This time, Paul’s CATCHING UP with author, speaker, campaigner and all-round Planet Protector, RUTH VALERIO. Paul talks to her about her new fabulous children’s book, Planet Protectors… which is very familiar to Paul… because he wrote it too!
Ruth and Paul wrote it together and it’s out now! It’s published by SPCK, and the fab illustrations are by Fay Austin.
Discover how children can change the world, change churches, and how you can judge a book by how its cover FEELS. If you’re a church person, hello, there’s lots in here about how churches can change. If you’re not a church person, hello, there are loads of tips in the book about things you can in your everyday life, from loving your coat to stargazing to how to welcome to how to junk-model right.
Ruth’s website is at ruthvalerio.net – you can read her writings and find out more about her back-story and campaigns.
Here’s one campaign – Tearfund’s Reboot campaign – centred on the UN climate talks in Glasgow, COP26, and how we can come back from this pandemicky times looking after our big round home a lot better.
This podcast is currently occupied by CATCHING UP – longform chats, unedited, with various people, individuals and humans. Stay subscribed for more. It’s all a bit experimental, so take it in that guerrilla spirit.
For a more edited, honed and finely produced podcast, my other podcast The British Broadcasting Century is telling the origin story of the BBC, radio and life as we know it. Try it! Season 2 now underway.
As for this one, stay subscribed for more fab chats – next time, TV presenter Gareth Jones…
Jam-packed with interesting facts, Christian theology and practical tips, Planet Protectors is an informative and empowering guide for children on helping the environment by living sustainably!
In a lively, entertaining style Ruth Valerio and Paul Kerensa offer 52 fantastic ideas for looking after the world – from cycling more and choosing fair-trade, to taking shorter showers and recycling. Children will love taking up a different challenge each week and be inspired to join the fight for the planet’s future as they learn about why it is so important to care for the environment and God’s creation.
With quirky illustrations perfect for colouring in throughout, Planet Protectors is an ideal book for 7- to 9-year-old children beginning to read independently. It is also a brilliant resource for parents and guardians to open up conversations with children about environmental sustainability, and for primary schools, Sunday schools and youth workers teaching about the environment.
Encourage and empower your children to see how they can make a difference and look after the world by becoming Planet Protectors.
Part of that is because I’m using my writing time to write my first novel. First?! Ha! That implies there’ll be more.
It’s on the origin story of the BBC (podcast on that here), and a bit part in that is Nancy Astor. I’m more focused on her secretary, Hilda Matheson, who left Astor (begrudgingly – Astor had to pretty much sack her to make her go) to work for the fledgeling BBC, rising to become the Beeb’s first Director of Talks.
Matheson was the highest-ranking female boss of the company/corporation, and helped invent talk radio as we know it – the ‘Radio 4’ style of clever/interesting/diverse people informing/educating/entertaining. Before her, there were rather dry lectures, but she opened it to include debate and added a conversational style, plus her connections brought Britain’s celebrities of the day to the mic – George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf (Matheson’s own love rival, for the affections of poet Vita Sackville-West). Matheson also worked for MI5 in both World Wars, hired by Lawrence of Arabia during the first one.
I know, right?! What a character. You start writing about the BBC and you end up writing about gay affairs and spying. But then you research Matheson’s pre-BBC boss, Lady Astor… and boy oh boy, keep pulling on that thread.
Nancy Astor was the first MP to take her seat in the House of Commons, so that’s the chapter of the book I’ve chosen to introduce Matheson and Astor. Nancy was an American divorcee, and you may have seen her name in countless quotes, part of a decades-long mud-slinging roast battle with Winston Churchill. eg.
Astor: “Sir, if you were my husband, I’d poison your tea.”
Churchill: “Madam, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.”
After Nancy Astor’s triumphant maiden speech at the Commons (largely to boos, which was not the done thing for maiden speeches), Churchill was heard to say, “I feel as if a woman has just entered my bathroom and I had nothing to defend myself with, not even a sponge.” Astor apparently replied: “Mr Churchill, you are not handsome enough to have worries of that kind.”
Yet before her parliamentary career, Churchill was a friend to Nancy Astor, joining her lavish parties at her vast country home of Cliveden. After she became an MP – only because her husband rose to the House of Lords (he didn’t want to, and hoped Nancy would only babysit his seat while he got the law changed to return to the Commons) – many politicians snubbed her. Churchill was notoriously cruel with it. When he saw her in a Commons corridor, he’d talk loudly about venereal disease and the like, just to embarrass her.
