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35 of 35 people found the following review helpful
Americans tend to forget that a long tradition of ghosts and ghoulishness preceded Dickens' "Christmas Carol"; John Grossman brings it back to the forefront in this collection of postcards, advertisements, and illustrations from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

If anthropomorphized foodstuffs and seemingly predatory angels give pause, those are merely the icing on Grossman's fiendish pudding of divine children, saints, witches, goblins, and devils, all bringing holiday cheer or retribution, depending on the behavior of the recipients. The author's text is a delight, balancing historical context with humorous commentary.

This book is also valuable for the perspective it offers regarding the evolution of the Christmas holiday and its principal figures. The unfailingly jolly and almost completely secular Santa Claus of today would be a stranger among the early 19th century's incarnations of St. Nicholas, Father Christmas, and demonic Krampus.

This book would make a wonderful gift, particularly for those suffering from an overload of Christmas sugarplums.
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34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on December 15, 2008
It's a very interesting read. Not long on text, the book consists mostly of reproductions from Victorian postcards that give a snapshot of various periods in the history of Christmas. Due to the nature of postcard printing (and the author's collection), the focus is primarily that of northern Europe and America; there's little of the Southern European "Nativity" tradition represented here, but it's still a fascinating look into the collective psyche of a holiday.

My only quibble is the book's relatively small dimensions (about 8" by 8" square); it would have benefited from a much larger scale to be a proper coffee table book.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on January 27, 2009
If you're a collector of books on Christmas ephemera and history, this colorful and charming little book will definitely please you. Every page has numerous pictures, well-written, understandable text, and information right up the Christmas buff's alley. There's nothing daunting or off-putting about the format, writing, or information -- it's all charmingly accessible.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon February 7, 2011
The images of Santa Claus we have today are so ingrained and considered so "traditional" that it is hard to imagine that even 100 years ago the image of the Christmas giftbringer hadn't been standardized. This delightful little book is a fun read, watching the development of "old Santeclaus" from an early 1800s poem to the red-clad figure we know today, through a collection of images, mostly from old postcards, some from the United States and many from Europe.

Santa is such a genial figure today that it might seem horrifying to discover that early St. Nicholas characters carried around birch rods to whip naughty children or traveled with a devilish-looking character named the Krampus or Knecht Ruprecht who administered punishment or threatened to take disobedient children away in a sack.

Other photos show Santa conveyed by other means than reindeer (horses, donkeys, and even goats!), with more benevolent companions like angels, and other Victorian images associated with Christmas such as fairies, dancing food (representing the nightmares engendered by gluttony), nattily-dressed animals celebrating Christmas, and...dead birds! Wonderful stuff; a great book for anyone interested in the history of Christmas.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on November 20, 2008
The artwork is exceptional. The observations are terrific. A Christmas book with a different view. Whoever says the good old days, needs to read this book. I love all of John Grossman's books, and this one didn't disappoint.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on September 4, 2009
Just when I thought I had run through all the informative books on Christmas history, I found this treasure. Details of the "old ways" of Christmas are tied in with images of postcards and other ephemera giving a colorful, quirky view of the season through the ages. Aww, the old days when wicked children were punished and good children given treats! Some of the images are positively unnerving, with devils and whips, and children being taken away for punishment! Some of those cards probably scared the heck out of the children of the time.

The chapter on the portrayal of blacks on Christmas cards is both interesting and uncomfortable. No wonder so few of these cards are found!

