The Villa Finale collection includes some notable Texas artists, including Robert Julian and his father Robert Jenkins Onderdonk, and Mary Bonner. In fact, Mary Bonner was, early in her studies as an artist, a student of Robert Jenkins Onderdonk.
Lisa Stewart, practicing artist and Villa Finale’s Visitor Services Coordinator, offers a quick introduction to the work of Julian Onderdonk and his father Julian. Be sure to check out Lisa’s accompanying art project here (YouTube link) and stay tuned in May for a continuation of this blog series, with a focus next on the life and work of Mary Bonner.
Robert Julian Onderdonk(1882 – 1922)
“Julian”, as he was referred, was raised in San Antonio, Texas, and was often called “the father of Texas painting.” He received his initial art training from his father, Robert, but eventually studied with other artists, such as Texas artist Verner Moore White, also a San Antonian.
Julian was inspired while taking long walks, visiting patrons’ homes and ranches along the river, and on his drives into the Texas Hill Country. His interest in botany and wildflowers is evident in his paintings and detailed drawings. Viewers are invited into his landscapes with many variables such as different placements of the horizon line, changing seasons, and times of day.
His love of the Hill Country is expressed through his art, and his words.
Julian Onderdonk was truly not only a painter and naturalist, but a poet in the way he expressed himself.
“The dazzling beauty of these roads impels me to park my car in the dust, and heat, and work. The same roads are wonderful in color at late afternoon and at twilight.”
The Onderdonks managed on very little income, but at the age of only 19, with the help of a generous neighbor, Julian was able to leave Texas to study in New York with renowned American Impressionist, William Merritt Chase.
He spent the summer of 1901 taking outdoor painting classes at Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art on Long Island, New York. After his summer of study, Julian moved to New York City to try and make a living as an “en plein air” artist. He met his wife there, Gertrude Shipman, and had daughter Adrienne.
By 1906 Julian was splitting his time between New York and San Antonio. He spent a lot of time studying other Naturalist artists in New York City museums, especially the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural History. He exhibited in both cities, most notably in New York City at the National Academy of Design.
Finally, in 1909, Julian returned to San Antonio permanently with his wife Gertrude and their two children Adrienne and Robert where, according to reviewers, he produced his best work.
Unfortunately, at the peak of his success, Julian died of intestinal obstruction and appendicitis. However, Julian’s work, and that of his father, Robert, can be seen in museums beyond San Antonio, and even in The Oval Office under George W. Bush, who, during his presidency, decorated its interior with 3 of his paintings.
Julian Onderdonk’s art studio now resides on the grounds of the Witte Museum.
Robert Jenkins Onderdonk (1852 – 1917)
Julian’s father, Robert Onderdonk, was a long-time art teacher who formed art associations and leagues to support and promote other artists.
Robert Onderdonk studied at the National Academy of Design and Art Students League, both in New York City. One of his teachers, William Merritt Chase, founded the Chase School of Art, which later became Parsons School of Design.
Robert was from Maryland and had a friend, Robert Negley, who had already moved to Texas (in 1878) to become a rancher. Robert hoped to make portraits of rich Texans to earn enough money to travel to Europe but didn’t accomplish that. He stayed in Texas for 38 years and was an important influence for artists in Texas.
Robert Onderdonk founded the Van Dyck Club which was an art association for women painters. It later became the San Antonio Arts League. His daughter Eleanor was an important member and organizer. The Arts League still thrives today, supporting local artists with exhibitions and classes.
Robert Onderdonk wasn’t ambitious, nor was he careful in signing his work. Despite painting hundreds of portraits, he never earned a suitable living. For example, he only charged $3 per month for studio classes. He did a little better went he went to Dallas (1889) when he was offered $100 per month to teach.
Several of the first art clubs in San Antonio were organized by Robert which helped to develop state and nationwide interest in Texas art and gave Texas and American artists places to display and the opportunity to win awards.
Robert was known to always carry a wood panel (such as a cigar box top) so he could paint small scenes wherever he went. His most famous work was “Fall of the Alamo,” painted in 1901 – a large commission by well know Texas historian, James T. DeShields. He also provided the illustrations for the autobiography of Texas gunfighter, John Wesley Hardin, known as “the fastest gun in the west, east, north & south,” published in 1896.
