Like Literary Russian Dolls

It gives me great pleasure to welcome fellow Crooked Cat author Mark Patton once again to my place.  This is such an interesting piece which describes Christmas through the Ages covered by his latest book, Omphalos.  I enjoyed it greatly, and you can find my review of it HERE.

Omphalos Cover 2

Around the time of a book launch, an author inevitably does a great many guest-posts, and I was wondering what to write about here, so I was glad when Jane suggested that I say something about how the characters in my novel might have celebrated Christmas. Omphalos is made up of six stories, each set in a different time period, nested one inside the other like literary Russian dolls.

Central Park snow

“Central Park Snow” – Central Park in the snow. Photo: Jim.henderson (image is in the Public Domain).

The first story, “Touching Souls,” is set in 2013, and the central characters, Al and Naomi, would not celebrate Christmas as such, since they are Jewish. They would have celebrated Rosh Hashanah in the autumn, marking both the creation of the world and the beginning of the new year. They are also Americans, however, living in New York, a city in which most people cheerfully join in one another’s festivals, and Christmas is hard to ignore.

German prisoners in Britain 2

“German prisoners in Britain 2” – German prisoners-of-war performing in a concert. Photo: Imperial War Museum, non-commercial license, D26720.


The second story, “The Spirit of the Times,” is set during and immediately after the Second World War. There would have been precious little Christmas cheer going around anywhere in Europe in 1945, and certainly not in Jersey, where my central character, Friedrich Werner, is serving with the German army. The island had been cut off from the outside world for six months, pushing both the islanders and their German occupiers to the point of near-starvation. His wife and children, meanwhile, are spending much of their Christmas in air-raid shelters, as the bombs rain down on Berlin. The Christmas of 1946 was very different. Frierdrich, now a prisoner-of-war in Wales, writes to his wife: “My Christmas was good. Those of us who wished were allowed to attend a candle-lit service at the local church. I led a small choir singing Stille Nacht. The local congregation seemed to appreciate it …” (we know that this did, in fact, happen).

Nativity Scene Ried in Zimmertal

“Nativity Scene Ried in Zimmertal” – 18th Century nativity scene (these figures are from the Tyrol, but similar figures could be found in France). Photo: Herzi Pinki (licensed under CCA).


The third story, “The Infinite Labyrinth,” is set at the end of the 18th Century. Suzanne de Beaubigny, a Catholic refugee in a Protestant community, is initially shocked to receive an invitation to a ball during Advent. She had grown up thinking of Lent as a time for fasting and penitence in advance of the Christmas celebrations, although she does not allow this to interfere with her enjoyment of the ball when it happens. There would have been no Christmas trees, but she might have heard “The Holly and the Ivy” being sung (it dates to 1710), and homes would have been decked out with boughs. One thing that she would have been familiar with is the Christmas crib, by this time fairly common across Europe.

Nativity Hortus Deliciarum

“Nativity Hortus Deliciarum” – 12th Century Nativity scene, from the Hortus Deliciarum of Herrard of Landsberg (Image is in the Public Domain).


The fourth story, “Jerusalem,” is set in the 16th Century, and the fifth, “The Path of Stars,” is set in the Twelfth Century. Perhaps surprisingly, the characters in these two stories would have celebrated Christmas (the word itself goes back to the 11th Century) in very much the same way. In both cases, their experience would have been dominated by religious observance, attending mass on Christmas Day itself, but also on 26th December (St Stephen’s Day), 27th December (Day of St John the Baptist), 28th December (Day of the Holy Innocents) and 1st January (Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God). Only after all of these solemnities could the feasting begin, on Twelfth Night. One of my 12th Century characters, Guillaume Bisson (a knight’s steward), recalls one of these evenings: “More distant memories flood back to him. A winter’s night in the great hall at Rozel, Jéhan the dwarf telling ghost stories. He had spoken of an apparition, a hanged woman who spoke, but whose words were difficult to make out …” Gifts were more likely to be exchanged at the Feast of the Epiphany (19th January, since they would be using the Julian, not our Gregorian calendar), recalling those brought by the Magi.

The sixth story, “The Song of Strangers,” is set in 4000 BC, so clearly there could be no Christmas. Instead, the Winter Solstice (21st/22nd December) was the focus of ritual activity, marking both the shortest day of the year, and the point at which the movement of the sun along the horizon changes direction. Many ceremonial sites of the Neolithic period are aligned towards either the rising or the setting point of the sun at the solstices. Some years ago I visited Maes Howe in Orkney for the Winter Solstice sunset, but saw nothing, because the sky was cloudy. A few years later, however, I was privileged to witness the Winter Solstice sunrise at Newgrange in Ireland, the first rays of sunlight shining directly into the passage of the 5000 year-old tomb, and lighting up the carvings on the wall.

Merry Christmas, Frohe Weihnacten, Joyeux Noel and Feliz Gabonetako to one and all!



Mark Patton’s novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from or He blogs regularly on aspects of history and historical fiction at

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