manyt of the customs are common to Spain but two apsects of the Basque celebrations stand out: the many Christmas songs in their unique language and the figure of the Olentzero.

Carols have been composed in the Basque tongue since at least the sixteenth century and since then the region has produced a number whose fame has reached beyond its borders.  They include “Oi! Betllem” (O Bethehem), “Aur txiki” (Lovely Baby Mary Bore Him), “Belen’en sortu zaigu” (In Mid-winter They Set Out); and “Birjinia gaztettotbat zegoen” (The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came.) Basque tunes were used by the English composer Sabine Baring-Gould for three of his carols: “Gabriel’s Message”, “The Infant King” and “Lullay My Liking”.

 The Olentzero is a legendary figure, usually portrayed as a charcoal burner or a shepherd, who comes down from the mountains at Christmas time to announce the coming of the joyful season, to partake in its festivities and hand out gifts. He is not a handsome figure, but a vigorous one dressed in beret and typical Basque garb, capable of prodigious feats of celebrating. In many villages his image is carried through the streets on the shoulders of folk who take it from house to house singing carols.

Numerous fiestas are held in the Basque country during the Christmas season beginning with those on St. Nicholas Day, December 6, when parades of children will process through the streets singing songs about the saint and telling the stories of his amazing career. Saint Lucia fairs (December 13) and Saint Thomas fairs (December 21) will bring farmers into towns to show their produce. On Christmas Eve in  village of Labastida groups of shepherds, draped in pelts, will recite ancient verses and perform dances which are likely remmants of medieval pastoral drama.