Check out this art tutorial video about landscapes featuring our own Lisa Stewart!
There was a time during the pandemic when Villa Finale had to close its doors to the public. We took advantage of the lack of foot traffic to begin some much-needed maintenance work. If you visit us now, you can still see some of that going on. While I was deep cleaning throughout the house, Buildings and Grounds Manager, Orlando Cortinas was busy overseeing painting, restoration of porches, and cracks in walls.
One morning while I was busy working upstairs, Orlando called me down to the basement where he had been busy in the crawlspace looking at foundation issues: he had found something interesting and wanted me to look at it. Last time this happened a few years ago during the re-wiring of the house, electricians found old Coca-Cola cans and old wallpaper inside the home’s walls. I was excited to see what he’d found, but nothing prepared me for the great discovery!
Tucked between the limestone blocks was what looked like, at first, a piece of paper which turned out to be a photograph of a young woman. Thankfully Orlando was careful to pull it out without so much as a slight tear. After the initial surprise and careful cleaning, I began to wonder, who was this woman and why had she been in our walls for nearly 100 years? We were all eager to share this find with the public but not until we knew more about the mysterious gal: now we do!
Thanks to a source who asked to remain anonymous, we discovered her name was Matilda Fausse. Our source’s grandmother had shared a room with Matilda in the late teens when the property, then at 407 King William, was under the control of the War Service Board; the Board would rent out rooms in the house to visiting female relatives of soldiers stationed at the nearby Arsenal, now HEB headquarters.
Matilda was apparently quite the character, always the life of the party and a progressive woman for the time. In fact, after working odd jobs and saving her money, Matilda insisted on paying to have a private telephone line installed in her room, the only one in the house. According to our source’s grandmother, Matilda was more than happy to let all the girls in the house use her telephone to call their men on base, and vice versa. When a girl’s beau would call, he knew “Telephone Tilly,” as Matilda became to be known, would connect them to their favorite gal. The telephone was the only way a girl’s beloved would be allowed “in the house” and Telephone Tilly was more than happy to make “virtual dates” happen! Allegedly, the photo we found was taken at the height of Tilly’s popularity with her fellow boarders.
But what started out as innocent fun and games crossed the line. Soon, Telephone Tilly was playing match-maker for half of the young women in San Antonio via the telephone. Calls were coming in day and night for weeks: 1:30am, RING! 3:00am, RING! 3:45am, RING! Sleep was non-existent for the rest of the girls who had had more than enough of Tilly. Everyone was walking around with huge dark circles under their eyes! They wanted sleep, desperately! One chilly fall evening in the middle of the night, Telephone Tilly – and yes, her phone, too – were escorted out of the house and onto King William Street never to be heard from again.
Exhausted, the female boarders took Tilly’s photograph and stuffed it in the basement crawlspace where not even the telephone in the picture could ever keep them from sleeping again … until our discovery in the summer of 2020, that is. No one knows what happened to Matilda “Telephone Tilly” Fausse. Some say she started her own party line. Others think she opened a coffee house / telephone bar east of New Braunfels called “Hello, Is It Bean You’re Looking For?” Whatever happened to our gal, next time you hear a phone ring think of Telephone Tilly, and on behalf of Villa Finale, do have a HAPPY APRIL FOOLS DAY!
Thank you to Orlando Cortinas for going into the basement crawlspace for the sake of this April Fools Day blog post!
Today, March 2nd, is Read Across America Day! In celebration of this wonderful activity, Doug is back with a blog post celebrating his favorite illustrators of children’s books. Do enjoy!
As a child I loved books! I really liked to listen to story books being read to me by my parents, my grandparents, teachers, or the local librarians during story time programs at the local library. I grew up watching shows like “Reading Rainbow” and listening to story books on cassette tape which encouraged my love for books. I felt like story books fueled my imagination and transported me to another world! Here’s a look at a few children’s book artists that I remember from my childhood.
