Some Christmas Propaganda

Home / Christmas / Some Christmas Propaganda

During World War I the British navy imposed a blockade on the German Empire, cutting it off from needed resources and foodstuffs. This cartoon imagines that all Germans have left to enjoy for their Christmas meal is art depicting the food they are deprived of.


Christmas “pantos” are dramatic presentations during the holiday season much enjoyed by British families for over a century. The characters are stereotyped and familiar to the audiences. One of the favourite themes is Jack and the Beanstalk. Here the cartoonist in the midst of World War II portrays Soviet leader Stalin as Joe the Giant Killer with a Nazi soldier tumbling to his doom. 

Krampus and the Fascists

Home / Christmas / Krampus and the Fascists

The devilish figure of Krampus was a popular image in Austrian Christmases. He accompanied St Nicholas and terrified children into good behaviour. However, in 1934 the fascist government of Austria chose to clamp down on this tradition.

The New York Times  December 11, 1934 reported that under pressure from Catholic clergy the Austrian authorities urged a boycott of Krampus, warned against rowdy parties involving the devil, and demanded that anyone wishing to appear as Santa Claus must be licensed. Such warnings do not seem to have had much effect at the time and to this day Austrians are still devoted to Krampus.

Ornaments and the Secret Police

Home / Christmas / Ornaments and the Secret Police

Since the 1850s, in the Thurinigian town of Lauscha, family businesses had produced the glass ornaments that decorated Christmas trees around the world. These mouth-blown, hand-painted baubles came in thousands of shapes and attracted the interest of the Woolworth’s department store chain which bought millions for their stores in Britain and North America. After the Second World War, Lauscha was located in the communist German Democratic Republic which was suspicious of private enterprise. The ornament-making family businesses became state-run and an object of concern for the Stasi, the East German secret police.

Why had the Lauscha Christmas decoration business became a matter of national security? In the first place, because the area was notorious for its acts of low-level resistance and non-cooperation with the communist authorities. The Stasi blamed this on the family and commercial contacts that the local glassblowers had with West Germany. Secondly, it was feared that such contacts might prove harmful to the economy of the GDR, with trade secrets leaked to the ornament-making industry across the border.

The East German government was concerned that Lauscha decorations might be made subject to restrictions on imports to the West which wished to protect its own manufacturers. Stasi agents at the toys fair in Nuremberg also found that Lauscha products were developing a bad reputation for declining quality and unreliable delivery – typical complaints about Soviet bloc goods. The secret police made it their business to collect samples and catalogues from their western competitors.

After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the two Germanys reunited in 1991, the Lauscha glass works ceased to be state-run enterprises and many returned to the ownership of the families traditionally associated with the trade.

Lazy Crèches

Home / Christmas / Lazy Crèches

In Králíky, Bohemia, admirers of artisanal nativity scenes will find what are known as Grulich cribs, so-called after the former name of the town.

These crèches were traditionally made by the area’s miners who were looking to supplement their income. They are often constructed in the form of a mountain or tower. In a typical arrangement, at the top are placed little figures of shepherds or craftsmen bringing gifts to the Holy Family. On a level beneath that are Mary, Joseph, and the Baby Jesus; on the bottom are miners. (This composition is by no means obligatory as can be seen in the image above.)

Because such nativity scenes were assembled and covered with a glass dome, no work was necessary to put them together at Christmas time – hence the nickname “lazy crèches”.

The Grulich style is also known for the appearance of non-traditional figures such as the devil, chimney sweeps and folk in modern dress.

Christmas Bummers Revisited

Home / Christmas / Christmas Bummers Revisited

In an earlier post I wrote about the phrase “Christmas bummers” which could mean (in Australia) a pair of underwear with Santas printed on them; (in contemporary America) a sad Christmas song; or (over a century ago) children who went from church to church to reap the goodies handed out during Christmas pageants.

Here is a cartoon of the early twentieth century showing a row of Christmas bummers, one of whom has brought along a bag for his loot, pretending to be regular members of the congregation.

