“MERRY CHRISTMAS, HERE’S A DEAD BIRD!” and 9 More Dark True Holiday Stories! #WeirdDarkness

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(Note: Over time links can and may become invalid, disappear, or have different content.)
“Merry Christmas, Here’s a Dead Bird” by Troy Taylor: https://tinyurl.com/qujnrz7
“A Christmas Carol” by Troy Taylor: https://tinyurl.com/v5eoa5t
“Yes Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus” by Troy Taylor: https://tinyurl.com/qnxvxy5
“A Kiss Under The Mistletoe” by Troy Taylor: https://tinyurl.com/raujw6q
“The Year Christmas Ended Early” by Troy Taylor: https://tinyurl.com/uwxw4g4
“The Old Winter Festivals” by Troy Taylor: https://tinyurl.com/re7xvat
“And You Thought You Knew About Santa” by Troy Taylor: https://tinyurl.com/qqo9hgw
“Here Comes Santa” by Troy Taylor: https://tinyurl.com/waqzgrl
“Santa’s Naughty List” by Troy Taylor: https://tinyurl.com/w694d5h
“Have Yourself a Scary Little Christmas” by Troy Taylor: https://tinyurl.com/ubfmrdx
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“I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.” — John 12:46 *** How to escape eternal darkness: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2IYmodFKDaM

Ever wonder what the meaning is behind the kiss under the mistletoe that takes place at holiday gatherings? It’s another of the pagan traditions that managed to survive the purge that was done by Church authorities when they were wiping out the old ways. The tradition is still around but most people don’t know the story behind it — but now you will.
Norse legend tells the story of Baldur, son of Odin and half brother of Thor, who was a favorite among the gods. When he began having nightmares about his own death, his mother, Frigg, asked that the numerous other gods –gods of steel, fire, animals, illness, and others — watch out for Baldur and keep him safe. The Norse gods were not immortal and could be killed, like men.
But Loki, the trickster god, discovered that Frigg had forgotten to ask mistletoe — a poisonous plant — to keep Baldur safe. So when a branch of mistletoe was thrown at the handsome, beloved Baldur, he immediately died.
Saddened by her loss, Frigg declared that mistletoe would never be overlooked again and, instead of spreading sorrow, those who passed under it should kiss to spread joy and love.
Since that time, mistletoe has been a joyous part of holiday celebrations, even though its origin is one of death and sorrow. And that’s just the first of many dark aspects of this holy holiday.

What would you think if you got this Christmas card in the mail? That someone really didn’t like you? Believe it or not, that wouldn’t be the case.
Animals have long been associated with Christmas. Although there is no mention of them anywhere in the biblical gospels of Matthew and Luke, the people of the Middle Ages believed that the lack of involvement of animals in the birth of Jesus was an oversight and were determined to correct this. Since then, a long list of animals has entered the legend. Stories claimed that a donkey carried Mary to Bethlehem, a donkey and an ox knelt down before the baby, a rooster crowed, announcing the birth, a robin burned its breast red after getting too close to the flames while beating its wings to keep the fire in the stable burning, a stork took out its feathers to make a soft bed for the newborn (becoming ever after the patron of babies), and a host of other animals were said to have wandered through the Bethlehem stable.
People of the Victorian era took this even further by having all kinds of animals celebrating the season, acting like humans and dressed in human clothing. Holiday cards depicted them dancing with Santa Claus, mailing out cards, playing poker, reading books, singing carols, smoking pipes, and more. It was a novelty at the time and one that was much beloved by the people of the era.
And then there were the birds – dead birds, lying on their backs with their little feet in the air – pictured on Christmas cards with greetings like “May Yours be a Joyful Christmas” and “A Loving Christmas Greeting.” These cards, while very popular at the time, are an anomaly today. There is no real explanation for them — only speculation about their meaning. Historians suggest that the Victorians were a thoroughly sentimental lot and that perhaps their obsession with death (fully on display in the graveyards of the era) is the answer. Death at a young age was common at the time and highly sentimentalized – a small bird might have represented a loving memory. But why as a Christmas card?
The images of the dead birds – perhaps frozen in the cold – were sure to elicit pity and sympathy from the Victorians and may reference stories of poor children freezing in the snow. Robins and wrens were symbols of good luck in British and Irish folktales and were considered important birds.
Their natural deaths, depicted on cards from the 1880s, have gone on to create a sort of Christmas mystery today.

“I wear the chain I forged in life….I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.” — Marley’s Ghost
On December 19, 1843, “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens was first published in England. The short book recounts the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, an elderly miser who is visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley and the spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. In the end, Scrooge is, of course, set on a new path as a kinder, gentler man.
Although “A Christmas Carol” has been with us for all our lives, it actually started a number of holiday traditions that we take for granted now. When Dickens wrote it, the British were exploring and re-evaluating past Christmas traditions, including carols and newer customs such as Christmas trees, introduced to the British by the very Germanic Prince Albert.