Eric Carle (1929 – )
Eric Carle grew up in difficult circumstances during WWII. During the war, his German immigrant family moved from New York back to Germany where his father was drafted into the military and was held captive as a prisoner for many years. Despite adversity, Carle went on to study graphic art at the Academy of Visual Art in Stuttgart, Germany. He returned to New York City to become a graphic artist for the New York Times in 1952, until being drafted during the Korean War. Upon returning from the war, he returned to his position at the Times, then left to become a freelance artist in 1963. He met children’s book author Bill Martin who encouraged him to pursue book illustration. Together they published their first collaboration project Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? which became a bestseller. Despite their many collaborations together Carle still wrote and illustrated his own books, 1, 2, 3 to the Zoo and The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which was his most famous book.
Carole Byard (1941 – 2017)
After attending high school in New Jersey, Carol Byard went on to study art at Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia and the Phoenix School of Art of Design in New York City during the late 1950s to early 1960s. She was inspired by the Black Arts Movement which began as a result of the Black Power Movement, which called for Black culture to be reflected across music, poetry, theater, and other art media. Byard used her artistic talents to create projects that fit within that goal. She contributed her artistic skills to illustrations for many children’s books including Dreams of Africa (1978) and Cornrows (1980). She was awarded the Coretta Scott King Award for both books. Her other works include Working Cotton and The Black Snowman.
Ezra Jack Keats (1916 – 1983)
Growing up in the Jewish quarter of Brooklyn, NY, Ezra was artistically gifted as a child. His family was very poor and suffered hardship during the Great Depression. Though his mother was supportive, his father wanted him to focus on more practical skills in order to get a decent job. However, Ezra continued to excel in his artistic talents. After high school, he took art classes when he could but mostly worked to support his family after father died. He worked as a mural painter for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and he illustrated backgrounds for the Captain Marvel comic book series before going into the military during World War II. He went on to publish his first children’s book, My Dog is Lost! (1960) which featured Juanito, a Puerto Rican boy, as the main character. Ezra wanted to make it a point to cast minority children as main characters for his stories. His most famous book, The Snowy Day (1962) featured Peter, who was based on a young Black child he saw pictures of in Life magazine. He was awarded the Caldecott Medal for his work in 1963. He also went on to feature Peter in six more books following The Snowy Day. Watch the animated film “The Snowy Day” on Amazon Prime!
Children’s Book Museums
Get info on museums dedicated to children’s books and view artwork by other authors and illustrators here!!
Doug Daye is back with a great post during Black History Month: a profile of Nina Simone. Do enjoy!
When I was a teenager, I remember going to a Black History program that was put on at Abilene Christian University, in my hometown of Abilene, TX. The song “Feeling Good” started to play during a brief intermission and I instantly fell in love with the song. It was so poetic and the singer’s voice was so haunting. I looked at my program to see if the song and artist was listed and I found that it was Nina Simone. I did not know much about her at the time, but later I learned more about her life. She was a well-respected musician and singer who put out prolific blues ballads like “I Put A Spell On You” and songs for liberation during the civil rights era such as “Four Women” and “Young Gifted and Black.” With her sultry voice and her powerful storytelling, Nina Simone was a jazz icon whose legacy is still honored to this day.
Early Life and Education
Born in Tryon, North Carolina on February 21st, 1933, Eunice Kathleen Waymon was a gifted prodigy. She started playing piano by ear at the age of three! Her parents, recognizing her talent, provided opportunities for her to play piano in church where her mother preached. She went on to study classical music with an English woman by the name of Muriel Mazzanovich where she developed a love for classical artists such as Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, and others. After Waymon graduated as valedictorian from high school, her community raised the funds for her to attend Julliard in New York City before she applied to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. However, she was denied admission to the institute because of her skin color. This and other events growing up in the Jim Crow south inspired her to speak out against racial discrimination.
While teaching music to local students, Waymon auditioned at the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where she soon gained recognition. To hide the fact she was singing in bars from her mother, she changed her name to Nina Simone. She was later signed to King Records after being recognized after a performance in New Hope, Pennsylvania. During a recording session in 1956 she sang “My Baby Just Cares For Me” which had been covered by other jazz artists such as Nat King Cole. This song launched Nina’s career and it was later used in a commercial for Chanel perfume in the 1980s. She went on to move to New York City where she was signed to Copix Records and gave various live performances. She was a featured artist at the famous Newport Jazz Festival and had other great successes.