So while the first Astor/Matheson scene in my novel has them at Westminster, I wanted their second chapter to be at Cliveden, the sprawling estate that Nancy loathed, that her husband inherited from his father William Astor.
I’m en route to a stand-up gig tonight, so pulled into a motorway services to do some writing on the novel. Then realised: I’m not that far from Cliveden…
…Cliveden is now a hotel, but the National Trust operate the estate. I sought a tour, and rounded the corner of the house to see a gaggle of tour guides all having their training. What’s the collective noun? A question of tour guides? A gift shop of tour guides? Anyway, there are no tours while the hotel finds its feet again post-lockdown. I left them to their training – early, given there aren’t any till 2022 – and explored the grounds.
It’s not the first time I’ve written part of a book in the place it’s set (although you’ll notice so far I’ve not done much sitting and writing; just some mooching around – still, all helps). When I wrote Hark! The Biography of Christmas, I wrote the chapter on Bracebridge Hall – fictitious English manor house, described by US writer Washington Irving in 1821 as the scene of lost old English Christmases, log fires, carriage rides, games etc – in the same manor house it was based on, Aston Hall near Birmingham. Irving visited Aston Hall as a guest of the Watt family (the lightbulb guy), and was so inspired by their Christmas celebrations that he exaggerated and fictionalised it in his book, which in turn inspired Dickens to write about old Christmas too.
Like Cliveden, Aston Hall is now a place to visit rather than a private property, so I worked on the chapter about its history while sitting in Aston Hall’s very modern cafe – but with a lovely view of the old house, and having just enjoyed an enlightening tour of it.
It really helps get under the skin of what you’re writing if you can visit your setting, let alone be writing about it while you’re there. I’ve read a handful of books and accounts of Cliveden and the Astors, but to visit it and see its scale was quite another thing.
The hotel was for guests only, but I popped my head around the door and glanced at the Cliveden’s entrance hall. It’s not changed much. This was it 100 years ago – the scene that would have greeted Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, and various visiting US presidents:
The chapel was open for non-hotel guests like me. It used to be a tearoom in the 1800s, but the Astors turned it into a chapel, not for Sunday worship for somewhere to be buried. It’s quite something:
Nancy Astor was a complex character – heralded as the first female MP to take her seat in Parliament, but better known for what she was anti than what she was pro. Anti-semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-communist – she backed Hitler through the 1930s, and the ‘Cliveden set’ was an upper-class group of appeasement, Nazi-sympathetic toffs who chose the wrong side of history. Nancy regretted her views in 1939, and spent the war trying to atone for her earlier views, helping children and families, just as she had set out to do in Parliament from 1919 onwards – only now she was turning cartwheels and turning her homes into hospitals.
Anyway, enough blogging – back to the novel-writing, before I forget all that inspiration and start to write about Lady Astor and Matheson just having a chat in a shop or something. I hope to discover Lady Astor holidayed in Hawaii and had some key plot points happen there – I fancy a trip further afield to write where I’m setting my book…
Nancy Astor and Hilda Matheson are fascinating characters, and I can’t wait to get into them in the novel. If I ever finish it, I’ll let you know all about it here.
In the meantime, my podcast The British Broadcasting Century is telling the BBC origin story – and we’ll get to Hilda Matheson on there… in about 50 episodes time.
I’ve posted 24 days of festive fact films this Advent. It’s all the fault of Elliot from Monkeynut Audiobooks, with whom I’ve recorded the audiobook of Hark! The Biography of Christmas. (We couldn’t get it out for this Christmas, but look out for it in 2020.) He reckoned it should be done, so it has been…
I imagine you’ll want the full boxset. What’s that? You don’t? Ah well. It’s here on a Youtube playlist, or here below one by one, so that like blown Christmas tree lights, you don’t have to go through the lot if you’re trying to reach only one…
This has been a brief return to my Yule blog. After Christmas, this page will return to PK’s Writing Blog, where I’ll delve occasionally into what us writers can learn from things we’ve watched. But for now…
A Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good watch/read/listen/night!
a) Like most posts on the all-new PK’s Writing Blog, it’s aimed at writers or those interested in writing and how it does or doesn’t work. You don’t need to be a writer – just willing to tinker under the bonnet/hood (UK/US term for the front bit on a car).
b) You need to either have seen In The Tall Grass on Netflix as I just have… and/or read the Stephen King/Joe Hill novella it’s based on… OR …not mind reading about spoilerific plot points in either, if you’re planning to see/read it.