Dickens was influenced by the experiences of his own youth and by the Christmas stories of other authors, including Washington Irving and Douglas Jerrold. Dickens had written three Christmas stories prior to the novella, and was inspired following a visit to the Field Lane Ragged School, one of several establishments for London’s street children.
The first edition of the book sold out by Christmas Eve and by the end of the following year, 13 more editions had been released. Dickens went on to write four other Christmas stories in subsequent years, but none were as popular. In 1849, he began public performances of the book and they became so successful that he put on 127 further performances before his death in 1870. It was said that Dickens never performed the book in the same way twice, always making notes and changes for every show.
“A Christmas Carol” has never been out of print — and it seems there is never a Christmas season where at least one of the film adaptations cannot be found running on television — often several at the same time.
More than anything, “A Christmas Carol” captured the imagination of the public and they made it the centerpiece of the Victorian revival of the Christmas holiday. The book inspired several aspects of Christmas, including family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, dancing, games, a festive generosity of spirit — and, of course, the tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve.

In 1897, Dr. Philip O’Hanlon, a coroner’s assistant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was asked by his then eight-year-old daughter, Virginia O’Hanlon, whether Santa Claus really existed. O’Hanlon suggested she write to The Sun, a prominent New York City newspaper at the time, assuring her that “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” He unwittingly gave one of the paper’s editors, Francis Pharcellus Church, an opportunity to rise above the simple question and address the philosophical issues behind it.
Church was a war correspondent during the American Civil War, a time that saw great suffering and a corresponding lack of hope and faith in much of society. Although the paper ran the editorial in the seventh place on the page, below even one on the newly invented “chainless bicycle,” its message was very moving to many people who read it. Well over a century later it remains the most reprinted editorial ever to run in any newspaper in the English language – and indelible part of popular Christmas folklore in the United States.
Virginia’s letter read: “Dear Editor, I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, if you see it in the SUN, it’s so. Please tell me the truth – is there a Santa Claus?”
Francis Church replied in what would become one of the greatest newspaper editorials ever written:
“Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.
Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”
Church’s letter to Virginia was a gift to a little girl and a gift to all of us, as well – one we can continue to enjoy, because the skeptical times of Francis Church’s age are the same times that we endure today.

On December 21, 1951, a violent explosion ripped through the Orient 2 Mine, located near West Frankfort, a small town in Southern Illinois. It claimed the lives of 119 coal miners – fathers, sons, nephews, and uncles. They left behind 109 widows, 179 children, and 17 other dependents. It occurred on the last shift prior to a scheduled shutdown for the holidays. Families took down Christmas trees and began planning funerals instead.
News of the disaster spread quickly from town to town and hundreds of people rushed to the mine to check on loved ones and friends. A basketball game was taking place that evening at Central Junior High School in West Frankfort and it came to a stop when the announcer broadcast a call for Dr. Barnett. He was asked to report to the Orient 2 Mine because “there had been a catastrophe.” Of the 2,000 people at the game that night, more than half of them left with Dr. Barnett.
As they hurried to the mine, they had no way of knowing that they would be part of the history and folklore that would be handed down from generation to generation in the years to come.
Rescue workers began entering the mine within hours of the explosion, clearing gas and looking for survivors. When they found, however, was a grim reminder about the perils of coal mining and the devastation of mine explosions caused by methane. Rail engines weighing 10 tons had been tossed about, timbers a foot thick had been snapped like twigs, and railroad ties had been torn from beneath the steel rails.
Search and rescue teams had recovered the bodies of dozens of the missing men by shortly after midnight on December 22. As the hours passed, and body after body was carried out of the mine, it became apparent that it would have taken a miracle for anyone to survive the explosion and the gas and smoke that followed it.
But then, in the early morning hours of Christmas Eve – 56 hours after the explosion – such a miracle tool place.
Benton resident Cecil Sanders was found among fallen rocks, barely clinging to life. He had somehow discovered a pocket of air that sustained him until rescue workers arrived. Sanders later told authorities that he had been with a group of four other men – all of whom died – when they heard the explosion. They had tried to escape from the mine but had been driven back by smoke and gas. Sanders eventually resigned himself to the fact that he was going to die and scribbled a note to his wife and children on the back of a cough drop box. He wrote, “May the good Lord bless and keep you, Dear wife and kids. Meet me in Heaven.”
The last body was removed from the mine on Christmas night. There had been 252 men underground at Orient 2 when the explosion occurred – 119 men died, and 133 miners managed to escape unhurt. Nearly every person in Franklin County was affected by the disaster, either directly or indirectly, and hundreds lost loved ones, taking the joy out of many Christmases to come.