A 30-Second Christmas Sermon

Home / Christmas / A 30-Second Christmas Sermon

In the year 441 Kyros Panopolites was in serious trouble. He had once been a renowned poet and a successful civic administrator in the Byzantine Empire. With the patronage of the Empress Theodokia, wife of Theodosius II, he had risen to be the City Prefect and the Praetorian Prefect of the East. Thanks to his efforts Constantinople recovered quickly from the catastrophic earthquake of 437 but in his ascent to the top he had made powerful enemies. The eunuch Chrysaphios, a rival civil servant, had poisoned Kyros’s reputation in the eyes of the emperor, who may already have been jealous of his popularity with the citizens of Constantinople. Theodosius accused Kyros of being a pagan, stripped him his offices, and seized his property.

With no further life for him in the secular world, Kyros turned to the Church and was ordained a priest. On the orders of the emperor he was made a bishop and dispatched to the diocese of Koryaion in Phhrygia. This was by no means a promotion — the inhabitants of Koryaion had a reputation for rowdiness. In fact, they had killed there four previous bishops. No doubt Theodosius wished for them to make Kyros their fifth victim.

On Christmas Day 441, Kyros was conducting the church service when the congregation called on him to preach. They had heard the rumours of his being a pagan and wanted to see for themselves whether their new bishop could prove himself to be a true Christian. Kyros stepped into the pulpit and delivered the following sermon:

Brethren, let the birth of God our Saviour Jesus Christ be honoured with silence, because the Word of God was conceived in the holy Virgin through hearing alone. To him be glory for ever. Amen.

This thirty-second oration was greeted with great enthusiasm instead of a lynching. Kyros went on to become a beloved bishop, noted for his kindness to the poor.

Christmas Movie Snow

Home / Christmas / Christmas Movie Snow

If you’ve ever wondered how Christmas movie makers create a winter wonderland clad in a mantle of snow while filming in a studio or outdoors on a summer day, wonder no further.

In the early days of Hollywood, directors tried a variety of substitutes for the sort of snow that never falls in southern California. Powdered gypsum, salts of various kinds, concrete dust, asbestos, cotton, and corn flakes were all used but found to have drawbacks. Bleached corn flakes looked good on the ground but couldn’t be made to waft — they fell straight down in an unconvincing fashion – or to bear footprints. Moreover, they also crackled when walked on. 

Real snow was, of course, best but it was expensive to truck in and quickly melted. Shooting inside a refrigerated area froze up the cameras which had to be specially lubricated and covered in blankets. In the 1930s Warner Brothers studio invented a snow-making machine whose blades chopped up a huge block of ice and blew the particles through the air.

The filming of It’s A Wonderful Life in 1946 required massive amounts of snow for the streets of Bedford Falls. RKO studio technicians created a realistic substitute using foamite, a kind of carbon dioxide foam found in fire extinguishers, soap flakes, water, and sugar. This formula became the standard forsake snow until the 1980s and the invention of Snowcel, a paper product that was very good at imitating snowbanks.

Today, many of the technical challenges of convincing audiences that the snow they see is real have been solved in the animation studios. Digital effects now replace physical efforts to duplicate what Mother Nature gives so freely to Winnipeg for five months.



Home / Christmas / Epiphany

From the Greek epiphania, or manifestation. Celebrated in both Eastern and Western churches on January 6, Epiphany marks a number of important appearances or manifestations: the arrival of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus, the miracle at Cana and the Feeding of the 5000.

 Its first appearance seems to have been in the second century A.D. among the Basilidean heretics of Alexandria who believed that Jesus did not become divine until his baptism which they claim had taken place on January 6. Though this idea of a late-acquired divinity was rejected by orthodox Christianity, some churches seem to have used the date to celebrate Christ’s earthly birth — an epiphany of a different kind. When in the fourth century Rome adopted December 25 as the day to celebrate the Nativity the Western churches’ Epiphany emphasis shifted to focus on the Magi while in the East strees was placed on the baptism. The period between these two important holy dates became known as the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Epiphany became an official holiday in the Eastern Roman Empire, marked by a ban on chariot racing and attending games in the arena and by ceremonies of blessing the waters. At these ceremonies the emperor would drink the waters three times to the cry of “The emperor drinks!” The blessing of the waters takes place even today in Orthodox denominations. A priest will bless a body of water, either inside, or by a lake, river or sea and the faithful take it home where it will be used to sprinkle on houses, barns and fields to ensure prosperity for the coming year. In some places the priest will throw a cross into the water and divers will race to be the one to recover it.