I was intrigued to see that this slim trim horror story – with a pretty lean cast to begin with – had to add one crucial character to graduate from page to screen. And that in turn is quite telling about an essential part of telling a satisfying story. Which we’ll get to. But first, what you need to know about In The Tall Grass. SPOILERS below…
It’s a horror film based on one neat idea – what if you got lost in a field of grass that was just too tall to see over? Watch the trailer, you’ll get a feel for the whole movie. So it’s a maze: at times repetitive and annoying, at times scary, at (rare) times hopeful, and at times the same characters bump into each other…
Needs a mow.
Those characters are: our hero the pregnant Becky… her ill-motived brother Cal… a stereotypically cute/scary boy called Tobin who incites their incident (his lost cries lure them into the field of corn – I mean grass)… Tobin’s twisted dad Ross (don’t trust him)… and Tobin’s mum Natalie (the subbest of sub-characters, so you know she’s there just to show you how nasty Ross becomes.
Oh and a dog. Of course there’s a dog. Should they follow the dog? No they should not follow the dog.
But going back to Natalie, her hideous demise comes bang-on exactly halfway through the film. Almost to the minute.
The midpoint. That elusive screenwriting moment that’s a major plot point to shake things up. A realisation of what’s at stake. A false resolution, or an awareness of how bad things have become. In Se7en, it’s when Detectives Mills and Somerset discover John Doe’s lair. In Jurassic Park, almost exactly halfway to the minute, we first see the T-Rex and realise its threat. In Jaws, almost exactly halfway to the minute, the shark’s in . In each case, it’s horrific awareness. In Schindler’s List (Spielberg clearly loves his midpoints), almost to the second, halfway through the film Oskar Schindler goes from self-absorbed egotist to benevolent life-saver. We’ll zoom in on that example in a future blog post – it’s such an effective turnabout.
So that’s the midpoint – time and time again, giving our characters a fuller understanding of the horror show they’re in. It’s like they’ve spent the first half of the film climbing a mountain. Halfway through they’ve climbed the peak, and they can see not only far they’ve come, but the sheer scale of how far they have to go. But at least they can climb down the other side with skills learned and knowledge gained from the first half.
How do we get out of this movie? We’ve been stuck in production here for years…
The end of In The Tall Grass novella and film differ. Why? Mainly because of the audience. Stephen King and Joe Hill write to shock their readers. The number of Stephen King short stories with downer endings… Me oh my. But films? With very rare exceptions, even horror film audiences seek some kind of happy ending. Tie up the loose ends. Let our hero win the day. They’ve suffered enough! You can still have an epilogue gut-punch if you really want, but most of the time, we won’t be satisfied with a downer ending.
Proper spoilers now: the novella ends with Becky, Cal and Tobin all a bit mad, hugging n evil rock, destined never to leave the grass, but this won’t do for the film. Simply put, they need saving.
How do you save a character? With sacrifice. And no, not Children of the Corn type sacrifice on that rock – but with self-sacrifice. We could get spiritual and religious here but I’ll park that for now. Suffice to say, an outsider coming in to sacrifice himself so that others might live sounds a bit familiar.
So this is where our extra character comes in. Not in the book, but entering the film stage left is Becky’s estranged boyf and father of the baby, Travis. For the first half of the movie, it’s not entirely clear if he’s good or bad, but again, at around that midpoint, all becomes clear. The brother is bad – the boyfriend is good. From the midpoint on, we’re just playing out what’s been set up.
Travis’ entire role in the film is to save the day – but the rules mean that doesn’t come easily. He has to sacrifice himself (the only way out of the grass maze is to touch the rock, to gain knowledge – again the biblical metaphors are there, with Eden-based apple-eating and knowledge consumption). Armed with the knowledge of how to escape, but cursed with never being able to leave himself, Travis can save the boy Tobin, who can then save Becky and Cal.
(One bugbear of mine? By saving Becky and Cal, Becky is destined to a life with her twisted brother Cal, but hey, maybe she’ll realise his motives another day, off-screen…)
So there you have it. A cast list of 5 grows to a cast list of 6 from page to screen. Interestingly too, the grass in the book can only alter space, while the grass in the film can alter space and time. By making it 2D, they’ve added a dimension… and a sacrificial saviour, to give us a ‘happy’, if still somewhat unpleasant, ending.
Comedians With Books returns! With live show #3 around the corner, here’s live show #2 for your ears – or at least the book panel second half, recorded live at The Guildhall at Guildford Fringe Festival.
CWB is an occasional hybrid comedy-night-meets-book-festival, on this episode welcoming funny authors James Cary, Pierre Hollins and Dan Evans, hosted by Paul Kerensa (this is A Paul Kerensa Podcast after all). We get stuck into self-publishing v trad v Unbound, writing for radio, the future of the book industry, and much much more.