Rescue workers and funeral directors were faced with the grim task of caring for the bodies of the dead miners. A temporary morgue was set up at Central Junior High School, where row after row of bodies lined the gymnasium floor. The usually joyous holiday season turned grim for families from all over Southern Illinois who had to face the task of identifying the charred remains of the miners. Funeral homes throughout Franklin County – where 99 of the 199 fatally injured men lived – had to plan multiple funerals, often six or eight per day.
News of the tragedy and the massive loss of life drew attention from across the country. It was featured in both TIME and LIFE magazines and newspapers from all over the country sent reporters to Franklin County to cover it. Gov. Adlai Stevenson was at the mine the following day along with volunteers from the Red Cross and Salvation Army.
But there was little anyone could do to ease the pain of those who lost family and loved ones in the disaster. The holiday season for all of Franklin County came to an abrupt halt on December 21. People took down their Christmas trees and decorations after the explosion, no longer wanting to be reminded that this was supposed to be a season of happiness and laughter.
For the people of West Frankfort, Christmas ended that night in 1951.

Have Yourself a Pagan Little Christmas
The holiday season that most celebrate today has far older roots — roots that date back to long before the early Church co-opted pagan holidays and turned them into their own.
Santa Claus, Christmas, and the Holiday season all have their roots at the start of recorded history and have nothing to do with stables, shepherds, and Bethlehem. That part of “Christmas” came to the party rather late, so to speak. The earliest incarnation of Santa comes from Scandinavian history and tells of the gift-bearing ride of Odin, King of the Norse Gods, which, in turn, is linked to the celebration of the Winter Solstice.This 12-day period of celebration was documented by the Germanic people as early as the fourth century, dating to long before the Christian invasion of the region.
The Scandinavian legend of Odin tells that on the eve of the Winter Solstice, Odin takes to the sky on a wild ride, accompanied by other gods of the Norsemen, Balder, Tyr, and Thor, the god of the sky. They begin what became known as the “Wild Hunt” at the start of the solstice and battle wild boar, great elk, and various other creatures during the next 12 days and nights. The hunt is the stuff of legend and the gods become so embroiled in the adventure that they themselves went a little mad.
In time, traditions softened and the gods took time to rest their steeds on the quiet earth below, allowing the animals to feed on the grain and straw left behind in the harvested fields. Knowing the gods would be on the hunt, children placed boots near the chimney or outside their doorway filled with treats for the horses. Odin would reward the children for their kindness by leaving food, candy, and gifts. The practice later replaced boots with stockings.
Among the Celts, the Holly and Oak Kings shared a battle during the Winter Solstice. Without going too far into the history of Ireland, we can find stories of hardship and suffering among the early Irish Celts, which created the legends of the solstice.
Between 8000-7500 BC, the ice bridge between Scotland and Ireland collapsed, leaving thousands of hunters from Scotland trapped in Ireland. In time, animals and food ran out and the remaining survivors sustained themselves largely by eating mildly poisonous holly berries. Around 6500-5500 BCE, the Cuileain (“Holly” or holy men) emerged from the dwindling population and saved them from barbarity. The first priest kings taught them wisdom and organized a religion. In the old legends, there are stories of the Holly Kings sacrificing themselves in battle to insure the survival of their people. In other stories, their sacrifices were metaphorical, with one king giving up the rights to his land to another king so that the people would be cared for.
These early kings became the inspiration for the “Sacred King,” who saw the men and women in their suffering, “watched and waited and thought upon it for a time and his face grew grave and sad.” He stated that, “I must die. The land will be fertile and the earth will bring forth a harvest and the people will live and grow.” The Sacred King was reborn to the Mother Goddess during the Winter Solstice and was honored for his selfless act that saved his people from starvation during the winter. Gifts were given to the newly born King, who spread his thanks to the people by filling their stockings by the hearth with candy treats and presents.
In some Celtic regions, the Sacred King refers to the ruling king of the year; either the Oak King or the Holly King. During the Summer Solstice, the Oak King, who ruled the land during the warm months, is challenged by his brother, the Holly King. As the year wanes, the Holly King prevails and makes preparation to care for his people through the cold winter. To accomplish this mission, the Holly King travels the land to hunt, fish, and harvest. He gathers his harvest in a great sled pulled by eight large and magical deer. The gifts of life are given to the Celtic people at the Winter Solstice festival, which is given in honor of the Holly King. The people provided care for the magical deer on the first night of the festival and in return, the Holly King left gifts and blessed the home.
In the eighth century, the Norse entered the Celtic lands and brought with the legends of Odin and the Wild Hunt through the winter sky. Over time, the legends merged and became a battle between the brothers, the Holly King and the Oak King. Some have suggested that it really represents the battle between the people of the North (Norse- Holly King) and the people of the South (Celts – Oak King).
Regardless, the Winter Solstice began the 12 days of celebration that marked the season, which was given the Germanic-influenced name of Yule. The Yule tree – always an evergreen – was decorated but left outside where it could grow and provide for the community. The symbol of the season was the Holly King, portrayed as a wise old man with a great beard, decorated with holly berries and leaves.