In the West Epiphany was a day to celebrate the visitation of the Magi or the Three Kings as they became known. Religious services honouring the Magi gradually turned into dramas held outside of the church such as The Play of Herod. As returning Crusaders in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries brought back stories of the fabulous east, fascination with the Magi grew — cities held processions honouring the Kings and carols retelling their journeys were sung. (The remnants of these customs are the Star Boys and their January pilgrimages from door to door.) Epiphany came to be a time all across Europe for popular celebrations marked by eating a cake and gift-giving. 

St John’s Day

Home / Christmas / St John’s Day

December 27 is the feast day of Saint John the Evangelist, the son of Zebedee, companion of Jesus and reputed author of the Fourth Gospel. In the Middle Ages the day was marked by a blessing of the wine, derived from the legend that John had drunk poisoned wine and not been harmed.  As Barnaby Googe in the sixteenth century related: Nexte John, the sonne of Zebedee hath his appointed day,/  Who once by cruell tyraunts will, constrayned was they say, Strong poison up to drinke, / therefore the papistes doe beleeve/ That whoso puts their trust in him,/ no poyson them can greeve.


It was also a custom for people to bring wine or cider to the church on December 27 to be blessed and then to take this liquor home to be poured back in the barrels. This “St. John’s Wine” was considered a protection for travellers setting out on a journey or for those near death. Because the gospel of John proclaims Jesus as the light of the world, a German custom allowed children named John or Joan to be the first to light the Advent candle.

St Stephen’s Day

Home / Christmas / St Stephen’s Day

December 26 is the feast day of the first martyr of the Christian church, St Stephen. What little we know about him can be found in the Book of Acts where we learn that he had been chosen one of the seven deacons in Jerusalem and that his defence of Christianity resulted in his being stoned to death for blasphemy. Legend, however, has surrounded the protomartyr with a host of stories which link him to Herod’s household at the time of the birth of Jesus, to horses and to the stoning of the tiny wren.

Ever since the tenth century Stephen’s Day has been associated with horses, probably because the season was a time of horse sacrifice in pagan northern Europe and a time of rest from agricultural work for both man and beast. In England it is a time to bleed horses to ensure their health for the coming year. In the sixteenth century Tusser noted:

Yer Christmas be passed,

let Horsse be lett blood,

For many a purpose

it dooth him much good:

The day of St. Steeven,

old fathers did use.

If that do mislike thee,

some other day chuse.

Across Europe December 26 is a time for horses to be fed extra food, raced, decorated, blessed by the priest or ridden in ceremonies honouring their species. This is particulalry true in Sweden where “Staffan Riders” would race from village to village and sing songs in honour of the saint. Some have tried (not very successfully) to explain the connection between horses and St Stephen’s Day by claiming it has stemmed from confusion between the martyr in the Book of Acts and a later saint, Stephen of Corvey, martyred c. 1075, whose feast day June 2. This Stephen was a lover of horses and was said to ride five of them in turn.  When he was murdered his unbroken colt took him home to Norrtalje which became a shrine for horse-healing.

 The water and salt blessed by the priest on St Stephen’s Day would be set aside and used as medicine for horses should they fall ill during the rest of the year or to sprinkle liberally about the barn and yard to bring prosperity. The salt could also be thrown in the fire to avert danger from thunder-storms. In some places the blood drawn from horses on this day was thought to have healing powers. In Poland, the blessing of food for horses led to other peculiar rituals on St Stephen’s Day. In what has been interpreted either as a remnant of pagan fertility rites or a re-enactment of the stoning of Stephen, people would throw the consecrated oats at each other and their animals. Moreover, it was customary on December 26 for boys and girls to throw walnuts at one another.

  St Stephen’s Day is also marked in Ireland and other parts of Britain by hunting a bird considered protected every other the day of the year, the wren, and parading about with its body. Wren Boys used to carry a dead wren on a branch from house to house, and sing an appropriate song which solicited money. Irish Wren Boys are shown in the photo above.

The wren,the wren, the king of all birds,

On St. Stephen’s day was caught in the furze;

Though is body is small, his family is great,

So, if you please, your honour, give us a treat.

On Christmas Day I turned a spit;

I burned my finger; I feel it yet,

Up with the kettle, and down with the pan:

Give us some money to bury the wren.

Other customs associated with St Stephens’s Day include holming. In Wales holming or holly-beating was the practice for young men to beat each other (or female servants) with holly branches on December 26. In Britain generally December 26 is a day for sporting events and hunting and the day observed as Boxing Day.