A wonderful addition to any library, whether fun or serious. Great images, concise history, and lots of little known details. Worth every penny!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 4, 2013
I had heard some of this, but I'd never heard that the Santa gift-giving tradition may have started with the Vikings! This book is an easy read and it's divided into small sections that can be read and left until next time. Each of the illustrations is well annotated and they provide the texture to the historical info that's given in the prose. I think this is a clever, well-crafted little gem that should be on the bookshelf of anyone who's ever wondered, "So what is all this Santa stuff about anyway?"
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
John Grossman's 2008 book is a fun and fascinating (profusely illustrated!) journey into many aspects of the Christmas history and tradition that have nowadays been forgotten, or else set aside---such as the fact that Christmas was formerly an occasion for wild partying in the streets by bands of "rowdies" who were "entering houses with impunity... demanding gifts of food, drink, or money, threatening broken windows or worse unless they got it." (Pg. 8) He reminds us of Krampus (the "Devil" of Christmas), as well as the traditions of Santa (or one of his helpers, such as Knecht Ruprecht, or Black Peter) carrying switches to punish the "bad" children.

Here are some quotations from the book:

"(St. Nicholas) was to become the world's most popular non-Biblical saint, with more than two thousand churches dedicated to him in France and Germany and four hundred in England. Artists have portrayed him more times than any other saint except Mary." (Pg. 22-24)
"The dominance of the German lithographic industry and its imagery was such that speculation would be made that the Weinachtsmann, not Santa, would have become the world standard---except that the whole thing was put to an end with World War I." (Pg. 72)
"Then a remarkable thing happened in 1822, the following year: in America the switches disappeared altogether from Santa's equipment. Clement Moore's famous poem described Santa as 'a right jolly old elf,' who filled ALL the stockings with gifts, and left exclaiming, 'Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.'" (Pg. 102)
"Thomas Nast, the imaginative and gifted artist famous for his series of illustrations of Santa Claus and his doings in Harper's Weekly, finally came to grips with the problem. He decided that Santa Claus lived at the North Pole... It appeared to Nast to be the ideal remote location for Santa to set up shop, equidistant to most places on the globe for his travels. Now everyone knew where Santa lived." (Pg. 130-131)
"Although nowhere in the Gospel Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke are animals described as being present at the birth of Jesus, people in the Middle Ages believed that to be an oversight and filled in a few blanks." (Pg. 198)
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10 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on December 20, 2008
Christmas history has always fascinated me, and John Grossman's array of antique Yuletide greetings yields wondrous insight as to how the season was celebrated in yesteryear.

From the creepy bats bearing happy-looking (!) tots to the frozen-to-death songbirds (they apparently served as reminders to Victorians that impoverished children often froze to death around the holidays [!!] ), the illustrations are both bizarre and wonderful. The evil counterparts to the benevolent St. Nicholas--Krampus, Pelznickel, etc.--are brought vividly to life. Too vividly, at times. Krampus is literally a demon, and in some cards he's seen gleefully dragging naughty tykes toward some conflagration of doom. Yay!!!

I have become obsessed with the arcane figure of MOTHER CHRISTMAS, an erstwhile companion to Britain's Father Christmas. The author describes her as a cross between a cheerful witch and Mother Goose. Decked out in a panniered skirt of bright red and bearing a Christmasy wand (but not looking all that merry or bright), Mother Christmas apparently assisted in the distribution of gifts. Unfortunately her tenure in the pantheon of Christmas personalities was quite brief--which I find a real shame.

Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus, Frosty, Rudolph, Ebenezer Scrooge and Jack Frost are all male. Only Mrs. Claus (who gets negligent mention in most cases) stands out as a female figure at Christmas.

So I say bring Mother Christmas back. Imagine the merchandizing opportunities! Give her a 21st century makeover and all shall adore her!

YAY MOTHER CHRISTMAS! OH GOD!!! PLEASE BRING HER __BACK__!!!
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on October 28, 2013
A weird, odd (like the title says) book of Christmas past. But I like the uniqueness of the author's approach. I also HIGHLY recommend the following Christmas-related and 19th century-related new works, available in e-book format.

YULE LOG: Events That Happened on Christmas Day

Photographers, art lovers, and 19th century American history enthusiasts should also read

CRAZY HORSE APPEARING

and

ARTIST UNKNOWN: The Life and Lost Works of Charles Deas
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