Of course, the Norse and Celts weren’t the only early civilizations to recognize the Winter Solstice.
The Romans and Greeks had their festivals and in fact, the Church actually stole the date of Christmas from them. In pagan Rome, Saturnas governed the winter months. Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival that honored this god and it originally began on December 17 and extended to December 25. Incidentally, December 25 was also regarded as the birthdate of the god Mithra, god of soldiers, who was born to a virgin on that date.
The people gathered to celebrate the festival, which included a large feast during which the slaves were permitted to take part. They shared the table and meal with their masters and in some cases, they were served by their masters in a reversal of roles. The public feast was a major part of the celebration, but private gift giving became even more essential. Gifts were exchanged in homes or away from the rowdiness of the banquet. The Romans were known for their exchange of power and favor, and this holiday was no exception.
In time, Saturnalia began to be influenced by the Greeks, especially after the Romans suffered a great loss at Carthage during the Second Punic War. The loss caused many changes to Roman rituals and observations as a means to appease the Greek gods. Saturnalia became more “Greek” after that, which included a festival sacrifice and a public display of excess.
In Greece, the Winter Solstice meant a time when the gods would gather at Mount Olympus. Even Hades was allowed to enter, as this was the only time of the year he was allowed into the Hall of Gods. The event was marked by a feast, public celebration, revelry, and gift-giving, much like the Norse and Celts.
In many of the early pagan festivals, presents were given to children or young couples to represent abundance and fertility. After all, this was the time of the rebirth of the sun. Presents were exchanged in honor of this and to give wishes and hope to the person receiving the gift that good things would come in the year to follow.
Celtic and Norse traditions were often more practical than celebratory. At the start of the festival, a large bonfire was started and it became the centerpiece for the 12 days of Yule. The “sacrifice” for the festival was actually the animal that provided the meat for the feast. It was often a cow, deer, lamb, or a pig – sort an early version of the Christmas ham. Vegetables from the garden were also a mainstay at the festival table, representing the harvest and the abundance afforded to the community as a whole. Wine was also a significant addition, made from grapes and many other fruits from the harvest. Warm apple cider was a traditional drink during the winter months.
During the fall harvest festivals, communities built large bonfires from which individual families carried away torches with which to light their fires at home. Taking light and warmth from the festival fire was seen as an exchange of energy from the ritual blessing to the home. During the Winter Festival, this tradition was repeated to reinvigorate the blessing within the home that had potentially waned during the late autumn months.
The pagan practices of the Winter festivals honored the Goddess through 12 days of Yule. The first three days honored her in her maiden form as a young girl of innocence. The next three days honored her as a mother who nurtures the earth and her people. She is often depicted then as being with child and ready to give birth. The next three days honor the birth of the Sun and in the final three days, the Goddess is a wise old woman who shares her wisdom on life and death as the winter wanes.
The days that honored the birth of the Sun played the most significant role in the Winter Solstice for the pagans. It was a time that linked the Sun to the Winter Gift Giver and when presents were given to celebrate his re-birth and the return of the warm sun that brings about the transition from cold winter to the warm days of the spring and summer.
In time, as the Church gained prominence in the old world, it became necessary for the leaders to try and assimilate the pagans into their new religion by simply swallowing up the old festivals and turning them into new ones. I won’t debate the validity of the new religion here. I’ll simply say that that the “holiday season” is much older than you might imagine — and much more complex.

If you were a child in America today and woke up on the morning of December 6 and found a stocking filled with toys and treats, you would think that Santa had finally lost his mind after all of those years of eating millions of sugar cookies. But in most European countries, all would be well, for St. Nicholas had arrived on the night before St. Nicholas Day and rewarded all of the good children right on schedule.
St. Nicholas was a real person who became a symbol of the holidays. He was known to have lived in the fourth century in what is now Turkey and served as a monk, then a bishop, and then an archbishop during his religious career. Beyond these few facts, little is known about his life – most of what if left is legend. Signs of his holiness allegedly began at birth, when he immediately stood up to praise God and later refused his mother’s milk on fast days. He went on to become the world’s most popular non-Biblical saint, with more than 2,000 churches dedicated to him in France and Germany and 400 in England. Artists have portrayed him more than any other saint, except for the Virgin Mary. He is the patron saint of many things, including, banking, pawn broking, pirating, thievery, butchery, orphans, and royalty.
According to stories, Nicholas was very wealthy from an inheritance, but he secretly gave away his money to charity. One legend told about him is said to be the source for hanging up stocking and giving gifts at Christmas time. A desperate father lost all of his wealth and was unable to provide dowries for his three daughters. Nicholas heard about the man’s dilemma and over the next three nights, he tossed a bag of gold through the family’s window each night to make sure the daughters had their dowries. Instead of landing on the fireplace hearth, though, the gold fell into stockings that were hung there to dry.
