FEATURES

Christmas in the Potteries

Madonna and Child, c1790-1818 by Enoch Wood or Wood&Caldwell, Burslem. Image courtesy V&A

Alan Sturrock

December 2022

The Staffordshire potters were nothing but entrepreneurial, always seizing on an idea or event to commemorate and make money. Why then were no figures made to recognise the celebration of Christmas? Alan Sturrock offers some alternatives for the festive season.

Madonna and Child, c1790-1818 by Enoch Wood or Wood&Caldwell, Burslem. Image courtesy V&A

Mid-eighteenth century Britain was officially a Protestant Christian society, celebrating the birth of Christ in Nazareth on 25 December. Depite the many angels, shepherds, kings and animal groups made in the Potteries, none depict the nativity.

There are some very lovely Madonna and Child figures attributed to Enoch Wood or Wood & Caldwell, but these were not made with Christmas in mind. The nearest figures to Christ’s birth are those of the “Flight to Egypt”, paired with “Return from Egypt”. Perhaps we could also include the apostles Matthew and Luke, who wrote of Christ’s birth in the New Testament, and were modelled by the Alpha factory as part of “The Four Evangelists” group.

And what of the Father Christmas we recognise today? He had arrived in Britain by the early twentieth century, albeit circuitously. Although the Reformation of Europe in the sixteenth century had seen saints’ days gradually disappear from the English calendar, people continued to mark 6 December (St Nicholas’s Day) through a series of reinvented characters, from Old Christmas, usually drawn as a thin old man, through to ‘das Christkindl’, an angelic Christ child. The Dutch Sinterklaas travelled to America and became Santa Claus, a jolly old man with a big white beard. Santa’s business day moved to 24 December, by the 1820s he had his sleigh and reindeer, by 1870 he customarily wore a bishop’s red robes, and by the late 1880s he melded with Britain’s Old Christmas to become simply Father Christmas, as a symbol of giving, thankfulness and plenty.

Even more surprising then that the Staffordshire potters did not exploit that mid-nineteenth century US market as they did with other figures like Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and Uncle Tom and Eva (the central characters from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, published in America in 1852, just a few years before the outbreak of the American Civil War).

The only Christmas-related Staffordshire items of which I am aware are Victorian Christmas jugs. These are of a bearded man holding a dish containing a dead rabbit. The base has a raised title “Merry Christmas”.

The significance of the rabbit is interesting. Turkey was not the meal of the day; it would have been a goose for those of better means but for the majority of country folk a wild rabbit would have been a delicious and tasty meal. Perhaps in this bearded jolly fellow the potters amalgamated the tradition of Old Christmas, who brought food to the feast and Santa, bringing joy to all!

Alan Sturrock is President of the Staffordshire Figure Association. He is always happy to answer questions on Staffordshire figure related topics by email.

Confused? A Father Christmas chronology of who’s who, when and where

by Sarah Gillett

Odin (also known as the Yule father)
One of the first incarnations of Father Christmas dates back to Norse mythology, in the guise of the powerful god Odin (Old English Wōden). In the recorded history of Northern Europe, dating back to Roman writings from 2 BCE, Odin was depicted as an old man with a flowing grey beard and one eye, sometimes wearing a cloak and broad hat. He travelled across the sky on his flying eight-legged horse and every year when the midwinter sun shone over the lands, it was said that the Yule father Odin and his friends were hunting down trolls and other nasty creatures. On the night of the winter solstice, Odin would leave gifts out for the children, and they in turn would leave a small parcel of food for Odin and a carrot or some hay for his horse.

Odin with his two ravens, Hugin and Munin, from Sæmundar og Snorra Edda, a 1760 Icelandic manuscript by Ólafur Brynjúlfsson

St Nicholas
Next we have Nicholas, born in 270 AD, who became Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (today part of Turkey). Bishops’ robes at the time were traditionally red and white, although some historians argue that he originally dressed in different colours. Imprisoned by the pagan Roman emperor Diocletian, he was freed by Constantine the Great and continued his saintly work. He died in 343 AD, on 6 December – now St Nicholas’s Day. The story of St Nicholas’s miracles and his generosity to children spread throughout medieval Europe. 

Fresco of Saint Nicholas being consecrated as bishop of Myra, late 11th century, Chapel of Saint Eldrad and Saint Nicholas, Novalesa Abbey, Piedmont, Italy

The Frost or Winter King
In England, the pagan Saxons honoured the Frost or Winter King, who had a lot in common with Odin. As Christianity became dominant in the UK the figure of the Yule father, Frost or Winter King became more closely associated with the festival celebrating the birth of Jesus. 

