Visit theallusionist.org/christmas to read about or hear this episode.
HZ: This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, and language play Bop It together until the batteries run out.
Coming up today in the show: a famous man who is colourfully dressed, has trademark facial hair, goes by many names - no, not Prince!
I have to issue a CONTENT WARNING: I advise caution if listening to this episode around young children, as there may be life spoilers.
Let’s prepare ourselves with a little word history sponsored by Passion House Coffee Roasters. Choose your genre of coffee from ambient, mainstream and experimental - or try a selection of all three. Passion House roasts the beans to order then dispatches them to you. Keep yourself caffeinated throughout the holidays: visit passionhousecoffee.com, and if you order a subscription for a regular delivery of coffee beans, you can get 20% off with the offer code ALLUSIONIST.
Thanks to Passion House Coffee, here's the history of the word 'clue'. It descends from the Old English word ‘clew’, which meant a ball of thread or yarn; it still has various rope-related meanings in nautical and theatrical terminology. But take a look at Greek mythology for a clue about how clews became clues: Theseus was given a clew by Ariadne, so he could leave a trail of string to find his way back out of the labyrinth after he was done killing the Minotaur. You see? The clew led him to a particular result. Now, though in some places clew does still have the stringy meaning and spelling, as of the 1620s the metaphorical sense became the dominant one. Usually this makes me think something is a false etymology; but not in this case.
On with the show.
[sound of writing]
Dear Cathy and Mike, Merry Christmas and a happy New Year. I hope you and the kids… I hope you…
Argh, this card looked pretty small before I opened it; why is there so much blank space inside it?
If I can’t think of anything to write to these people, why am I bothering to send them a card at all?
How do I sign off? 'From Helen'? Cold. 'Love from Helen'? Way too strong, I don’t even like them all that much. 'XOXO'? Not my style, people would think it was a forgery…
Oh great, forty more to go.
HZ: And this is why, many years ago, I decided to stop sending Christmas cards and have never regretted it. However: though I’m not one to get nostalgic, especially for times before I was alive, here’s one case where I think things were better in a bygone era.
GREG JENNER: Some Victorian Christmas cards were utterly bonkers. My favourite one just had some bacon attached to it.
HZ: Alright, now you’re talking! I mean, that is Greg Jenner talking. Greg is the chief nerd at the BBC’s Horrible Histories.
GJ: There’s another one which had a dead mouse on the front. My favourite was a policeman being attacked by a clown with a red hot poker. Another is some children at their parents’ funeral. Classic Christmas fare! There’s one with two children being attacked by a giant wasp…
HZ: Are these all Victorian?
GJ: All Victorian Christmas cards. Christmas cards take off big-stylee in 1843.
HZ: Well, the post had just started in 1840.
GJ: Hugely important. Until 1840, the postman would come up to twelve times a day, and you paid on receipt: they’d turn up and you paid per letter. This was reformed in 1840 by Roland Hill, “This is silly; you pay in advance, and you pay with a stamp, and you stick it on the letter and off it goes.” This meant you paid in advance, you didn’t have to pay to receive a letter; so people start sending millions and millions - literally millions - of letters to each other.
And in 1843 the first Christmas card was published by Henry Cole. It’s a nice illustration of people having a nice meal together. The Christmas card really takes its influence from Valentine’s cards, and if you study Christmas cards, which I have done, a lot of them have spring imagery - loads and loads of illustrations of birds and plants and greenery.
The interesting thing is Christmas seems to have been a romantic period for young couples who are courting. So the mistletoe thing, that picks up. Mistletoe had been banned by most churches because it’s pagan.
HZ: And poisonous.
GJ: Vikings used mistletoe to kiss on the cheeks to seal pacts of peace between warring kings and stuff. Mistletoe then gets coopted into this romance idea of kissing under the mistletoe, and Christmas cards take on this double Valentine idea, that you send a Christmas card to someone you fancy. And that’s a thing called 'floriography'.
