Thursday, December 5, 2019

Bizarre Holidays to You

Sitting down to compose this month's blog, I was casually surfing the history of Christmas postcards when I stumbled on a blog about Victorian Christmas postcards at Hyperallergic, "a forum for serious, playful, and radical thinking about art in the world today." As a collector of vintage Christmas postcards, I'm familiar with creepy human-like cats, and the occasional dead bird (not on the same card). However, "Have a Creepy Little Christmas with These Unsettling Victorian Cards" by Allison Meier introduced me to Christmas card motifs I've never seen before.

Victoria, Albert and the kids gather
around the Christmas tree, 1848
To understand these cards, we need to remember that the Christmas traditions most of us celebrate today--the decorated tree, jolly old St. Nicholas aka Santa Claus, holly berries, brightly wrapped packages--only date from the 1840's, when Queen Victoria's German husband, Prince Albert, installed a big Christmas tree (lit with candles!) in the royal apartments at Windsor Castle. Although the previous Germans who ruled Britian (all those Georges) had occasionally brought fir trees indoors at Christmas-time, when Albert did it up big, it really got people's attention. Suddenly, lighted trees and gaudy decorations became the custom.

The 1840's was also the decade when another tradition began: Christmas cards appeared and gained in popularity. I suppose the cards were somewhat of a novelty--a colorful and possibly economical way to wish the best of the season to family and friends. However, as you see from the examples here, some of the subject choices strike the modern viewer as bizarre and not as "merry" as we're used to seeing. The Victorians rarely passed up a moralizing opportunity: The dead bird motif, for example, was a reminder that death claimed too many young children, especially those living in poverty. So the subtext of the dead bird would be to remember the less fortunate with donations while you celebrate the season. But as for that killing frog and Santa stuffing a child into a sack, "[s]ome of that significance", says Meier, "is now lost to history." However, no motif or image would have appeared on a card if there were any chance the Victorian sender or recipient wouldn't "get it". So weird as they appear to us, be assured our Victorian ancestors "got" these images.

Have fun figuring out what the subtext in some of these postcards might have been.

Victorians liked cats. Maybe a bit too much.
Nothing says have a joyful Christmas like a dead bird.
The verse explains the frogs asked their mother if they could skate on
the ice. She said "No". They did it anyway. Like the bird, they're dead.
Subtext here is pretty obvious.

This child may never eat another healthy apple
Angry birds? 
"The black ants invaded by the red ants" The red ants' banner says
"The compliments of the season". Good luck figuring out this one!
OK. We talked about this one.
"Greetings from Krampus" cards were popular among Northern European Victorians.
The Krampus was a yuletide/pagan character. When he became part of Christmas (and
 he still is), he got the job of punishing bad children while Santa gifted the good ones.
These kids are looking  a bit worried, so they might be regretting some misbehavior.
Just plain disturbing.
This Santa does not look jolly. Was the Krampus busy elsewhere?
Happy Christmas. Your snowman is "dying".

Obviously, Victorians liked frogs almost as much as they liked cats.

Meier, A. (2015). "Have a creepy little Christmas with these unsettling Victorian Cards". Retrieved 5 December 2019 at

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