Besides just being generous, Nicholas was also said to have miraculous powers, as often recalled in one dark tale. During his visit to an inn, Nicholas detected that the criminal owner of the establishment had murdered three travelers while they slept and stole all of their money. He had cut up the bodies and had hidden the pieces in pickle barrels. Outraged, Nicholas opened the barrels, reassembled the corpses and restored the murder victims to life.
St. Nicholas is said to have died on December 6, which became a day in his honor, filled with celebration and gift giving – until the sixteenth century, when the Protestant Reformation replaced him as a bringer of gifts, first with the Christ Child and then with a host of other secular figures. Gift-giving day was moved from December 6 to December 25, which had been chosen for Christ’s birth date by the Church, which wanted to remove all of the pagan connections to winter celebrations. Among Catholics, though, St. Nicholas remains a prominent figure, even today.
Of course, to many, the most miraculous wonder of St. Nicholas was how he managed to enlist the Devil as his helper when making his rounds on the eve of December 6 — or at least his sidekick looked like the Devil anyway. He had horns, hooves, black fur, a tail, chains, a long, red tongue, a malicious expression and a handful of switches. But he wasn’t the Devil, he was a Krampus, a pagan god who had been downgraded to become a helper for St. Nicholas.
Krampus may have had his origins in pagan rituals, but it wasn’t until the middle and late 1800s that Christmas cards in the alpine regions of Europe began to appear that were decorated with this hideous horned demon who punished children and punished women in ways that suggested it wasn’t just a spanking that they were getting for Christmas! A fusion of man and beast, Krampus was a figure of evil, designed to evoke fear in disobedient children. He traveled with St. Nicholas on the night of December 5 with the sole purpose of inspiring bad children to be good. For some, this meant a slap or a spanking but others would be beaten mercilessly until they promised to behave. The truly wicked were locked in irons and collected in a large basket that was strapped to his back. They were either taken off into the woods to be tortured or were deposited directing into the fires of hell — Not exactly the makings of a Merry Christmas, is it?
But that brings us to Santa Claus, the jolly fat man with the long white beard, red suit and cap trimmed in fur, boots and a big sack of toys slung over his shoulder. He arrives every Christmas Eve from the North Pole in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, dropping down chimneys to bring gifts to children.
But it wasn’t always this way. Our ancestors in the nineteenth century hadn’t really made up their minds about what Santa was supposed to look like. He was just being invented in America and every artist and newspaper writer seemed to have his own ideas of what he looked like and how he made his holiday rounds.
The first written description of the American St. Nicholas was by Washington Irving (author of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow) in his 1809 mock chronicle of New York. He stated that in the old days of New Amsterdam (as it was known when the Dutch owned it), St. Nicholas showed up on Christmas afternoon in a horse-drawn wagon, traveling over the roofs of houses and pulling presents from his pockets and dropping them down chimneys of the homes of people he liked. Irving’s description left out the bishop’s robes of the traditional European St. Nicholas and transformed him into a Dutch burgher – short, round, jolly, smoking a long-stemmed clay pipe and dressed in colonial garb. The formal name for St. Nicholas – Sint Nikolaas – was later slurred by American children into “Sinterklaas” and then Santa Claus.
A very rare small book, “The Children’s Friend,” published in 1821 by an unknown author, is the first American book about Christmas. In it, a fur-wearing “Santeclaus” is pictured on rooftops in a sleigh drawn by a single reindeer. This is a change from Irving’s St. Nicholas. In 12 years, he had become “Santeclaus” with a sleigh, reindeer and fur suit. There is no known record as to how this came about, but folklore is formed and communicated by people and eventually artists and writers put the stories to paper.
Which is how we came to have our most famous literary work about Santa – the 1822 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas – by American poet Clement Moore. In it, St. Nicholas is now described as “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” and “dressed in furs from his head to his foot.” He also has a white beard, smokes a pipe, has a bundle of toys on his back and a tiny sleigh pulled by eight miniature reindeer, each of whom now has a name. Presumably, St. Nicholas is small so that he can fit down the chimney. His associated with elves and fairies gives him magical powers. The fur suit was likely taken from the Pennsylvania Dutch Pelznickol – “Fur Nicholas” – a somewhat menacing fur-clad Christmas folk figure imported to America to keep bad children in line. Moore compiled his St. Nicholas from many sources and brought what became Santa Claus to life.
According to history, our modern Santa Claus was invented in the middle 1800s. Even so, depictions of Santa varied widely across America for the next few decades. Every artist tried his hand and some were pretty odd – and downright scary. Luckily for the children, most of them were in black in white because color printing was just too expensive in those days. But that would soon change and in the late 1800s, Santa gained a new life thanks to an artist named Thomas Nast.
