Sadly, most people miss out on the true meaning of Christmas. But then, there are some people who really miss the mark altogether. That was the case with many Brits during the Victorian era.
Today I read in Philosopher Mouse of the Hedge about Victorian Christmas cards. Phil’s great post was inspired by a BBC article, “Frog Murder and Boiled Children: ‘Merry Christmas’ Victorian style.” As Phil writes, “and you thought that sinister Elf on the Shelf was creepy.”
The card at the top of my post comes from the BBC collection. Pretty morbid. Where does the “Joyful Christmas” enter in? One might think this is the kind of card a passive aggressive victim of ornithophobia might send an enemy—but that was not its original design.
The Robin redbreast is a treasured resident of Britain, as this interesting article describes in detail. Just a few years ago, in fact, “it won a BBC Springwatch poll to choose the UK’s national bird.” The author describes their distinctive association with Christmas, although I am positive he did not have the image of this unfortunate creature in mind when he penned these words.
Another reason we connect robins with Christmas is that the early postmen wore red uniforms, and so were nicknamed ‘robins.’ And, as the cards pop through your letter box over the coming days, note how many feature a robin!
Here’s another peculiar card that has nothing to do with Christmas. At least it simply refers to “the Season,” and doesn’t tarnish the word “Christmas” itself.
Such a modicum of good taste did not deter the creator of the next card from associating robbery and homicide (actually frogicide) with the day celebrating Christ’s birth. One must hope that the grim illustration was originally fashioned for a different context.
C.S. Lewis knew that the British had a problem comprehending Christmas’ meaning. Why, they even twisted things sufficiently to link telling ghost stories to the commemoration of the Nativity.
It may have something to do with a confused relationship between church and state. Nations with “state religions” typically see those religious faiths morph into distortions of their true selves. Thus history is filled with examples of total secularists or hedonists who were the “titular head” of a state church.
Henry VIII set the bar for hypocrisy quite high, with adultery and murder his bywords. C.S. Lewis includes a tribute (of damning sorts) to this despicable ruler in his sequel to The Screwtape Letters, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.” In the address, fictitiously delivered by the devil Screwtape, the Tempter bemoans the mediocre vices of the humans whose anguish provides the main course.
The scene is in Hell at the annual dinner of the Tempters’ Training College for young Devils. The Principal, Dr Slubgob, has just proposed the health of the guests. Screwtape, who is the guest of honour, rises . . .
Your dreaded Principal has included in a speech full of points something like an apology for the banquet which he has set before us. Well, gentledevils, no one blames him. But it would be vain to deny that the human souls on whose anguish we have been feasting tonight were of pretty poor quality.
Not all the most skilful cookery of our tormentors could make them better than insipid. Oh to get one’s teeth again into a Farinata,* a Henry VIII, or even a Hitler! There was real crackling there; something to crunch; a rage, an egotism, a cruelty only just less robust than our own. It put up a delicious resistance to being devoured. It warmed your innards when you’d got it down.
So much for Henry VIII and the peculiarities of Church and State relations in England. Whatever the origin of this confusion about Christmas, it is quite tragic and disturbing.
So, What is the Proper Focus?
For an entertaining take on the proper focus during Christmas, you might want to check out “Martin Luther Yells about Anglican Christmas Hymns.” (Apologies to those who love English hymns for sentimental reasons.)
And now, one final Victorian card which serves as a fitting capstone to today’s conversation. ’Tis innocent mirth that gives Christmas its worth. (Or not.)
* Manente degli Uberti (aka Farinata delgi Uberti, 1212-1264) was an Italian heretic mentioned by Dante in Inferno.