HZ: Floriography is the language of flowers. It’s an ancient language - meaning has been ascribed to different flowers for millennia around the world - but in Britain it blossomed in popularity in the Victorian era. Through flowers, Victorians could cryptically say, “I love you!” or “I would, but I am engaged to another!” or “Sorry, friendzone only” - because the Victorians couldn’t or wouldn’t speak frankly.
GJ: So you’d send a card to someone you fancy with a flower on the front, that would have a hint: “Hey, I’m really into you!”
So it’s a time of courting and romance, but also in the 19th century it’s a time of the British Empire, of people being separated. Soldiers and expats are being sent off to India or Jamaica, off to these faraway colonies; so people are sending these Christmas cards as a way of bringing the family back together through communication, through letters and post and so forth. So Christmas cards have a really important role: they’re kind of the glue to keep families together.
HZ: And during the same period, the Victorian era, one particular man started turning up ever more frequently on Christmas cards. Father Christmas, Santa Claus, St Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Babbo Natale, Papai Noel, Pelznickel, Дед Моро́з… What do you call him, Greg Jenner?
GJ: I’ve always been a Father Christmas guy. But I’m half French, so every other Christmas was in Paris, where he’s Père Noel. If you speak to him in English, he looks at you a bit funny and goes, “Quoi?” which is one of the reasons, at the age of four, I decided there was no god and no Father Christmas, because there was too much that didn’t add up - this Father Christmas guy should be a polyglot. So that was problematic for me as a child.
But he’s an interesting character, because he means a lot to different people around the world, and has many different names. St Nicholas was a Christian saint, St Nicholas of Myra, which is a place in Turkey.
HZ: There are a few St Nicholases.
GJ: Yes. The classic one is St Nicholas of Myra, who was a bishop in the 4th century AD, give or take. He was the patron saint of children, prostitutes and sailors.
HZ: St Nicholas’s feast day took place in December and was celebrated with gift-giving, so he has a lot in common with the present day poster boy for Christmas. We’ll come back to St Nicholas.
GJ: Meanwhile, in the Pagan world, in the Saxons and Vikings’ era: the Saxons have got this guy called the Winter King, or the Frost King, or Old Father Time. He’s a bearded bloke who turns up and gives you presents.
HZ: Why does he give you presents?
GJ: He’s kind of a deity; he’s kind of rewarding you; but also it’s a tough time of year, there’s not much food about and it’s quite cold.
HZ: So it’s just to cheer people up?
GJ: A bit, yeah. So the Saxon version of Christmas is called ‘geol’, and ‘geol’ in Viking is ‘jol’, which is where we get the word ‘yule’ from, as in yule log.
The Vikings, they believe in Odin, the King of the Gods; he flies around on his eight-legged horse, and supposedly Odin delivers bread to people and wears a nice cloak, and he’s a similar idea in the Viking tradition. So there’s a Pagan version of this Winter King with a beard who turns up at Christmas and says, “Hey! Presents for everyone!”
HZ: OK, Winter King, Frost King, Odin. Hard to see how they end up combined with a Christian saint, but stick with it.
GJ: As it scrolls forward, Christianity reenters the pagan land, England, Norway, Germany and so forth, and they kind of mush together a bit. But St Nicholas still isn’t really part of the picture. Instead he becomes called things like ‘Sir Christmas’; in the Tudor times, he’s Captain Christmas. After Cromwell dies and you get the restoration of Charles II, he’s referred to as ‘old Christmas’. He’s a genial bloke who turns up and everyone gets hammered and has a big old feast. So there’s a fairly innocuous non-Christian element to it. These are Christian people, but there’s a secular tradition of Old Father Time, a bearded bloke who turns up at the end of the year, it’s kind of pagan.
And then what happens is the Dutch get hold of him. And the Dutch called St Nicholas ‘Sinterklaas’. Sinterklaas then gets carried across to America by the Dutch; the Dutch are Protestants and they go across to America and bring him with them. And Sinterklaas turns into Santaklass [sp?], and Santaklass turns into Santa Claus. And Santa Claus is effectively Father Christmas, but he’s a Christian version, rather than the Pagan version we’ve got in England.