Also PK’s requests for beta readers for new short stories… details of Hark! The Biography of Christmas book group notes… new children’s book Joe’s Bros and the Bus that Goes… your feedback for future podcasts/audio versions of PK’s Writing Blog… and much much less.
A one-off (or at least very occasional) pop-up podcast with an excerpt from a recent Comedians With Books show, recorded live at The Star Inn with Guildford Fringe. It’s a new thrice-yearly hybrid comedy night meets book festival. This panel discussion features anecdotalist Aidan Goatley, relationship ponderer Rosie Wilby & stand-up mathematician Matt Parker, hosted by El Capitan Paul Kerensa.
I know I’m a Christmas obsessive, but I’m in great danger of becoming a Dickens obsessive too.
But he gave us so many Christmassy things! The new film picks up on one nickname in the later years of his life – ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’ – and though much of that is right place/right time stuff (industrialisation, new middle class, aspiration, London as the world’s biggest and most influential city at the time…), he did one heck of a lot for the Christmas season. And it’s pretty much entirely contained in that one little novella, that you could (if you had mind to) read in one sitting. A Christmas Carol.
Dickens’ own notes on his own copy of his own book, ahead of his public reading.
Yes you’re more likely to watch the Muppets’ version this year, but here are a dozen reasons why Dickens’ original is even better than you thought (and you probably thought it was quite good).
Dickens wrote it to make a difference. After glimpsing America’s slave trade, the conditions of Cornish tin mines and the poverty of industrial Manchester, Charles decided to write a political pamphlet to enact change and encourage generosity amongst his well-to-do readers. Dickens canned that idea in favour of a Christmas ghost story, a genre that he noted had “twenty thousand times the force… [of] my first idea”.
It put family at the heart of Christmas. …helping re-focus the season on children and family. Children’s carols, like ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, appeared in the years that followed. For Dickens’ part, he’d started painting the picture of the cosy family Christmas in his first book, The Pickwick Papers, which included a description of a perfect Christmas at Dingley Dell. Dickens adored Christmas. One of Charles’ sons wrote that “my father was always at his best, a splendid host, bright and jolly as a boy and throwing his heart and soul into everything that was going on… And then the dance! There was no stopping him!”
It gave us the White Christmas. Charles’ first eight Christmases were white ones, born as he was at the end of the Little Ice Age. The Thames froze the year before and two years after his birth – the last time the tidal section would do so, giving London its last great Frost Fair, held on the river. England suffered some of its snowiest weather for 300 years. The world climate was so bleak in 1816 that it was known as “The Year Without a Summer” or rather macabrely, “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death”. The sunless summer forced a gaggle of writers to accept Lord Byron’s challenge to write a ghostly tale instead of enjoying European sun: Mary Shelley emerged with Frankenstein; John William Polidori wrote the first vampire story. As for Dickens, when he grew up he recalled the white Christmases of his youth, and wrote it into his festive tale, published in the tenth mildest December on record… but readers his age remembered the snowy Christmases of their youth too, and nostalgia gave us the white Christmas.
It gave us mulled wine. Alright, mulled wine was already ‘out there’. But by including one his favourites, ‘Smoking Bishop’ (made from port, red wine, citrus fruit, sugar and spice), Dickens ensured its future. As a child, Dickens enjoyed a glass or bowl of this concoction – yes it was alcoholic, but probably safer than drinking water.
It gave us Humbug. You knew that. Bah! It also popularised ‘Merry Christmas’ as a greeting (see previous blog)… though its first reference in the book has Scrooge respond: “Every idiot who goes about with a ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” Humbug to that…
Dickens self-published, in a fit of desperation. His previous book Martin Chuzzlewit, had bombed. The writer and the publisher had lost money on it. So this time, Dickens gambled on a cut of the profits being wiser than taking a lump sum. But printing costs were high, so it needed to sell well to turn a profit. No problem there – it was reprinted within a couple of weeks. Ever the perfectionist, Charles even binned the first edition with its ghastly olive endpapers, instead requesting a red cloth cover and golden pages to reflect the colours of Christmas.
He wrote it in just six weeks. When I wrote my Christmas book Hark! The Biography of Christmas (that all these blog posts are based on), I spent eighteen months on and off, receiving strange looks in the library and in coffee shops, reading Christmas books in March, April and May. No such problem for Charles Dickens. He wrote his Christmas book entirely in November and December. Once he had the idea, it was a rush to get it out for Christmas, and it was only finalised two days before publication the week before Christmas. While creating this story, Charles walked “fifteen or twenty miles many a night when all sober folks had gone to bed”. He wrote obsessively, and while writing, “I wept and laughed, and wept again.”
