Happy Holidays, everyone!
Santa Claus is the result of cultural crossover and exchange. Historical and folkloric figures like St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Father Christmas combined in various ways over several generations to create the English-speaking world’s most popular personification of Christmas. It was a long, messy journey that involved sailors venerating Saint Nicholas, the Netherlands getting more into the Saint than anyone else in Europe did, New Amsterdam, New York, Washington Irving, and more than a little anonymous poetry.
Over the past decade or so the Krampus, a demonic figure from German folklore, has become something of a Christmas staple in the United States. However, the Krampus is by no means the only German Christmas monster. Frau Berchta, Knecht Ruprecht, Belsnickel, and Pere Fouettard have also struck fear into the hearts of children around the holidays.
Thanksgiving, at least in New York City at the end of the 1800s and early 1900s, used to look a lot like Halloween. Traditional trappings like turkey and family gatherings were certainly present, but it was also a day for children (and adults) to dress in costumes, make noise, and go from house to house demanding treats and pennies.
The Nativity scene is an iconic Christmas decoration, but it only has a tenuous biblical foundation. Christmas traditions are often varied and strange, and representations of the Nativity can vary from region to region. In Spain, one element of the Nativity scene is the caganer, a peasant man defecating behind the barn. Yes. That is a real thing. While all traditions are unusual to outsiders, Catalonia’s tradition of poop-related Christmas things might be the oddest.
Squanto and other Native Americans are a fixture of popular depictions of what has retroactively been termed the First Thanksgiving, such as in the fanciful, inaccurate 1914 painting pictured below, by Jennie Brownscombe. That popular image, reproduced so much in elementary school pageants and dioramas, is pat and unsophisticated. The actual story of Tisquantum (of which “Squanto” is an abbreviation) is much more complex. It is a story of slavery, travel, exploration, tragedy, and politics, all of which lurk behind and complicate the standard picture of the first Thanksgiving.
Easter jumps around. Sure, it’s always on a Sunday, but unlike, say, the U.S.’s Labor Day (which always falls on the first Monday in September) Easter jumps around. It could be on the third Sunday in March. Or the fifth. Or the fourth. Or sometime in April. It jumps around. The dating of Easter comes from a combination of lunar and solar calendars, astronomical events, and religious tradition all crashing together. The result is that Easter is sometime in March. Or April. It’s complicated.
To help shed some light on when Easter is actually supposed to happen, we sat down with Jamie Jeffers, the man behind the excellent British History Podcast. Jeffers has previously gotten into some of the controversies surrounding Easter on his own show, and has detailed how fights over the holiday led to actual, real violence among early Christians. Also, there were some very bad haircuts involved. Again: It was complicated.
Pictured below: The Council of Nicea, which tried (tried) to sort this all out. They only kind of did.
There is no war on Christmas. But there was.
Contemporary political commentators have, in the past, complained and ranted about a supposed secular war on Christmas, a crusade to erase spirituality and religion from late December, a campaign to turn the occasion of the Nativity into merely “the Holidays.” But, Christmas has always been a season more about revelry and celebration than spirituality. The holiday is a re-appropriating by Christianity of pre-existing Roman festivals such as Saturnalia and the birthdate of Sol Invictus the sun god. Christian reinterpretations are just that: Reinterpretations.
One group that knew this very well was the Puritans, who saw Christmas as a fundamentally ungodly holiday, and sought to ban it and all of its various trappings in both England and Massachusetts. Puritan leaders such as Cotton Mather (pictured below) saw the holiday not as something for the glory of God or Christianity, but directly counter to it. In Puritan-controlled areas shops and businesses stayed open on Christmas, and anyone caught celebrating the offensive holiday was fined the sum of five shillings.
Happy New Year! It’s January First, 2015, and you probably have a new calendar. Calendars tend to be irregular, weird, and uneven, but some folks have attempted to smooth that out throughout history.
Below is the Soviet Calendar. Workers were assigned colors, and based on the color assigned to you, that would be your day off.
The United States has been a divided nation plenty of times. It’s been divided about slavery, about politics, about culture and, very importantly, about when to celebrate Thanksgiving.