HZ: There we go. As with the occasion of Christmas itself, Christian and pagan traditions combine into an amalgam which seems odder and odder the more you scrutinise it.
GJ: So ours is Father Christmas, who is a bearded bloke who brings you stuff; whereas Sinterklaas is much more religiously-themed, he’s much more of this St Nicholas idea.
HZ: Until he goes to America.
GJ: In America, and in Britain as well, in the 19th century he starts to be a stand-in for Jesus. So he takes on a moral element. He’s a way of communicating to kids the idea that if you’re good, you get rewarded. Of course it’s hard to explain to kids that if you’re good in life, you go to Heaven, because kids are like, I’m four! I want biscuits! So they develop the idea that Father Christmas is a Christ allegory, saying, “OK kids, be good, and you’ll get a prezzie.” So he takes on this moral element, he becomes a kind of back-up Jesus, and that’s when he starts being a much more religious figure, and that’s when you start to see the Church starting to embrace him and he becomes part of the Christian, Dickensian Christmas we know of now.
HZ: So you’ve got these wild men, then these saints, and this bearded grandfatherly figure being rolled into one Father Christmas.
GJ: Yeah, and being given a didactic purpose, which is to make kids love Christianity and be good moral people.
HZ: Or materialistic monsters.
GJ: Well, that’s the interesting thing, that then capitalism takes off big-style. In the late 19th century, Father Christmas will start showing up in department stores, and that’s when you get the kids queuing up to meet Santa, which is when commercialism really captures Christmas as an idea.
HZ: And we can rail against it - or we can accept it as part of the continuing evolution of Christmas.
GJ: The really interesting thing for me as a historian is the way tradition gets invented, and every generation invents new traditions, and then tells their kids, “Oh, this is a tradition that’s been really old for ages.” So I think every generation probably takes what it wants from the past, and then throws away the stuff it doesn’t want, and adds its own bit. That’s the joy of Christmas.
HZ: Greg Jenner’s book A Million Years In A Day is out now in paper, e and audio form, and it’s pretty much the perfect book for you Allusionist listeners: there are loads of linguistic facts; it’s full of the history of everyday things like toilets and why time is measured the way it is; and it’s funny. I’ll even forgive the puns; that’s how good the book is. I’ll link to it at theallusionist.org/christmas.
This episode is sponsored by Oxford Games, who starred in the Word Play episode: as well as perennial classics like Jenga, they make a load of brilliant games for word lovers, such as Anagram, in which at speed you make words and poach your opponents’ words - because what’s better in a fun family game than sabotaging the other players? You can get Anagram and the other Oxford Games games - such as Ex Libris, Bookworm, Flummoxed, and of course Jenga, at oxfordgames.co.uk - if you act swiftly, you can get them all delivered in time for Christmas. Go to oxfordgames.co.uk, click on the Shop tab - if you’re in the US, click on the option for US customers - and to get 15% off your order, enter the code ALL15.
The Allusionist is one of the thirteen shows of Radiotopia from PRX, and all of us are overbrimming with gratitude towards the 19,500 of you who became donors during the fundraiser last month. Thanks to you, we can keep on making our podcasts. I’m assuming you’re on board with this.
Radiotopia is also supported by the Knight Foundation and Mailchimp. Mailchimp’s randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
afferent, physiology, adjective: relating to or denoting the conduction of nerve impulses or blood inwards or towards something. The opposite of efferent.
Try using it in an email today.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman. Thanks to Julie Shapiro, and to Martin Austwick for the music. You can find the show at theallusionist.org and Facebook.com/allusionistshow and Twitter.com/allusionistshow. It’s always very interesting to see your responses to each episode and I’ve been delighted to discover that since the last one, lots of you have been learning Toki Pona! You seem to be a lot more capable of grasping it than I am. Some of you have also wondered whether Toki Pona is analogous to Newspeak in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four - I think, as Sonja Lang didn’t invent Toki Pona to replace all other language, it’s too benevolent to be like Newspeak. Though it rather depends on what you lot choose to do with it, doesn’t it?
Back in a fortnight.