Nina Simone also used her songs to speak out against racial injustice. Her song “Mississippi Goddam” was banned in the South but she did not let it deter her. Violent events during the Civil Rights Movement inspired her to use her music to condemn racism. By putting out songs like “Strange Fruit” and “Four Women,” Nina took risks by using her voice as a platform for liberation at a time when many artists were reluctant to do so.
With a long rewarding career behind her, Nina Simone passed away in April 2003. Many artists paid tribute to her including Patti Labelle and Ossie Davis, who attended her memorial service, and Elton John who sent flowers.
Nina Simone’s Childhood Home Tour
With funding efforts from the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, the World Monuments Fund, and Preservation North Carolina, Nina Simone’s childhood home has been saved from demolition. This was done as the beginning of an ongoing effort to preserve Nina Simone’s early life and legacy for future generations. The National Trust website features a virtual tour of her home where viewers can get a glimpse of her humble beginnings.
View the virtual tour and learn more about funding efforts here:
Villa Finale is pleased to have a copy of what may be Napoleon Bonaparte’s death mask in our collection. As famous as this one may be, there is a death mask more widely seen – and even “kissed” – throughout the world. According to lore, in the late 1880s, the body of a young woman around 16 years old was found in Paris’ Seine River. When investigators pulled her lifeless body from the water, the young woman showed no signs of violence on her person anywhere. She was taken to the Paris Morgue where a pathologist examined her further. After a thorough investigation, the woman’s death was ruled a suicide.
Reports about the young woman’s death were reported widely, her corpse was even put on public display as was the custom with unidentified bodies; however, no one claimed her. In the hopes she would be identified, the mortician in charge decided to make a death mask of the woman’s face. He also couldn’t help feeling captivated by the young lady’s beauty and haunting smile that remained on her lifeless lips, one compared to that of the Mona Lisa’s. This mortician admitted to casting the death mask with another intent. He said, “Her beauty was breathtaking and showed few signs of distress at the time of passing. So bewitching that I knew beauty as such must be preserved.”
Although the woman was never truly identified, her death mask caused a sensation; it was reproduced and sold as a morbid fixture to be displayed in the private homes of Parisians, and by 1900, she could also be found abroad. L’Inconnue de la Seine or “the unknown woman of the Seine” was seen as a type of muse within the artistic community; she could be found hanging as a decorative piece in the homes of poets, writers, and artists like Picasso and Vladimir Nabokov. Philosopher Albert Campus called her “the drowned Mona Lisa.”
In the 1950s, an Austrian doctor, Peter Safar, was working with Norwegian medical device manufacturer and toy maker, Asmund Laerdal, to create the first CPR mannequin. Laerdal’s young son had nearly drowned but he was saved by Laerdal’s quick use of a form of CPR. Around the time the mannequin was in development, Laerdal paid a visit to his parent’s home. While there, he became instantly inspired by a copy of “the unknown woman of the Seine” displayed in his parent’s home. Just like the French pathologist who had originally examined the young woman over fifty years earlier, Asmund Laerdal found her completely ravishing. It was then the decision was made to useL’Inconnue’s likeness – as she is commonly known today – on the mannequin that became known as “Rescue Annie” or Resucci Anne. Today, the woman who may have drowned by suicide over 100 years ago is responsible for possibly saving thousands of lives. Maybe there was a little bit of foreshadowing in the young lady’s curious smile!
(If you would like your own copy of L’Inconnue, L’Atelier Lorenzi, a family-run workshop in southern Paris, can create hand-made copies using their own 19th-century plaster mold.)
See the video introducing L’Inconnue de la Seine here:
Doug is back to give us his impression of another great museum in the United States: The American Jazz Museum in Kansas City. Enjoy taking this short trip with us!
The weather remains on the slightly cooler side, so what better way to enjoy going out for a stroll to take in the colorful, falling leaves, while listening to Billie Holiday sing jazz classic “Autumn In New York.” Of course, in San Antonio, the trees stay green year-round so it may be hard to take pleasure in the season but, hey, it’s fun to dream! Learn more about jazz artists like Billie Holiday at the American Jazz Museum!
