The Horrible, Terrible Meaning of Christmas
By John F.D. Taff
Christmas. That glorious time of year where you exchange presents with loved ones. When trees get lit with lights and people get lit with eggnog. Where stockings are hung and songs are sung. Where everyone is filled with cheer and goodwill. God bless us everyone!
But there’s another side to this holiday, one you’ve probably not read much about. It’s a bloody side, a dark and twisted side that puts it right up there with Halloween as the year’s creepiest holiday. Most aren’t aware of this aspect of Christmas, and that’s perhaps no surprise. Who wants to think of blood and gore and whatnot when you’re carving the Christmas turkey or doling out presents from beneath the tree?
Well, I have assisted your understanding of this holiday by doing a little research. And let me assure you, dear readers, that the research was extensive, deep and very, very real. Each and every occurrence I’m about the share with you actually happened in actual history. You can check yourself, and I urge you to do so. I urge you because you should always know the truth about such things, even when the truth is plainly horrifying and not at all likely to show up in a holiday carol.
So, the first stop on our historical march through Christmas goes all the way back to 312 C.E. The actual “Santa Claus” was St. Nicholas of Patara in modern day Turkey. Nascent Christianity was gaining a foothold in the Classical world, and still having some growing pains in sorting out just what the faith was and what it stood for. Nicholas was from a wealthy family, but eventually gave it up for a life serving the poor and prostitutes of his city.
Or so you might have believed. What is blurred over here is a critical mistranslation of the Greek texts which don’t say he served the poor and prostitutes, but rather served the poor to prostitutes. This misreading has allowed what Nicholas actually did to remain hidden for centuries, buried under the myth of a kindly, jolly old man.
The cryptic Codex of Myra, an ancient proto-Christian text written sometime around 400 C.E., notes Nicholas rounding up the poor with a promise of a filling, wholesome dinner, then turning on them with his followers in a bloody massacre. They killed, cleaned and cooked these wretches in a bloody bacchanal, eventually serving them to the group’s seraglio of professional women. Nicholas was a big believer in healthy, well-fed women of the night, and this cornerstone of his sect is remembered today only in the somewhat misconstrued Christmas tradition of feeding the poor at soup kitchens.
The hiding of Christmas’ bloody reputation continued with the sanitized legend of Good King Wenceslaus, he of the interminable Bing Crosby holiday song. Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia or (Svatý Václav in Czech) ruled from 907–935 C.E. The name Wenceslas is a Latinized version of the modern Czech Václav. (Not, perhaps, incidentally, the name of the big bad guy in my next novel, HE LEFT, is Wenceslas. I am not, again, making this up.)
Known today for his pious service to the destitute (a common theme you’ll note in our bloody trip through Christmas past), Wenceslaus would rise every night, barefoot and with only a chamberlain escorting him, to minister to the faithful poor, giving them food and money. Unfortunately, what the fable leaves out is that Wenceslaus was so single-minded in his devotion that he wound up bankrupting the Duchy of Bohemia, effectively leaving the entire region penniless and hungry.
On the Feast of Stephen mentioned in the song, the day after Christmas, the starving folks of Bohemia gathered outside Wenceslaus’ castle with torches, empty bellies and let’s just say a marginally less-than-Christian attitude. When the Good King came down to proselytize (in a kind of Nicholas legend turned upside down), the crowd set on him, tearing his body limb from limb, roasting the pieces right there on the spot with the torches they’d rather conveniently brought, and devoured him completely. As with the legend of the actual Nicholas, the only hint of the bloody death of Wenceslaus is in the dismemberment of the turkey or goose each year at the holiday dinner table, with the best parts (the proverbial haunch of Wenceslaus) going to the honored guest.
Good King Wenceslaus, indeed.
Our next stop on the tour of Bloody Christmas is 1490, at the early period of what has become known as The Spanish Inquisition. Treated comedically by such noteworthies as Monty Python and Mel Brooks, The Spanish Inquisition was, as historians continually point out, “certainly not very damn funny.”