The book changed Christmas, utterly. Although Dickens was certainly a Christian (he wrote The Life of Our Lord for his children, and Tolstoy called him “that great Christian writer”), his book helped shift attention from the Nativity to charity and family. Today those who say that we shouldn’t forget “the true meaning of Christmas” often seem to mean the Dickensian Christmas: the importance of family, or the joy of giving. That said, at his time of writing, there wasn’t much attention at Christmas on the Nativity either – people were just as likely to be drunk in the streets as in church at Christmas. Some things never change…
The book changed people. This was one of the few books to notably improve the behaviour of those who read it. One American factory-owner read it on Christmas Eve and closed his factory the next day, instead giving a turkey to each employee. Whether inspired by the book or not, four years after A Christmas Carol Queen Victoria ensured extra funds for Christmas dinners at workhouses across the country. Robert Louis Stevenson read it and commented: “I want to go out and comfort someone; I shall never listen to the nonsense they tell one about not giving money – I shall give money; not that I haven’t done so always, but I shall do it with a high hand now.”
The book was published the same week as the first Christmas card. Just down the road too, in Sir Henry Cole’s art shop. That week, Sir Henry sold a thousand cards at a shilling each. On that day alone, A Christmas Carol sold six times as many for five times the price.
The book made Dickens’ fortune… not by writing it – but by performing it. While plays and musicals based on the book appeared within a few weeks of publication, Dickens took a few years to bring it to the stage himself. When he did, he was pretty much the first writer to give public readings. Performing the tale and embodying the characters made him millions in today’s money. His first reading came from this book – and his last. On March 15th 1870, he gave his final performance, ending with the words: “From these garish lights, I vanish now for evermore, with a heartfelt, grateful, respectful, and affectionate farewell.” He died three months later, aged 58. Almost as he was giving his final few performances, Thomas Edison and his fellow brainboxes were working on the first sound recording devices – so tragically, we all missed out on hearing Dickens’ own recording by just a few years.
There has been over a century of film adaptations. Ah what I’d give to hear Dickens read it himself… We’ll have to make do with Jim Carrey, Alasdair Sim and Gonzo instead. The first screen adaptation came in 1901 – and with a new film out about the making of the book this very Christmas, we can’t seem to get enough of Scrooge and co. Altogether: “Marley was dead, to begin with…”
Happy Thanksgiving! Or if you’re not in the United States – or just ungrateful… then Happy Unthanksnotgiving.
The Thanksgiving turkey gets in a good month before the Christmas turkey. So today’s the day that, once again extracted from my book Hark! The Biography of Christmas, we’ll delve into that particular festive treat.
The English have always enjoyed Christmas, Turkey and making bad jokes about Christmas and turkey.
The bird landed on Western dinner plates around the sixteenth century, not long after roast dinners were starting to resemble today’s a bit more. Root vegetables were eaten nearly as much as meat and newcomers like sprouts were joining the plate. Such perennial “favourites” (personally I still have to gulp my one-sprout-a-year down with a glass of red) offered highly nutritious vitamins through the season, oddly growing in even the roughest of winters.
New foodstuffs arrived in the hand luggage of explorers. Sugar was an expensive luxury but helpful for the traditional Christmas sweetmeats; sugared bacon was a Tudor delicacy. But the prized souvenir was a meat, because after all, a special occasion such as Christmas deserves a special bird – and goose, swan, and peacock had all been done.
The Southern Mexican turkey was a domesticated bird, making it very easy to transport, so by 1525 these birds started appearing in European ports. Originally it was confused with the African guinea fowl, arriving via the Ottoman empire, land of the Turks. So the turkey suered a case of mistaken identity; though it had never even been to Turkey, the name “turkey” stuck.
The whole naming of this bird is one giant fiasco, to be honest. The country it was thought to be from wasn’t even called Turkey until after World War I, so the bird was (wrongly) named first. Then there’s the fact that the bird they thought it was wasn’t even from Turkey (which wasn’t called Turkey) but East Africa – the birds just changed hands a few times between Turks en route. Finally, the world over, they all seem to call it different names based on other places that it’s not even from. The Turks themselves called it “an Indian bird”, as did the French who call it an “Indian rooster” (a “coq d’Inde”, now abridged to “dinde”). In Malaysia it’s a “Dutch chicken”, while the Portuguese call it a “Peru bird”. The humble turkey should really be called “Mexican guinea fowl lookalike”.
A Mexican guinea fowl lookalike.
