Tag Archives: origins
The idea of hanging up decorations in the middle of winter is older than Christmas itself. Decorations are mentioned in ancient descriptions of the Roman feast of Saturnalia, which is thought to have originated in the 5th century BC.
Some 900 years later, a Christian bishop in Turkey wrote disapprovingly about members of his congregation who were drinking, feasting, dancing and “crowning their doors” with decorations in a pagan fashion at this time of year.
The 6th-century Pope Gregory the Great took a different line. The Venerable Bede, an English monk, records that English pagans had celebrated the start of their year at the winter solstice and called it “the night of the mothers”.
Gregory recommended that these celebrations should be reinvented rather than banned. So the construction of green boughs and natural adornments was instead focused on churches – using plants that have retained their festive significance to this day.
Nature, of course, has a role to play. In countries like the UK, midwinter greenery is limited. The leaves that are available – holly, ivy and mistletoe – became obvious choices for decorations. Mistletoe had long been revered by druids, while holly and ivy were celebrated in English songs at least from the 15th century.
King Henry VIII composed one which begins: “Green groweth the holly, So doth the ivy, Though winter blasts blow never so high, Green groweth the holly.” (I have modernised the spelling, but it was never very catchy.)
Greenery was cheap and perhaps for that reason is not mentioned in descriptions of domestic decorations from medieval Europe. Aristocratic households preferred to display their wealth by bringing out their best tapestries, jewels and gold platters.
Wax candles were another form of conspicuous consumption, as well as a nod to religious significance. But descriptions of Christmas festivities well into the 17th century focus on the decoration of the person rather than the house. Strange costumes, masks, role-reversing clothes and face-painting are all repeatedly mentioned.
Early emphasis on domestic decorations does appear in a Christmas song by the English poet and farmer Thomas Tusser, written in 1558. It opens: “Get ivy and hull [holly] woman, deck up thine house.” Clearly, the decoration of family homes was considered to be work for women – and this too has become a persistent tradition.
In the following century, Christmas celebrations became a matter of heated argument between reformers and traditionalists, with the reformers attacking what they saw as pagan revelries.
Creating modern traditions
It was the Industrial Revolution which came much closer to destroying Christmas than the puritans managed, by taking away traditional holidays in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Social reformers responded by energetically reinventing traditions.
The emphasis remained heavily on female responsibility for decorations, however. The British magazine, The Lady, asserted in 1896 that any hostess whose decorations were “meagre” was a disgrace to her family.
What then would be expected by this date? A middle-class woman might have been guided by the song which opens with the celebrated instruction to “Deck the hall[s] with boughs of holly”, published in 1862.
This song is itself a good example of the ongoing recreating of traditions throughout history. The new English lyrics were written to accompany a 16th-century Welsh melody, whose original words made no mention of holly or decorating. The 1862 lyrics were almost immediately updated to remove encouragement of heavy drinking.
Still relatively new in Britain and the US at this time, though rising in popularity, was the German custom of the decorated Christmas tree, which was first recorded in the Rhineland in the 16th century.
Its decorations were mainly candles and small presents, which were often homemade food and sweets. By 1896 the tree might be accompanied by a display of printed Christmas cards bearing images of holly, mistletoe, seasonal food and bells. Newer images included robins and, of course, Father Christmas. Another innovation was the arrival of electric lighting in the 1890s, which made possible the invention of fairy lights.
Arguably, the Industrial Revolution, having failed to destroy Christmas, eventually absorbed and expanded it. Affordable, mass-produced toys, gifts and decorations turned Christmas into the festival we know today and made decorations possible for almost all households, even in big cities where foliage was scarce.
One man who played a major part in creating and spreading affordable versions of decorations was the American entrepreneur and retail mogul, F W Woolworth. His decision to import large quantities of glass baubles and stars, originally produced by family workshops in Germany, did much to spread this new medium.
Alongside these came paper garlands and decorative Christmas stockings, as well as painted tin toys. Another idea which started in Germany was tinsel. This was originally fine, sparkling strips of silver, but was later mass produced – first in cheaper metals, and then plastic.
Today, of course, plastic is widely out of favour. As a result, perhaps we will see further reinvention of our Christmas decorations and traditions – which, from a historical perspective, is a tradition in itself.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the origin of several classic fairy tales, including Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.