In 1997, the American Jazz Museum officially opened in Kansas City, MO, in the historic district of 18th and Vine, which had been revitalized due to efforts by the community and city investments. The museum’s opening served as a momentous occasion in Kansas City’s history by helping to build on the heritage of the 18th and Vine District, which historically was a thriving community built by African Americans in the midst of segregation. Its grand opening ceremony featured many notable artists including Al Jarreau, Dianne Reeves, Tony Bennett, Harry Belafonte and more! It is the only museum that is dedicated to preserving the legacy and achievements of jazz music and works to educate the public on its significance.
The museum offers many captivating exhibits and online activities as well! There is so much to see and do!!
Main Jazz Exhibit – Explore displays featuring many jazz artists such as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker, while looking at the vibrant neon signs that make it seem like you’re strolling around the city at night!
Jazz In Film: John H. Baker Jazz Film Collection – Learn about jazz music’s influence in the film and TV industry by exploring early jazz artists that made significant achievements in the industry.
The Blue Room Jazz Club – Named after the historic 1930s street club, this serves as a venue for well-known and local artists while showcasing displays of the great jazz artists of the past and present!
And now, part two of Sara Breshears’ “The Pagan Origins of Christmas.”
The Party Gets Rolling
As previously mentioned, in early Christianity, Christmas was not widely celebrated and was overshadowed by Epiphany or the visit of the Magi, which was celebrated on January 6th. By the High Middle Ages, with Christmas becoming more prominent thanks in part to the coronation of Charlemagne on Christmas in 800 CE and William the Conqueror in 1066, Christmas was the first in a long list of religious holidays that were celebrated.
Like Saturnalia, Christmas in the Medieval and Renaissance periods was a party, filled with drinking, overeating, and merrymaking!
In England, Christmas kicked off a long continuous party that culminated in Twelfth Night celebrations, on January 5th. Leading up to the Twelve Days of Christmas celebrations was Advent, which was twenty-four days of fasting and prayer. This was done by most families to save money and food for to be used the celebrations.
The Catholic Church at the time had strict rules about celebrating during the Twelve Days of Christmas and decreed that only the minimal amount of work could take place during the celebrations. So, Advent was used to prep the farm and household for the festivities and so no rules would be broken.
During the Late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, a ‘Lord of Misrule’ was chosen to oversee the celebrations, particularly the Feast of Fools. In England, sometimes the Lord or King of Misrule was chosen by finding a pea in the Twelfth Night cake, not unlike King Cake today.
In France and in Switzerland a boy would be chosen to be ‘Bishop for a Day,’ much like the Saturnalias Princeps, and would be dressed in bishop’s clothes and could give light-hearted orders though out the day.
Gifts were usually given on New Year’s Day. On New Year’s Day 1532, Henry VIII of England accepted a set of Pyrean Boar Spears from Anne Boleyn, while he gave her hangings of cloth of gold, silver, and crimson satin. Reportedly, he rejected the gold cup his then-wife Catherine of Aragon had sent him as a gift. How rude!
The traditional meal during Christmas was the Yule Boar or pig for most people, since they were safer to acquire than a boar, which were quite large and could easily kill a man. Turkey was not introduced from the New World until 1532 and Henry VIII again is the first known English king to eat the bird at Christmas, since at the time, they would have been a new and rare delicacy.
Chroniclers of the courts of Europe record magnificent feasts being held, games being played, and drunken debauchery! While most peasants couldn’t afford to spend the whole day partying, they too had their fun!
Homes would be decorated with holly and ivy and large Yule logs, big enough to burn over the course of twelve days were selected and dragged home covered in ribbons to be put on the hearth. Christmas crowns were wooden structures built, covered in holly, ivy, and of course mistletoe, and hung in homes to add a bit of decoration.
In Germany, in the 16th century these were called ‘kissing bough.’ Made out of evergreens like holly and bay leaves and a touch of mistletoe (of course), these were suspended from a ceiling and required any unaware couple to share a kiss before being freed.
The Party Ends…Temporarily
As you can see, up till the 17th century, the whole Christmas season was a never-ending party, with pageants, masques and diners, gambling and sporting, and gift-giving!
