Wandering Eye: What to wondering eyes should appear

Editorial Staff Art


The first commercially printed Christmas card, which dates to 1843, caused outrage in Victorian England due to its depiction of a child sipping wine in the midst of a joyous family celebration. Two rare printings of the card were offered for sale recently and brought a sum that was considerably higher than their estimate. (Smithsonian Magazine)
Apart from the scandalous reference to underage drinking, this card was relatively tame for its era. Among homicidal frogs, hostage-taking Santas, and devils, dead birds in various states of repose are a frequent sight on holiday cards from the period. What did they represent? (Hyperallergic)
The concept of Santa Claus has also evolved over the centuries. He started out as St. Nicholas, then became Sinterklaas, then Father Christmas, until finally ending up as the bearded, red-suited, “jolly old elf” we know today. Commercial greeting cards, advertisements, books and movies have all shaped our conception of the big man at the North Pole. (Art and Object)
With the exception of Dr. Seuss’s Grinch and Dickens’s Scrooge, anglophone Christmas stories are predominantly about fluffy, lovable people and creatures. But in other parts of the world the holiday brings with it some seriously sinister characters, possibly holdovers from winter solstice festivals. Here’s a rundown of some Christmas monsters. Bah, humbug! (Vintage Everyday)


One tradition carried forth from pagan solstice celebrations is the presence of evergreen trees, which have symbolized the triumph of light over darkness. Here’s a look at how the pre-Christian Tannenbaum evolved into the light and ornament–adorned, tinsel-covered, star-topped Christmas tree. (National Geographic
Latvia and Estonia both claim to have invented the indoor Christmas tree, which has held an important place in their holiday festivities going back to the early sixteenth century. Regardless of when the tree first came into the home, we know that the first tree lighted by electricity stood on display in 1882 at a residence in New York City. The story is well told in this article, which features reprinted accounts of the reception the tree got at the time. (Bowery Boys)
Many of us display our trees beginning on the first day after Thanksgiving, and some of us keep our trees until more needles are to be found adorning the floor beneath them than on the trees themselves. Here’s the story of silent film comedian Harold Lloyd and his magnificent year-round tree! (Messy Nessy Chic)
Brooklynites have the opportunity to witness one of the most dazzling displays of light and decoration in all the land. This year as in every year, residents of the Dyker Heights neighborhood pull out all the stops to turn their houses and yards into winter wonderlands. Pro tip for non-covidian times: take the D train to this heavily trafficked neighborhood and have a gander on foot. (Untapped Cities)


Pope Francis is at it again: check out the 2020 Vatican Nativity display. Much of the conservative Catholic community has been unhappy with almost everything the Jesuit pope has done since assuming the office, but even the most liberal of his flock agree that this is strange. The scene features all of the main characters—Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, the Magi, and sheep—but then . . . wait, why is there an astronaut and a figure that looks like an ancient Darth Vader? Here’s the scoop on this “demonic, pagan and idolatrous” sculptural display, which was created in the Abruzzi between 1965 and 1975. (Hyperallergic)
Here’s an older interview with writer Sarah Archer in which she discusses her book Mid-Century Christmas: Holiday Fads, Fancies, and Fun from 1945 to 1970. Topics range from how the myth of Santa Claus helped to alleviate the fears of people living through the Cold War, to the proliferation of aluminum trees and cellophane crafts, to the burning Yule log televised on New York’s WPIX and A Charlie Brown Christmas. (Collector’s Weekly)
Speaking of televised Yule logs, the White Stripes have put together this wonderfully animated ninety-minute version, and attached a soundtrack featuring the band’s hits and rarities, and an original tune, “Candy Cane Children.” (YouTube)
A roundup of some other modern day Christmas traditions might include watching Donald Duck in Sweden, spider web decorated trees in Ukraine, smashing peppermint pigs in Saratoga Springs, and, of course, matching pajama sets for the whole family, everywhere. (Mental Floss/Vintage Everyday)


On Christmas Eve, Italians feast on seven fishes. Other lands may favor a turkey or ham on Christmas Day, and in Japan—where less that one percent of the nation is Christian—the custom is to stuff your face with KFC! What is your family tradition? In his Off Menu column, foodie Edward White looks back to the seventeenth century English-born, French-trained chef Robert May, who compiled The Accomplisht Cook, a collection of over one thousand recipes. Included was the Christmas dinner, “an evocative sensory experience that links the holiday of four centuries ago with that of today,” as White puts it. (Smithsonian Magazine/Paris Review)
While certainly not on May’s menu for the Christmas dinner, Jamaican jerk seasoning is part of the holiday spread for some. This is a great opportunity for us to learn a bit about the dish’s history. (Smithsonian Magazine)
As you sit around the table trying to construct tiny dwellings out of cookies smeared with icing mixtures that always refuse to function as proper architectural paste, bear in mind the dark side of gingerbread, and consider yourself lucky to be staring down dilapidated candy houses. (Crimereads)
With an overwhelming majority of Americans celebrating Christmas as either a religious or secular holiday, it’s no surprise that magazine, newspaper, and blog editors across the country have been churning out Christmas-themed content like there’s no tomorrow. Much of what we’ve read has been fascinating and joyful, but it’s important to remember that some of Christmas’s history has been downright ugly. Did you know that the KKK was established on Christmas Eve? We don’t wish to dampen the light and joy of this occasion, but it’s important to remember some of the dark times, too, and to understand why some people don’t celebrate this as the most wonderful time of the year. Take, for example, the history of the Jewish people and Christmas. It’s not just grumbling that stores devote only a small section to the blue and white trinkets of Hanukkah. (Times of Israel)


And lastly, as we forego gatherings with family this year due to the global pandemic, it’s worth remembering Christmas 1918, when much of the world was suffering through a similar emergency. (Smithsonian Magazine)
Ok, one more for light and laughter. Here’s a New Yorker assemblage of cartoon captions written by some of your favorite stand-up comics. (New Yorker)