Yorkshireman William Strickland bought six turkeys from some Native Americans and brought them to British shores via the Spanish Netherlands; the first turkeys were sold in Bristol at the price of tuppence – unsurprisingly at that rate, the locals gobbled them up.
But this was at least a two-bird race to the dinner plate. The goose was faring well as a seasonal bird to eat, just not necessarily at Christmas. Instead Michaelmas on 29 September was the day that each goose should look over its shoulders. They’d been popular with the Celts in their Samhain festival and also in our very old friend Yule.
Long before the Dutch/American/Mexican/Peruvian/Indian turkey could get its claws onto our Christmas menu, the goose beat it to it, all thanks to another sea explorer, not bringing anything back from the New World but defending the Old World…
Sir Francis Drake and Lord Charles Howard led the defence against the Spanish Armada, and on 29 September 1588 word reached Queen Elizabeth of their success. She was tucking into her traditional Michaelmas goose at the time, and was so overjoyed at the victory that she decreed that goose become celebration food from then on. That Christmas, roasted goose was the bird of choice. So when Michaelmas later waned, the goose clung to Christmas instead. In the next century though, James I preferred turkey to boar’s head, so the goose’s old rival was back on the table. In the Victorian era, popular Prince Albert began a fashion (for those who could afford it) for the more succulent turkey – and the goose’s goose was cooked.
Victoria did of course find a variety of meats placed in front of her each Christmas, including exotic birds like swan, snipe, or capercaillie. In 1851, the royal menu contained turkey for the first time, and that meant that the nation would copy. Thanks to Victorian methods of mass production, this was now possible at an affordable cost.
These boots were made for walking (to the dinner table)
Over in Norfolk, these turkeys would be raised with the sole aim of the Christmas dinner plate. So how to get hundreds of turkeys from Norfolk to London in time? Simple. Starting in October each year, you make them walk to, yes, their own execution. is annual procession of the doomed birds was quite a sight, especially thanks to the shoes they wore. To protect their feet, each turkey had hard-wearing leather boots for the 100- mile one-way commute to market. At least they had a big meal waiting for them in London; the weary birds were fattened up in time for Christmas.
1. The Christmas tree. Alright, Romans brought in shrubs centuries earlier, but Martin Luther’s credited with popularising not just the household Christmas tree, but a certain type of decoration.
The story goes that he was out walking – after a hard day’s reforming – when he happened upon a forest. He probably happened on it quite quickly – this was Germany, so he probably couldn’t see the wood for the trees. But what he did see was the starry starry night, and was so enthralled by a starlit tree and how it recalled the star over Bethlehem, that he ran home to tell his wife of the beautiful scene. Words failed him, so he went back, felled the tree, and plonked the fir in his living-room, adding candles to recreate the starry night.
“There, it looked something like that.”
“You could have just told us, Martin…”
His was thought to be the first traditional German Christmas tree: the Christbaum.
Luther amidst his family at Wittenberg on Christmas Eve 1536. Ah it says that above. You can read.
2. Mistletoe. After Luther started a-reforming, some thought the church needed even more reforming. Puritans for example, when in power under Ollie Cromwell, banned all sorts of potential idol worship – including the effigy of the holy family, hung above the front door. The effigies vanished but the sprigs of evergreen surrounding them stayed, especially the mistletoe. The priest used to greet the household under the effigy with a Christian kiss – so that became a kiss under the mistletoe, which handily had berries to pluck after each kiss, ensuring the smooches were finite.
3. The mince pie. Ultimately what used to be known as a ‘Christmas pie’ changed shape under the Puritans because once again, it was a bit idol-worshippy. The pie back then was shaped like a manger (or a coffin – how very theological) – so enterprising British bakers changed the shape to flout the ban – circular, not crib-shaped.
A banned mince pie. Probably best banned. It’s weird eating the baby Jesus.
4. The fairy/angel/whatever you call the female sprite thing on top of your tree. Similarly a ‘tin-gold angel’ used to represent Jesus atop the Christmas tree. Again, that’s a tad idolatrous, so bye-bye Jesus, hello (thanks, eventually, to Queen Victoria and her in-fashion dolls) angel, fairy, or whoever else you want to put up there.
5. Santa – and a bit less Mary. Protestantism effectively downgraded Mary. Their Christmas focused in on the infant Jesus, rather than those around him. Saints’ days were discouraged, sparking an attempted coup on St Nicholas. His celebration day of 6 December had been a day of gift-giving for centuries – but that didn’t sound very reformed. It’s not that easy though to take gifts away, so instead they were postponed, to Christmas Eve. The “Christkindl”, the Christ-child, was said to be the new bringer of gifts rather than St Nick.