If you’ve been on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram over the past month, you’ve probably come across a Mannequin Challenge video, in which people strike a frozen pose as Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” plays in the background. The camera surveys the motionless landscape, building suspense as viewers take in a scene in which life has eerily stopped.
A group of Florida high schoolers made the first video in October, and they ended up starting a movement that went viral, with Steelers fans, Medal of Freedom winners, Pearl Harbor survivors and government employees jumping in to make videos of their own.
Like most internet fads, the Mannequin Challenge’s moment will likely be brief; soon it will join “Damn Daniel” and “Chewbacca Mask Lady” in the annals of viral video weirdness. Nonetheless, bizarre cultural phenomena often spark conversations and think pieces that ask “Why this? Why now?”
In the case of the Mannequin Challenge, there’s actually some historical precedent. Long before smartphones filmed the stiffened appendages of people seeking internet fame, striking a pose was a popular form of entertainment in Victorian England.
They called them tableaux vivants (literally, “living pictures”). The technique has its roots in medieval drama, but it became a fashionable Victorian-era dinner party game similar to charades. People would select a famous scene from history or literature or art and position themselves in that scene, frozen, for their guests and friends to observe.
An American publication from 1871 called “Parlor Tableaux and Amateur Theatricals” describes tableau vivant as a “simple” and “elegant” form of entertainment. Over the course of 300 pages, it suggests ideas for staging, casting and costumes. It also recommends that a full evening of entertainment involve “five to 10 designs, including varied selections of classical and domestic, serious and comic, tableaux.”
One fashion and etiquette writer known as “The Lounger” described tableau vivant as the perfect party game.
According to The Lounger, “In the production of tableaux, the greatest attention must be paid to the grouping of figures and the harmony of colours; on these two points depends their success. When they are animated and controlled by a fine taste, their effect is charming.”
The Lounger’s description of the tableau’s compelling combination of animation and control, its carefully choreographed suspension of movement, also aptly illustrates the appeal of the Mannequin Challenge. The pregnancy of the moment captures the attention of the viewer, who wonders whether Bill Clinton can really stand still that long.
When coming up with the idea for the famous scene to imitate, the options were limitless. You could coordinate a group pose from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” Alexandre Dumas’s novella “The Corsican Brothers” or Rembrandt’s painting “The Anatomy Lesson.” Nineteenth-century literature also depicts tableaux vivants. For example, a character in George Eliot’s 1876 novel “Daniel Deronda,” Gwendolen, keeps “dramatic costumes” on hand “in readiness” so that she and her friends can use them for charades, plays or tableaux. At one point, the group argues about which kind of performance to do, before settling on a scene from Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.”
Queen Victoria and her family also loved putting these together. In an 1852 pencil sketch, she drew her six children in a tableau of John Milton’s “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” that they performed for her husband’s 33rd birthday.
“It was a great surprise to Albert who was delighted, & could not imagine how it had been so well contrived,” she wrote in her journal.
Part of the joy in producing one of these tableaux vivants was watching the audience’s recognition and reaction. And I have to believe that had Queen Victoria owned an iPhone, she would have snapped a glimpse of this moment and shared it on Instagram for the world to see, too.
There are fashions in diseases, as in anything else. It’s understandable that a new, infectious and life-threatening malady could preoccupy us, such as cholera in the 19th century or Ebola in recent times.
It is harder to see why a panic erupts around a diagnosis that’s a century old, but a telegenic celebrity death can help. When the singer Karen Carpenter died aged 32 in 1983, her heart gave out because of complications due to anorexia. Her death is widely credited with pushing eating disorders into the public consciousness.
Karen Carpenter was not the first famous young woman to starve to death. Sarah Jacob, “the Welsh Fasting Girl”, was once a national craze across Britain. She died at her parents’ farm in December 1869 in front of a team of nurses who had been sent from London to Carmathenshire to monitor her.
Sarah was believed by her family and her local clergyman to eat nothing at all. Her parents agreed to have her watched to make sure she was not secretly eating, but their faith in her was strong enough that they refused to have her force-fed.
As with other fasting girls, her alleged ability to live without food was taken by her supporters as a sign of special spiritual status, and seen by materialist physicians as evidence of hysteria and deceit.
Did Sarah Jacob, like Karen Carpenter, die of anorexia?
The diagnostic label “anorexia nervosa” was not coined until shortly after Sarah Jacob died, but of course a disease can exist prior to being named. She did not have all the symptoms associated with the modern diagnosis, but most mental disorders vary from patient to patient.