Nast was a Bavarian immigrant and brought his considerable abilities as an illustrator and his family’s love of a German Christmas to New York in 1846. He was employed by Harper’s Weekly as a staff artist in 1862 and became one of the paper’s most popular illustrators. He produced his conception for Santa Claus in 1862 during his first year at the magazine. It was the beginning of a long annual series, lasting until 1886, and became much beloved by the public. Nast’s work became the next step in the transformation of Santa, creating a recognizable image of a fat, jolly, elderly man with a kindly bearded face, a belt around his ample middle and dressed in a fur suit and cap. As full-color lithography came into being, Santa’s suit (which had been described in a number of colors) became fiery red, a color which continues today.
But perhaps the greatest influence on our modern idea of Santa Claus came from the Coca-Cola company, which began its Christmas advertising in the 1920s. The first Santa ads used a strict-looking Claus, in the vein of Thomas Nast, but in 1930, artist Fred Mizen painted a department-store Santa in a crowd drinking a bottle of Coke. The ad featured the world’s largest soda fountain, which was located in the department store Famous Barr Co. in St. Louis, Missouri.
In 1931, the company began placing Coca-Cola ads in popular magazines. Archie Lee, the D’Arcy Advertising Agency executive working with The Coca-Cola Company, wanted the campaign to show a wholesome Santa who was both realistic and symbolic. So Coca-Cola commissioned Michigan-born illustrator Haddon Sundblom to develop advertising images using Santa Claus — showing Santa himself, not a man dressed as Santa. For inspiration, Sundblom used Clement Moore’s classic poem but he painted the image of Santa using a live model — his friend Lou Prentiss, a retired salesman. When Prentiss passed away, Sundblom used himself as a model, painting while looking into a mirror. Finally, he began relying on photographs to create the image of St. Nick. The children who appear with Santa in Sundblom’s paintings were based on Sundblom’s neighbors — two little girls. So he changed one to a boy in his paintings.
From 1931 to 1964, Coca-Cola advertising showed Santa delivering toys, pausing to read a letter and enjoy a Coke, visiting with the children who stayed up to greet him, and raiding the refrigerators at a number of homes. The original oil paintings Sundblom created were adapted for Coca-Cola advertising in magazines and on store displays, billboards, posters, calendars and plush dolls. Sundblom created his final version of Santa Claus in 1964, but for several decades to follow, Coca-Cola advertising featured images of Santa based on Sundblom’s original works. Whether we realize it or not, the Coca-Cola paintings have influenced our modern Santa more than anything else.
But Santa is not the only gift-bringer in history. There have been many others – some of them downright weird.

When we think about our Christmas presents being delivered, we all picture the jolly fat man in the red suit with the bag of toys over his shoulder, but it wasn’t always that way.
Once the Reformation Protestants put St. Nicholas out of business, they soon realized that they needed a substitute for the saint – and very quickly. Their children shouldn’t be denied the excitement and joy of receiving gifts left during the night by an unseen, mysterious, and generous visitor. A remarkable progression of stand-ins for St. Nicholas came into being over the next few centuries.
The first was the Christ Child (or Christkindl), a toddler Jesus who was originally promoted by Martin Luther and the Protestants. Since the Church had already hijacked the pagan winter festivals and turned them into Christmas, it was only fitting that the Catholic’s St. Nicholas was replaced by the Christ Child in a flowing robe and halo. Interestingly, though, as the Christkindl came to America with German immigrants, the old lore and customs began to fade in the new world and “Christkindl” became “Kris Kringle,” which became another name for Santa Claus.
Angels, which were literally messengers of God, were always an important part of the Christian nativity story. In the nineteenth century, they were drafted into service as gift bringers and were even sometimes portrayed as helpers to Santa Claus.
Father Christmas is the personification of Christmas in England and he has a long, rather convoluted history dating back to the Middle Ages, when Christmas was celebrated with great feasts, merriment, and a LOT of drinking. This explains why Father Christmas is usually portrayed as a large, jolly man with a turkey leg in one hand and a tankard of ale in the other. He’s also usually seen with long white hair, a great beard, and a wreath of holly on his head. He was a beloved figure – but not to everyone.
In the seventeenth century, the revelry and excesses during the season irritated the sober English Puritans, who condemned it all as the old Roman celebration of Saturnalia (which, of course, it was) and they believed there was no biblical basis for Christmas feast days. Or even for that matter, for Christmas itself, since the actual date of Christ’s birth is unknown. The Puritans finally succeeded in outlawing Christmas when they gained control of Parliament in 1644, executing the king for treason in 1649 – and they effectively killed Father Christmas for excessive merriment. Riots and brawls broke out against the authorities and for a time, Christmas in England went underground.
King Charles II finally restored Christmas and other religious observances in 1660 after the collapse of the Puritan rule. Father Christmas was back, but he was a little more subdued than he had been in the past. By the nineteenth century, he became associated more with gift-bringing than in merry-making and eventually was absorbed into the legend of Santa Claus.