6. Santa’s workshop. Now alright – Martin Luther didn’t invent Santa’s workshop – but he paved the way for it. Helping St Nick’s transformation into Santa was the illustrator Thomas Nast. This Protestant Bavarian chap drew the jolly elf more than anyone else. Nast’s anti-Catholic polemic was undoubtedly a big influence behind his saint-lampooning caricatures – and he also added a list, a North Pole address and a workshop with elves.
‘Merry Old Santa Claus’ by Thomas Nast, 1881 – lampooning Catholic saints (especially this one) for decades.
7. Thanksgiving, Hogmanay, commerce and, well, everything. Yes, then there’s the Puritan takeover (sparked by the Reformation) cancelling Christmas, shaping American culture, letting in Thanksgiving, and allowing the shops to get the jump on Christmas while the church was still working out whether to celebrate Christmas or not (see this previous blog on ‘happy holidays’ for more on that).
Meanwhile in Scotland… well this may be just for the real history geeks, but here are the rest of Reformation’s Christmassy moments:
1517… On Halloween, reformer and alleged Christmas tree co-inventor Martin Luther nails what’s wrong with the church to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Luther permits celebration of Christmas; other reformers disagree.
1521… In Wittenberg, Protestant reformer Andreas von Carlstadt performs Christmas Mass in German rather than Latin, probably lasting considerably longer due to the length of the words.
1522… Luther translates the New Testament into German, so that people can check the reformers’ complaints against the papacy. As long as they read German.
1526… William Tyndale translates the New Testament into English, although it’s illegal for fifteen years. It’s just in English and German to begin with; Cockney and Klingon translations come later (though are now available).
1536… Henry VIII dissolves the monasteries, changing the face of English religion. Unemployment rises by 2%, with thousands of monks, friars, and nuns suddenly out of work. And yes, sorry – a lot of canons were fired (no really, it was very serious at the time).
1541… The mock role “the Boy Bishop” is one of the first Christmas traditions to be stopped by the Reformation. Spoilsports.
1559… John Calvin publishes his “Institutes”, picking up Luther’s mantle and running with it (not too far because the mantle was nailed to the church door. This is all very metaphorical, by the way). Unlike Luther, Calvin does have a problem with Christmas, because it’s not biblically sanctioned. He doesn’t quite outlaw it; he grumbles to one minister to follow “the moderate course of keeping Christ’s birth-day as you are wont to do”. Christmas is safe. Just not in Scotland…
1560… Scotland goes the extra mile (or 500 miles) – Christmas is banned by the Church of Scotland under John Knox. For about four centuries.
1575… Christmas Day called “Yule Day” in Scotland; punishments handed out to those found playing, dancing, and singing “filthy carols”.
1585… Philip Stubbes’ Anatomie of Abuses records that, “Especially in Christmas time there is nothing else used but cards, dice, tables, masking, mumming, bowling, and such like footeries… Do they think that they are privileged at that time to do evil?… Be merry in the Lord, but not otherwise, not to swill and gull… The true celebration of the feast of Christmas is, to meditate… upon the incarnation and birth of Jesus Christ, God and man.”
1602… Shakespeare’s latest footery – Twelfth Night, or What You Will – debuts on, when else, 2 February – not Twelfth Night, but Candlemas. Elizabeth I’s habit of requesting Christmas plays often forces Shakespeare to write at very short notice. This was intended to close the Christmas season, though it’s not a Christmas play. It’s more Roman Saturnalian, full of cross-dressing and mistaken identity.
1607… King James I of England (where they celebrate Christmas) a.k.a. King James VI of Scotland (where they don’t) requests a play for Christmas Day, as well as after- dinner games. The suggestion angers Puritans, Scots, and the king’s players who thought they had Christmas off.
1618… King James reinstates Christmas in Scotland, but hardly anyone turns up to celebrate it.
1640… Scotland bans Christmas again.
1958… Scotland officially reinstates Christmas three hundred years later. In the meantime a New Year celebration, Hogmanay, has filled the gap.
…But apart from Santa, the Christmas tree, mince pies, mistletoe, the Christmas fairy, Mary, Hogmanay, Christmas lights… what did Luther ever do for Christmas?
If Halloween’s behind us, it must mean we’re into the holiday season. Alright, our Atlantically-distanced cousins mark it from Thanksgiving, but come on: Halloween, Bonfire Night, Thanksgiving… whatever side of the pond you’re on, it’s one festivity after another this time of year. Like the lorry of sugary black stuff tells us, holidays are indeed coming. Happy holidays, everybody!