Anorexia is often seen as an expression of will – an assertion of autonomy and control by a young woman who is engaged in a battle with her family and therapists. If that’s the crucial point about anorexia then maybe Sarah Jacob was anorexic. Her fast turned her whole domestic world upside down and she maintained it right to the end.
In her 1988 history of anorexia, Fasting Girls, Joan Jacobs Brumberg, noting the presence of the medical team watching in her room, asserted that Sarah was “killed by experimental design”. But maybe she died of pride.
If the assertion of will, over both one’s own appetite and the authority of others, is the heart of anorexia, then perhaps we can push its history back further. In Holy Anorexia (1985), Rudolph Bell argued that anorexia shaped the lives of many medieval saints and other holy women, who ate next to nothing.
Saint Catherine of Siena fasted for days, far beyond what was expected of even the most pious young women in 14th-century Italy. She did so even when the male priests she was supposed to defer to expressly told her to eat something, on the grounds that her spiritual husband, Jesus himself, outranked them.
For Bell, it is Catherine’s assertion of her will – she sent angry letters to the Pope – that marks her out and puts her in a long line of anorexics extending to the present day.
Brumberg attacks Bell for assuming that female psychology has not changed over the centuries and that the past and present are the same.
But that’s unfair. It is certainly possible to acknowledge that both psychology and culture have changed dramatically over the years while also thinking that two people share enough relevant symptoms and personality features to justify applying the same diagnostic label to them both even if they lived centuries apart.
But obviously not just any remote similarity is enough, so how can we decide?
Archaeologists can find on ancient skeletons the traces of familiar diseases, but there is no physical marker to point to that would decide whether a mental illness was present in the middle ages.
Clearly, young women (and men) have been dramatically restricting their calorie intake for centuries, but not all the symptoms of modern anorexia have always been present, and some saintly behaviours are no longer associated with eating disorders.
Similarly, melancholy has a very long history, and many scholars see modern depression as essentially the same thing.
But modern clinical depression has dropped the distinction between melancholy, which has no obvious cause, and ordinary sadness, which is a reasonable response to the tragedies of life. “Depression” pathologises parts of our mental life that “melancholy” treated as normal – is it the same disease, or not?
Well, if you think mental illness is above all a problem with a neurological system, then there might seem to be an easy answer. The disease label refers to what is going wrong within your brain, and the cultural context just supplies the input and output.
Take an anorexic brain and plug it into 14th-century Italy and you get one set of symptoms. Plug it into modern Western societies and you get another. The different symptoms are reflections of different cultures acting on the brain.
Joel and Ian Gold, in Suspicious Minds, have discussed the emergence of what they consider to be a new form of psychopathology – the “Truman Show delusion” – in which, like the hero of the movie of that name, subjects imagine themselves as the star of a reality TV show. The existence of the show is known but kept secret by their friends.
The Golds argue that the delusion was caused by the rise of new forms of media and an attendant loss of privacy. It’s what you get when a paranoid brain deals with the contemporary social world, whereas perhaps a few hundred years ago these subjects would have been afraid of witches, not TV producers.
It’s a simple picture, and the brain-based concept of mental illness has great power. But culture shapes the brain in ways that makes the simple opposition too stark – London taxi drivers have extra-large hippocampuses, which have grown from use (it keeps a mental map of your surroundings) like the muscles of an athlete.
Over the centuries our brains have been sculpted by our cultural selection just as by natural selection, and mental illness has been shaped accordingly.
At different times, different aspects of a syndrome will predominate, to be succeeded by others as the culture shifts. Historians need to argue about how to apply the labels, but the history of human society is reflected in the ways our minds go wrong.
This is the second instalment in our disease evolution package. Click here to read the first: Disease evolution: our long history of fighting viruses.
How and why did the dishes served at Thanksgiving dinner come to be so fixed?
Many assume that most of them were simply eaten by the Pilgrims during the first Thanksgiving. For this reason, they continue to be eaten today. And it’s true that most of the ingredients are American in origin: the turkey, cranberries, pumpkin, sweet potatoes – even the green beans in the casserole and the pecans in the pie.