Pere Noel was France’s version of Father Christmas and probably sprang up in the early part of the nineteenth century, even though there were a number of French gift bringers that dated back to before 1300 CE. He became a composite of these earlier characters and gained prominence as an answer to the American Santa Claus. His appearance was quite different, though. He was normally seen as an old man in a monk’s robe of blue, white, red, or green and often carrying a bag, basket, or a handful of switches.
During the 1870s, Protestants and schoolteachers of the Third Republic rebelled against the Catholic Church and replaced St. Nicholas with the secular Pere Noel. The gift bringer was adopted by patriotic organizations, charitable groups, and schools – much to the outrage of the Catholic clergy. The poor old guy was condemned as a heretic and usurper and was last burned in effigy in 1951.
Weihnachtsmann (“Christmas-man”) was a nineteenth century German invention who was offered by the Protestants as a replacement for St. Nicholas. They had gotten uncomfortable with the idea of the Christ Child taking time off to deliver gifts on Christmas Eve. Weihnachtsmann was a thin, old, bearded man in a long robe who delivered gifts on foot each year. He had a lot in common with Pere Noel and increasingly became more and more like Santa Claus. Amazingly, he almost became the world standard of the Christmas gift bringer — in other words, he almost replaced Santa Claus!
In the late 1800s, Germany became a major center of lithography, exporting immense amounts of popular Christmas imagery to the United States and Europe. Around 1900, when the convenience of the illustrated postcard overcame the sender’s uneasiness about the fact that others could read his or her written messages on the back of the card while it was in the mail, the popularity of postcards soared. German artists’ conception of Weihnactsmann appeared everywhere. The backs of cards printed in Germany listed the word “postcard” in as many as 14 languages – the card and picture were the same, but the greeting changed for the country importing it.
In America, as Santa Claus was becoming more popular, people were happily sending imported German postcards with images of Weihnactsmann plastered all over them, apparently pleased with the variety and flavor that they added to the season. The dominance of the German lithographic industry and its imagery was so great that Weihnactsmann just might have become the world standard — until World War I came along and destroyed any chance of that. Santa just kept marching on.
In Sweden, the Jultomten (Christmas Elf), a portly gnome with a white beard and red cap, toting a sack of gifts, became their Christmas gift bringer. Similar Christmas elves are the Julnissen in Demark and Julenissen in Norway. Other European gift bringers are an old woman, La Befana, in Italy, who came down the chimney on the night of January 5. That same night marked the arrival of the Magi, or Three Kings, who also dropped off gifts.
Other figures drafted into gift-giving have included women, children, fairies, gnomes, bears, birds, goats, pretty girls on reindeers, rats, and more. It’s been said that children must have started to wonder just who was going to show up with their gifts on Christmas Eve, but let’s be honest…. as long as the gifts were there, the children really didn’t care who brought them.

Let’s face it, if most of us were eight years old, we would likely be on Santa’s “Naughty List” this year for Christmas… you know, that list of bad boys and girls who really aren’t entitled to presents and toys? The separation of good children from bad children is a tradition as old as Christmas itself. In the days of St. Nicholas, his demon familiar, Krampus, followed him in his gift giving travels and beat on and kidnapped the bad kids – a rather extreme warning for children in European countries that they needed to behave.
But as St. Nicholas and his hideous companion began to fade in importance, the awful realization must have come to parents that they would no longer have someone to frighten their unruly children into obedience at Christmastime. The solution? Hand out switches to the Weihnactsmann and other holiday gift bringers. This way, they could also hand out punishments, as well as gifts. And he did – or at least threatened to do so by brandishing a bundle of wooden rods and waving an admonishing finger. Sometimes, it was said, he simply tossed the really bad children into his bag and carried them off, just like Krampus. Where did he taken them? No one knew — so you had better behave.
The dual nature of the gift bringer – both loving and judgmental – gave him god-like qualities and children were often shown down on their knees in front of them, hands clasped together and hoping to avoid a sort of juvenile Judgment Day. All of that in hope of presents? Apparently not – bad kids were beaten, whipped, and even kidnapped if they misbehaved. Yikes!
The earliest representation of St. Nicholas in America was made in 1810 when a woodcut appeared showing the saint with a wooden rod clasped in one hand. To the right of him is a please little girl holding a present and next to her is a crying boy who had apparently gotten a beating for being bad. Merry Christmas!
In an 1821 book called “The Children’s Friend,” Old Santeclaus is shown for the first time for American readers. After describing the gifts he left for good girls and boys, the book ends with a drawing of two stockings, doubtlessly hung up with care, one of which contains a bundle of switches – with directions for the child’s parents to use them often in the coming year.
Then, a remarkable thing happened in 1822, when the switches disappeared from Santa’s bag altogether. Clement Moore’s famous poem described Santa as “a right jolly old elf,” who filled all the stockings with gifts and left exclaiming, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.” No judgment, no punishment, and rewards to all – never mind how the children behaved all year long. From that point on, Santa in America was portrayed as a benevolent deity of Christmas, without a switch in sight.