One of the first acts of this period (extensively chronicled by Albus of Castile, a monastic historian of the era, in his Historia Hiberiae et Velox ad Cibum Facile Mandatum), was the persecution of merchants selling Christmas trees. Known as Árboles de Navidad, the custom was just beginning to take root in that area, a sort of nod to the paganist worship of trees common throughout the ancient world prior to the advance of Christianity. The felling and decoration of these trees was quickly becoming a holiday tradition, but this blending of paganism and Christianity could not be tolerated by the Court of the Inquisition.
Singled out as the Heresy of the Trees (Heresies de Árboles) in a papal bull issued by Gregory III (The Micturate), hundreds of tree merchants and decorators were rounded up in the southern parts of Spain and France, and put to the stake. The resulting fires—heightened by the burning of the resinous pine trees generally used for this purpose—attracted great crowds of holiday celebrants, working at cross purposes for what the Inquisitors had in mind. A carnival-like atmosphere ensued at many of these burnings, and eventually the church realized that it had made a critical error. They eventually moved on from this, fixating on the growing habit of Catholics to send each other cards during the Christmas season, in what became known as the Heresies de Hallmarc.
Unfortunately, again, the full weight of this was lost over time, and only the relatively benign tradition of the Yule Log remains to remind us of this depraved period of history. As we approach closer to modern times, though, it becomes harder and harder to understand how some of the horrifying practices around Christmas aren’t better known.
Take, for instance, the tradition of placing an angel at the top of a Christmas tree, in memory of the angels who appeared before the shepherds, heralding the imminent arrival of the Christ child. In practice, though, the reason for this is much, much darker.
In early Victorian England, around 1841, the Society of St. Swithins was formed in London. Made up of members of the upper class and period luminaries, the society, in its papers, claimed that it was formed for the “enrichment and advancement of such orphans in the Greater London Area, having been abandoned by both society and their parents.”
Terribly, nothing could have been further from the truth. In a shocking document unearthed by the producers of the History Channel series I’m Not Saying It’s Ancient Cults, But…, a member of the secret society carefully details the group’s real purpose. Through a complex system of patronage, the group selected orphans from around the London area, using a carefully guarded set of unpublished criteria. These children were gathered together in a group home, opulent for their status, where they were comfortably housed, clothed, fed and given medical care.
At the Society’s secret, invitation-only Christmas Masque, the children were feted with an enormous holiday dinner (don’t jump to conclusions here; it’s not what you think), then paraded before the Society’s celebrants for voting. The losers were given a shilling and returned to the streets, while the top vote-getting orphan was then taken away to be spectacularly outfitted as an angel. On his or her their return to the festival chamber, they were impaled on the top of a Christmas tree. (Note: via an incision made at the base of the spine, I’m obliged to point out. Even these deviants would have found the alternative somewhat déclassé. End note) From there, the angel’s various death spasms and general anguish could be enjoyed by the increasingly intoxicated society members, before being taken outside and, predictably really, burned along with the tree whilst being toasted with generous lashings of wassail.
Horrible, terrible Christmas.
But, go ahead and celebrate Christmas as you normally do. Travel to visit family, exchange gifts, kiss your sweetheart under the mistletoe (trust me, you DO NOT want to know where this particular tradition arose), toast each other and eat to bursting. Perhaps these facets of Christmas are best left to history, and our version of the holiday—slick, gleaming and almost mercifully commercial—is the more appropriate.
But know that your holiday is beset with blood, torture, cannibalism and the grossly inappropriate use of orphans. As I said at the beginning, it’s always best to know the truth. And I can assure you that all of this is absolutely true.*
Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and a Joyous New Year to all!
John F.D. Taff
*None of this, absolutely none of this is even in its broadest sense accurate. But one could hope, couldn’t one?
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I really enjoyed the post. Thanks! And I’ve only read Little Black Spots so far but it was a wild read.