Yesterday we saw some Christmas cards sent by World War II German soldiers from Canadian prisoner of war camps. Today we see some from the opposite side of the fence: two cards sent by British soldiers held by the Nazis. You will note that in the first card there are soldiers and a sailor depicted — captured air crew were prisoners of the Luftwaffe who ran a separate camp system. The Germans seem to have let the prisoners design their own cards so they tend to be more unique than those from Allied POW cages.
When the laws of warfare are observed (as they generally were between Nazi Germany and the western Allies) prisoners of war are accorded the right to communicate with their families at home. Often this took the form of Christmas cards supplied by the captors. Here are two which Canadian officials made available to German prisoners in World War II. In the first card, prisoner Theodore Kutsche sends Christmas greetings to his mother and sister. At this stage of the war it was very likely that Kutsche was a member of a downed aircrew.
In the late 1920s black American preachers found a market for short recorded sermons as a three-minute oration fit nicely on a 78-rpm disc. Here is a sermon recorded in Atlanta, 3 November 1926; the Reverend J.M. Gates waxes eloquent on the possibility of imminent death and the need for repentance. Using Santa as a metaphor for things hoped for, he warns that the future might bring something much nastier than a Christmas present. In later years Gates would also gives his listeners “Will the Coffin Be Your Santa Claus” and “Will Death Be Your Santa Claus.” Attend to his message:
While we think on the 25th of December, we are expecting a great day. But on that day it is said that Jesus was born, but we celebrate Christmas wrong. From the way I look at this matter, shooting fireworks, cursing, and dancing. Raising all other kinds of sand.
Ah, but death may be your Santa Claus. Those of you who are speaking to the little folks and telling them that Santa Claus coming to see ’em, and the little boys telling mother and father, “Tell old Santa to bring me a little pistol,” that same little gun may be death in that boy’s home. Death may be his Santa Claus. That little old girl is saying to mother and to father, “Tell old Santa Claus to bring me a little deck of cards that I may play five-up in the park.” While the child play, death may be her Santa Claus.
Those of you that has prepared to take your automobiles and now fixing up the old tires, an’ getting your spares ready and overhauling your automobile, death may be your Santa Claus.
You is decorating your room and getting ready for all night dance, death may be your Santa Claus. Death is on your track and gonna overtake you after a while. Death may be your Santa Claus. Oh man, oh woman, oh boy, oh girl, if were you, I would be worrying this morning and would search deep down in my heart. For God I live and for God I’ll die. If I were you, I’d turn around this morning. Death may be your Santa Claus. Death been on your track ever since you were born, ever since you been in the world. Death winked at your mother three times before you was born into this sin sinnin’ world. Death is gonna bring you down after while, after while; Death may be your Santa Claus.
As we have seen, the liquor trade was shameless enough to use Santa Claus as a pitch man for beer and liquor. The temperance movement, which was strong enough in the early 20th century to persuade the USA and many jurisdictions in Canada to ban alcohol, also found an ally in Santa as this letter to young people testifies.
As we saw in yesterday’s post, Santa Claus is often used to tout the virtues of Christmas beer.
But the advertising industry has also used Santa to peddle hard liquor.
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. (On the other hand, 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 New 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.
January 13th is celebrated in Sweden and Finland as St Knut’s Day, the 20th and last day of Christmas. A proverb says “Twentieth day Knut driveth Yule out.” The Knut (or Canute) in question was a murdered 12th-century Danish duke who was later canonized On this date Christmas trees are taken down and any remaining edible treats on the tree are consumed. The party that accompanies this is called a Julgransplundring, (“Christmas tree plundering”).
In some parts of Finland on Nuutinpäivä, it was traditional for young men to disguise themselves as sinister goats and go door to door demanding hospitality, especially of the alcoholic kind. Today, however, the custom is more innocent and largely restricted to children.
We have met the brilliant G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) before, bandying opinions on Christmas with George Bernard Shaw. Here are a few more of his thoughts on the season.
What life and death may be to a turkey is not my business; but the soul of Scrooge and the body of Cratchit are my business. – Christmas, All Things Considered
Hark! Laughter like a lion wakes
To roar to the resounding plain,
And the whole heaven shouts and shakes,
For God Himself is born again,
And we are little children walking
Through the snow and rain. – The Wise Men
Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home. – Brave New Family
A turkey is more occult and awful than all the angels and archangels. In so far as God has partly revealed to us an angelic world, he has partly told us what an angel means. But God has never told us what a turkey means. And if you go and stare at a live turkey for an hour or two, you will find by the end of it that the enigma has rather increased than diminished. – Christmas
Anyone thinking of the Holy Child as born in December would mean by it exactly what we mean by it; that Christ is not merely a summer sun of the prosperous but a winter fire for the unfortunate. – The New Jerusalem
The more we are proud that the Bethlehem story is plain enough to be understood by the shepherds, and almost by the sheep, the more do we let ourselves go, in dark and gorgeous imaginative frescoes or pageants about the mystery and majesty of the Three Magian Kings. – Christendom in Dublin
The great majority of people will go on observing forms that cannot be explained; they will keep Christmas Day with Christmas gifts and Christmas benedictions; they will continue to do it; and some day suddenly wake up and discover why. – On Christmas, Generally Speaking
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, 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.
Lenin eventually grew weary of their juvenile provocations which he claimed were discrediting atheism; Komsomol groups toned down their attacks, Similarly, Stalin would turn on the League of the Militant Godless when he needed patriotic support in mustering a national effort against Germany.
 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.