Yet we only have one firsthand account of the “first” Thanksgiving – a brief paragraph by Edward Winslow that doesn’t mention any of these foods. And it’s been shown, time and again, that the idea of a unique culinary tradition originating from a feast between the Pilgrims and their Native American neighbors is more advertising myth than historical truth.
But maybe there is something, nonetheless, that’s very traditional about this meal.
In fact, there may be a very good reason these particular dishes – and even the way we eat the meal – came to be strongly associated with Thanksgiving. The first Americans simply mimicked or adapted the traditional fare, flavor combinations and rituals of Europe, using them to fashion the popular dishes we continue to enjoy today.
Alaye that fesande!
To start, think of when we eat the meal: always in the early afternoon, which is just as a proper dinner would have been served 400 years ago. Back then, supper was a smaller, evening meal. Of course, there are other early dinners that families traditionally observe (especially on Sunday). But Thanksgiving always has been, and continues to be, early. It didn’t simply start sooner to accommodate a football game.
As for the ritual of carving at the table, it’s not something we normally do. But it was positively fashionable when the colonists left Europe in the 17th century. There were even carving manuals replete with illustrations for serving their favorite roasts, which were almost always wild fowl. The only difference is that they would hold the entire bird up in the air to carve thin slices, which would fall gently on each diner’s plate. (With today’s huge, domestic turkeys, it’s understandable that we leave them on the platter.)
There was even a whole language of dismemberment in medieval England: you would lyfte that swanne, alaye that fesande, wynge that partyche, dysplaye that crane, but breke that egryt.
Raspberry sauce and pompion-pye
As for the turkey itself, it was one of the few New World foods that had already gained immediate acceptance in Europe, precisely because of its similarity to peacocks and pheasants, which were among the era’s most fashionable foods. In other words, the Englishmen who landed in Massachusetts didn’t eat turkey because it was the only local food available. Rather, they’d been quite familiar with it back in England, where it was even common to remove the skin and feathers, cook it and serve it with the feathers replaced, as if it were still living – a standard medieval trick.
The side dishes also date back to Europe, with flavor profiles that are actually medieval in origin.
Take cranberry sauce. In medieval Europe, sour fruit sauce with wild fowl was a popular combination, one that balanced a cold and moist condiment with a hot, dry meat. In the mid-17th century, for example, the famous French chef La Varenne served turkey with raspberries.
But the real connection between Thanksgiving and the medieval feast is in the spices. Although today we use the blanket term “pumpkin spice” to characterize variations of cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and ginger (and they show up practically everywhere in cheap artificial form), these flavors were the backbone of medieval cuisine, appearing in a wide array of sweet and savory dishes, from chicken to pasta.
Back then, it simply wasn’t a lavish meal without a riot of spices (which, because they needed to be imported from Asia, were wildly expensive). Today the only one of these spices that stays on the table year-round is pepper. But their pivotal role in Thanksgiving again is a reminder of the tradition’s remote origins.
And many think of green bean casserole as a classic postwar dish – invented in the 1950s as a way to use up all the cans of cream of mushroom soup that had amassed in the pantry. But “French beans” (from America) were already well-known and loved in 17th-century Europe. English Poet Gervase Markham, in 1608’s Farewel to Husbandry, remarks how tender they are when stewed. And Thomas Tryon, a British author of self-help books, writes in The Way to Health, Long Life and Happiness that French beans “far exceed and are much better than other pulses eaten green.”
Candied yams were also a 16th-century staple. In Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, when Sir John Falstaff exclaims that it should rain kissing comfits and hail potatoes, he is actually talking about Virginia sweet potatoes, which had been brought back to Europe in the late 16th century. (These weren’t just candied; they were also considered an aphrodisiac.)
Famed English chef Robert May in the mid-17th-century cookbook The Accomplisht Cook has a great recipe for (sweet) potato pie, which wouldn’t seem too amiss on the Thanksgiving table today (though with cockscombs, testicles and bone marrow would be considered perhaps a bit overgarnished).
As for that very American pumpkin pie? In the 17th century, it was already quite common. One of the earliest female cookbook authors, Hannah Woolley, has a recipe for “pompion-pye” with the same spices we use today. She also includes apples, which, incidentally, are also thoroughly English in a pie.
So despite the picture we have of English colonists adapting to strange new ingredients in their new home, most of the recipes – and those we still insist on having at the Thanksgiving table – were already regular favorites.
Remember that when you lift high your (very American) turkey leg, like Henry VIII.