The Frost King, 1903 illustration

Sir Christmas, Captain Christmas and Old (Father) Christmas
The chivalric knight Sir Christmas of fifteenth century England and the charming Tudor era Captain Christmas did not lavish gifts on children. His job was to make sure everyone had fun at the lavish yuletide feasts, appearing as a burlesque-type visitor laden with food and drink. This made him an enemy of Oliver Cromwell’s righteous government, which outlawed Christmas, fearing that it had become an excuse for unholy drunkenness. In response, the defenders of the tradition renamed the figure Old (Father) Christmas to make him sound more venerable. 

Frontispiece to John Taylor’s pamphlet The Vindication of Christmas, 1652, in which the character of ‘Christmas’ appears in old-fashioned clothes with a long thin beard, calling himself ‘old Christmas’ and ‘old Gregorie Christmas’

Sinterklaas
In the Netherlands, the Dutch believed that Sinterklaas, like the Norse Odin, travelled by flying horse, but also that his assistants helped him choose the good children who deserved to be rewarded with pressies on the evening before 6 December, his holy feast day (note the convergence with St Nicholas’s Day). 

Sinterklaas riding his flying horse across the rooftops, flinging presents to his tiny assistants

Das Christkindl
Another twist came in the early sixteenth century, when Martin Luther – the German founder of Protestantism – considered Sinterklaas still to be too similar to pagan Odin. Instead he decreed that it was ‘das Christkindl’ (an angelic Christ child) who brought gifts – though he visited on 24 December, not the 6 December.

Das Christkindl, Munich, Germany

Santa Claus and Kris Kringle
Many Dutch became Protestants and dispensed with Sinterklaas, yet the old tradition was carried to America by Dutch settlers. In New York, a former Dutch outpost, by the early nineteenth century Sinterklaas had morphed into Santa Claus, to be immortalised by American poets, writers and artists as a tiny elf-like man. Ever wondered why garden gnomes look a lot like miniature Santas? It’s no coincidence. Both were based on similar brownie-like Scandinavian folk creatures.

In Major Henry Livingstone Jr’s 1822 poem (formerly incorrectly ascribed to Clement Clarke Moore) A Visit from St Nicholas (better known by its first line ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas) we meet a diminuitive Santa and eight tiny reindeer. Note how the number eight harks back to Odin’s eight-legged flying horse…

Meanwhile, the German Das Christkindl became anglicised as Kris Kringle and grew up!

Father Christmas
Whilst Santa Claus was developing a following in America, in Britain the figure of Old Father Christmas was still an elfish figure of merriment, appearing at festive events to bring good cheer.

Old Father Christmas, no date given, William Ewart Lockhart (1846–1900) Courtesy The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

But by the mid-nineteenth century, the Victorians were looking for more than a well wisher, and the American idea of Santa Claus held much appeal as a more family-friendly visitor.

In 1843, the same year as Dickens’ published A Christmas Carol, the first Christmas card was printed in a run of 1,000 by Sir Henry Cole (founding director of the V&A). Anyone in the UK could send something by mail for one penny, thanks to the introduction of the Uniform Penny Post law in 1840. More Christmas cards followed, often with wonderful illustrations of Old Father Christmas. He was thin, wore a long cloak, was laden with baskets stuffed with sweets and toys and often carried a fir tree over one shoulder – influenced by the introduction of the Christmas tree to Britain by Prince Albert. Still, it took a while for Christmas cards to catch on – they really took off in 1870, when the British government brought in the halfpenny and reduced the cost of the post.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Old Father Christmas had dropped his elderly title and merged with the American idea of Santa: a jolly man with a big white beard who commandeered a veritable army of smaller elves in his frosty factory to make gifts for all the good boys and girls across the world of Christendom. Industrial exploitation or magical fulfillment? Either way, if you are very quiet when you go to bed on 24 December, you may be lucky enough to hear the jingle of bells from his reindeer-hauled flying sleigh (how many legs?), as it lands on your roof, or a swoosh as he drops down your chimney… but you have to believe.

PS Of course that story about Coca Cola inventing Santa is a myth. They didn’t start using him in their adverts until the 1930s. Ho ho ho.

Sarah Gillett is an artist and writer based in London, UK. She has an eclectic collection of
art and objects, ranging from fossils and taxidermy to Staffordshire and Victorian
nutcrackers.


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