December 21, the winter solstice, is a day on which Victorians would honor St. Thomas by participating in various charitable events, giving food and money to the poor. One of the customs was for poor women to go around the houses asking for alms, which was often referred to as going “a thomasing”, “a gooding”, or “a mumping.” The last term comes from the word mumpers, a name given to toothless beggar women, probably originating from the Dutch mompen = to mumble.
Numerous countries observe Saint Nicholas Day, and many children have been gifted small presents from this seemingly jolly saint today. For instance, in Poland St. Nicholas hides gifts inside shoes or under pillows, provided that kids were good during the year. But it turns out that the beloved St. Nicholas’ name was sometimes used in more sinister phrases and imagery.
We find the first clue for that in Ware’s Victorian Dictionary of Slang & Phrase:
“Nathaniel, Below (Old English). Even lower than Hades—Nathaniel (like Samuel, or Zamiel in Germany) and Old Nick, or Nicholas, being familiar synonyms for Satan.”
The familiar euphemism ‘Old Nick’ is not easy to investigate, but it took on around the 17th century and most sources provide two possible origins of the name:
– connection to a water demon, goblin, or sprite (e.g., Old English nicker, nicor, Middle Low German necker);
– humorous reference to Saint Nicholas himself.
And a few St. Nicholas legends do contain some grizzly elements which could have inspired such a connection! Like the one where St. Nicholas resurrects three children, who had previously been killed and pickled in a barrel of brine in order to be sold as ham. He resurrects them by making the Sign of the Cross, but the imagery is of a very necromantic nature. Other stories show St. Nicholas controlling the weather by calming a seastorm and mention him encountering and vanquishing a sea monster (a nihhus), which echos the first possible etymology of Old Nick. We might never know for sure, but hopefully, historical linguists will bring us more answers!
The holiday season is upon us, which also means some delightful colorful cards in many households. The tradition of sending holiday cards was also alive and well in the 19th century and the Victorians are well-known for their outlandish Christmas cards usually featuring a variety of critters from moths through frogs to … dead birds.
The lifeless bodies of little wrens or robins were a popular design choice, although it might be difficult to imagine today how they were supposed to boost the festive spirit. Apparently, this quirky tradition might have its roots in a more morbid one, in which killing a wren or a robin was deemed a good-luck charm for the new year.
Luckily, the Victorians decided to treat this one more symbolically, and following their footsteps I’m giving you my watercolor interpretation of the theme along with my best wishes for the holidays and 2021. Do you have any favorite vintage card designs?