But there was that pesky list…
According to tradition, Santa kept a list of children’s names – or rather two lists, one for good children and one for bad. Instead of beating on the kids who misbehaved, though, they were threatened with another fate – no presents. Not only would they receive no gifts, they would discover a lump of coal in their stocking instead.
The tradition of coal in the stocking began in the middle nineteenth century. It said that when a child was good, he would find a small toy or cookies and candy in his stocking. If he was bad, it would be a lump of coal. It was a pervasive belief in those days that if you were poor, it was because you or your ancestors did bad things. You were poor because God was punishing you.
Most of England and Europe was powered by coal and home furnaces were coal burning. Coal would often be taken, placed in a pan and then put under the bed at night to stay warm. If you were a poor child, you were you were lucky to get coal that you could use to keep yourself warm during cold winter nights. The rich had nice warm houses and lots of goodies in their stockings but the poor, who were being punished by God for being bad were lucky to get coal.
There are so many versions of the story, but most date back to St. Nicholas and the story that he left gold for the dowries of three young women whose father could not afford them. He tossed gold into the window of the family’s home and it landed in stockings hung by the fire to dry. The stocking tradition came from this story — that if you’re a good, deserving child, St. Nicholas will put good things in your stocking. If you’re a bad, naughty child, he will simply reach down into the fire place and grab a lump of coal, as a warning for you to behave in the upcoming year.
So, what about you? Will you find a lump of coal in your stocking this year? Or maybe a wooden switch might be more to your taste… er, I mean what you deserve, haha! Happy Holidays!

The holidays have arrived! For most people, the holidays are about fun — family gatherings, parties, Christmas traditions, food, presents, and days and nights of laughter, good tidings, and cheer. Things have changed a lot over the years, though. In the past, the holidays meant drunken rowdies prowling the streets, banging on pots and pans, blowing horns and whistles, shooting off firecrackers, firing guns, and making as big of a racket as possible. It was a time of all-day drinking and hell-raising. Masked people, most of them young men, entering houses without invitation, doing little skits and demanding food, drink, or money and threatening broken windows or worse unless they got it. It was a time of public feasting, gluttony, and drunkenness.
This was the Christmas season in early America around 1800, before Santa Claus, before decorating trees, Christmas shopping, gift giving, and all of the other things that we now associate with the holidays. Back then, Christmas was more of a public celebration in the streets and pubs rather than one quietly observed at home with the family.
The winter nights were long and dark. It was a time of snow, cold, and ice and a series of days and weeks huddled around the fire waiting for warmer weather to return. Oil lamps, candles, and fireplaces were the only sources of light to keep back the encroaching shadows.
But what better days for ghosts? In the Victorian era, this was considered the spookiest time of year, beginning with Halloween and ending with the spring thaw. All of the greatest fictional ghost stories of the time were set in the gloomy winter months and during the holidays, like Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” for instance.
Before that, winter was the season of death and a time filled with malicious spirits, demons, and other threatening entities. They had to be appeased by gifts and precautions to ward them off – like ringing bells, making noises, and burning logs in the fireplace all night. Venturing into the darkness could be a frightening experience with werewolves, trolls and monsters on the prowl.
The old pagan gods never seemed far away during the winter. This was the time of the winter solstice, a festival of death, designed to celebrate the spirit world and the “death” of the earth, which would be re-born in the spring. During the solstice, the Norse god Odin rose through the skies in a chariot pulled by two goats, distributing gifts to the Viking clans. Needless to say, the flying chariot of Odin was later incorporated into the legends of Santa Claus.
And that wasn’t all that was taken from the pagans…
As Christianity swept across Europe, the Church attempted to eradicate the “old religion” by assimilation. It also adopted its myths, such as the birthdate of the Christian messiah, December 25, came from the cult of Mithra –it was the birthdate of this particular god, who was the god of soldiers — and the Roman feast of Saturnalia, which ran from December 17 to December 23.
The Church heartily disapproved of the pagan events and co-opted everything by making December 25 the day of Christ’s birth — despite the fact that the Bible points to Christ’s birth in the spring — successfully turning it into a Christian festival from that point on.
The Twelve Days of Christmas, December 25 to January 6, were declared a season of celebration, starting in 567 A.D., and became a time when spirits and supernatural creatures were believed to roam the earth. Witches and threatening spirits flitted through the sky and dark forces roamed the earth intending to do evil because they were unhappy with the celebration of Christ’s birth. Means were devised to keep evil away – like burning fires to keep witches from coming down the chimney, brooms hidden so that witches could not ride on them, and signs of the cross painted over doorways of houses and barns.
So, remember when you’re sitting down to Christmas dinner with the family or opening gifts with your friends, Christmas hasn’t always been so bright and cheery. Happy Holidays!

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