Oh, hasn’t that term always bristled? Doesn’t it smack of Christmas-bashing? Of secular season’s greetings and watered-down Wintervals? But here am I – English, God-fearing, Christmas-loving chump that I am – to say that I think I’m happy with ‘holidays’. Happy, if not merry.
Till I researched my Christmas history book, I hadn’t fully appreciated the history of the U.S. holiday season. I knew that Cromwell banned Christmas over here in Blightyland in the 1640s, causing a good decade and a half of no legal Christmas in Britain. But I’d not realised the impact in America.
Caption competition on Have I Got 17th Century News For You
The Puritan Pilgrim Fathers banned Christmas in Boston a few decades later, and unlike in Britain, they didn’t have centuries of Christmas to build on (or knock down). They were banning something that had never had a footfall in the New World, so as a religious festival it never hugely came back, because it was never hugely there. Christmas was celebrated in pockets along the East Coast in the 17th and 18th century, but churches couldn’t agree: Was it a feast day? A fast day? A normal day? Christmas became an excuse for a riotous party, or just a riot.
Scotland had done a similar thing – with no official Christmas holiday from 1560 right up till 1958. That left a gap, so Scotland gained Hogmanay, while North America gained Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving was celebrated as early as the American Christmas, with new (and hungry) pilgrims grateful for the harvest. Britain had its Harvest Festival, but things grew bigger in the New World – even festivals. It took till 1789 to become official under George Washington, marking the proper start of the ‘holiday season’, which now covers the Christian Christmas, the Jewish Hanukkah, and the African American Kwanzaa. So it makes total sense to be called a holiday season, given the holidays it covers include things like Thanksgiving, that had a foothold before Christmas fully did.
For Thanksgiving to go national as an actual day off, thank nineteenth century magazine editor Sarah Hale: a very creative, innovative and can-do American businesswoman. She wrote to each U.S. President over 26 years suggesting an official Thanksgiving Day (Lincoln finally relented), and also first published ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ plus stories by Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe in her mag. Oh, and she also printed something else for our Christmas tale: the American reprint of the famous ‘Victoria and Albert and family around a giant German Christmas tree’ picture, which went viral and pretty much created an industry.
To appeal to the American market, Hale’s version of the picture used one of the earliest examples of journalistic airbrushing, removing Victoria’s crown (to make her less royal) and Albert’s moustache (to make him less German). Spot the difference in the above pics, UK vs US… However anti-royalist and xenophobic it sounds, good ol’ Sarah Hale sold the Christmas tree to America – so give thanks to her for a couple of ‘holiday’ customs.
If ‘holiday’ is still sounding anti-religious, it’s worth remembering the word’s religious in origin in any case, being Old English for ‘holy day’. And in fact a century or two ago, ‘Happy holidays’ could have easily meant a Christian greeting to cover Advent, Christmas and New Year into Epiphany… as well as those other non-Christian festivals too.
So I have no problem with ‘the holiday season’. It’s a season of holidays. As for ‘Happy Holidays’… well the backlash against that is perhaps more valid, and more recent. It’s a greeting used at Christmas, instead of ‘Merry Christmas’. I see the point though. What if you’re wishing someone a Merry Christmas, and they’re Jewish, and Hannukah is their thing? Don’t you want to wish them a merry one of those? So Christmas shopping might be labelled ‘holiday shopping’. Perhaps it rankles to the British ear because holidays, for us, are what they call vacations, and are normally summery and as far from Christmas as possible. So is it a language thing then, or a multi-religious thing?
Maybe it’s more that in the U.S., when they say ‘Christmas’ they more often mean the religious Christmas – so when their festive season becomes more multicultural, they pick a new term that’s less religious. Over on our sceptred isle, we’ve been watering down our religion for some time, merrily ticking census boxes that claim us as Christian when really we mean we like the morals we learnt in R.E. forty years ago, and we sing along to Last Night of the Proms. If we’re happy to be labelled Christian without going to church, we’re also happy to label Christmas as ‘Christmas’ when actually we’re no longer celebrating Christ’s mass.
Either way, whether you’re enjoying Thanksgiving, Kwanzaa, Guy Fawkes Night or even Christmas, I know it’s too early and too annoying to wish you Happy Holidays. So I’ll just wish instead it to be as fun a holiday season as King Edward III had in 1348, when he spent Halloween to Candlemas (a.k.a. All Saints Eve to Groundhog Day) – three full months – on a masked animal-skin party in Guildford. I live in Guildford, and can report, it hasn’t changed a bit.