“A happy Christmas to you” (1905) (via TuckDB Ephemera)

In mijn serie over de ‘Turn of the screw’, nu weer na elkaar te lezen tijdens de donkere dagen van de winterwende, hebben we het meer dan één keer over de wortels van allerlei volksgebruiken zoals de figuur van Sinterklaas, Kerstman, Zwarte Piet, enz. Door de discussies zijn we wel eens vergeten dat ze hun oorsprong vinden in oude tot zeer oude volksgebruiken waarin de zachtzinnigheid niet dadelijk een bekommernis was.
De spookverhalen, the christmas-pantomimes, de zwarte piet, Krampus, ze zijn uit vrij donkere gebruiken ontstaan waarin vaak afgesloten gemeenschappen de donkerte van de winter en de donkerte in ons aller zielen trachtten te benaderen al dan niet spelend te verwerken.

“May all jollity ‘lighten’ your Christmas hours” 

Bekijken we in onze kerstafleveringen enkele ”kerstkaarten” uit het Europese verleden dan is de mens-vriendelijke vredevolle atmosfeer wel eens ver te zoeken.
We willen er graag enkele meegeven om de wortels van deze feestdagen rond licht en donker ook eens vanuit hun oorsprong te benaderen.

“May yours be a Joyful Christmas” (via Tea Tree Gully Library)

Grossman shows us two Christmas cards from the 1880s which feature beautifully drawn images of dead birds and which wish their recipients “May yours be a Joyful Christmas” and “A Loving Christmas Greeting”. He says that a picture of a dead robin or wren (both bird species were beloved and considered sacred in British folklore) were “bound to elicit Victorian sympathy and may reference common stories of poor children freezing to death at Christmas”. Was this a genuine attempt to raise awareness of social injustice and change society or would the person who received such a card really just smugly consider themselves better off than a homeless orphan?

A Krampus Christmas card (via Tea Tree Gully Library)

Continental children were not spared the horror of Christmas. When Santa Claus comes to town we sing that he is going to “find out who’s naughty and nice”. In Europe during throughout the 19th and early 20th century, the holy St. Nicholas enlisted the devil to help with his deliveries. St. Nicholas gave out treats to well-behaved children, while the devil, who appeared in many guises, kidnapped the bad kids and beat them with a stick! Perhaps “Grub vom Krampus” (Greetings from Krampus) in Germanic Christmas tradition, served as a warning akin to “You better watch out!”

“A Happy Christmas” (1900) (via Missouri History Museum/Wikimedia)

The rise of Christmas in Victorian England is often cited as going back to Queen Victoria, who with her German-born husband Prince Albert celebrated their 1848 holidays by decorating an evergreen tree, something captured in an illustration widely shared by the Illustrated London News. According to the BBC, the first major Christmas card dates to 1843, with Henry Cole illustrating a happy family around a dinner table. It was a little expensive for the average citizen, still the tradition caught on, so in 1880 alone, the BBC states, the new industry “produced 11.5 million cards.” (Hyperallergic.com)

“So please excuse this impecunious card, As all I’m good for is a used up.” (via TuckDB Ephemera)
Every good wish for your Christmas,” with frogs! (via the Library of Birmingham)

As a counterpart to Saint Nicholas, the predecessor of the more approachable Santa Claus, Krampus was evoked in Central Europe for centuries as a warning to kids to be good. Costumed Krampuses caused havoc in the streets of Alpine villages during annual December 6 festivals. What’s interesting about his current image is how it carries all the visual culture he’s traveled through, from pagan god to Christian devil. Al Ridenour in his 2016 book The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil notes that the Krampuskarten (Krampus cards) started to appear in the late 1880s, and “introduced the notion of the Krampus to regions beyond the creature’s Alpine homeland.” However, since the artists making these cards were often based in cities, not participating in the more rural traditions, their interpretations tended into more “Catholic depictions of the devil or the pagan figure of Pan.”

An early 1900s Krampus card (via Wikimedia)

Gelukkig waren er ook heel fraaie kaarten, oogstrelend, echte esthetische objecten

“The House Beautiful was a concept of interior design within the Aesthetic Movement that sought to transform the Victorian home into a haven of beauty and good taste,” Zakreski said. “While the higher end of the market was supplied by the objects created by Arts and Crafts artists, cheaper versions were made available by manufacturers who mass-produced these objects, making them more affordable and therefore more widespread … the aesthetic Christmas card was one of these objects.” (Hyperallergic.com )

Thomas Crane, Interior of card (1880), published by Marcus Ward (all cards from the collection of Peter Wadham, courtesy Patricia Zakreski)

Multiple copies of these designs were then produced at low costs thanks to developments in industrial technology; factory workers would carve every line into steel, sending their engravings to the printing room where others colored and stamped the cards, tint by tint. Along with spreading messages of joy and good health to someone’s friends and family, the cards were also gifts of good taste, products of careful handcraft. They also educated the public on respected decorative aesthetics and visual trends: Zakreski references a 1881 article in the journal The Relinquary that notes, “Christmas Cards are decidedly to the fore as art educators of the people … [T]hey bring high art — really high art — along with loving words and friendly wishes to the poorest cottages … ” Often displayed in drawing rooms, these cards were often later preserved in albums, kept as objects cherished not only for the holiday sentiments they carried but also their detailed drawings and skilled coloring. (ibidem)

Early 1880s card by Thomas Crane, published by Marcus Ward