However, in 1647, Puritans banned Christmas in England, condemning it as ‘trappings of popery’ and a Catholic invention. Basically, they didn’t like people having too much fun! Once the Parliamentary forces executed King Charles I in 1649 there wasn’t really anyone to argue with them.
Three years earlier in 1640, the Parliament of Scotland abolished the observance of Christmas and it wasn’t until 1958 that Christmas was once again a Scottish holiday!
Pro-Christmas riots occurred in several cities and with the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660 the ban was lifted, but there were many among the clergy who did not approve of any celebration of the holiday and so resumption of the celebrations were not widely common.
Early pilgrims in Colonial America (who left England not because of religious persecution but because they believed the Anglican church was not strict enough) continued this intense dislike of Christmas and showed it, by working on Christmas day!
After the American Revolution, Christmas was not widely celebrated in the United States because it was seen as being ‘too British’.
It wasn’t until the Victorians and the publishing of Charles Dickens novel, A Christmas Carol, that Christmas was again widely celebrated in the United Kingdom and the United States.
This sparked the revival of many of the old traditions along with the emergence of some new ones such as Christmas cards and Christmas trees, though the festivities were markedly, more ‘family friendly’ than in centuries previous! Caroling, Christmas trees, Yule logs, evergreens, gifts, and games all made a comeback and then some!
The history of Christmas, and the festivals and celebrations that influence our modern Christmas, is fascinating and I only mentioned three of many different holidays that were celebrated throughout Europe and the ancient world!
That all these different pagan traditions were shared and changed and shaped into something new, is amazing and I am glad we still have them.
Just in time for Christmas, Villa Finale Interpretive Guide, Sara Breshears writes about Christmas’ pagan origins in her latest blog post. Sit back and enjoy!
Did you know that up until the 16th century Christmas was less about celebrating the birth of Christ, but more about having a wild and crazy party? The story of Christmas, unsurprisingly, has a long and very colorful history. Many of the staples of the holiday now have less than Christian origins and for centuries early Christians didn’t even celebrate the birth of Christ!
Many of us can probably think of a few holidays that Christmas was based around, but what were they and who or what did they celebrate? While I could very easily talk about the sixteen or so holidays that were celebrated in Europe around the winter solstice, here we will just cover the big three, Saturnalia, Sol Invictus, and Yuletide!
The Romans Loved to Cut Loose!
Humans have been celebrating on and around the Winter Solstice for millennia. By the time of the Roman Republic this festival was called Saturnalia. Saturnalia is probably the ancient holiday most of us have heard associated with Christmas and is one of the oldest.
Saturnalia was a major religious holiday celebrating the Roman god, Saturn or Saturnus in Latin, who was described as a god of agriculture, wealth, plenty, and liberation. After the Romans conquered Greece, he was merged with the Greek god Cronus, and took on the aspect of being the god of time.
The ancient Roman writer Livy claimed that Saturnalia originated in the 5th century BCE, but there is some evidence that it began even earlier than that!
Originally celebrated only on December 17th, it was later expanded to three days, and eventually became a seven day celebration, lasting until December 23rd. The Emperor Augustus, who was a bit of a stickler, reduced Saturnalia back to a more modest three-day holiday, but his efforts were in vain as the Emperor Caligula increased the length back to five. It seems most people celebrated the whole seven days anyway!
Festivities began in the Temple of Saturn that stood at the base of the Capitoline Hill in Rome. The statue of Saturn in the temple, we are told from ancient sources, would normally have wool bound around its feet. This would be removed from the statue as an act of liberation, followed by the sacrificing of animals and then a huge public feast. If you saw a friend at the feast a common salutation would be “Io Saturnalia!”
In private, families would give gifts, such as jellied figs, candles, and clay or wax figures called sigillaria. A saturnalicius princeps (ruler of Saturnalia) would be selected from the lowest members of a household (which included the slaves). The princeps act as a master of ceremony and allowed to carry out light-hearted mischief. They would give orders like ‘Toss them in the fountain!” Or “Sing the bawdiest song you know!” One ancient author, Catullus, called Saturnalia the “the jolliest of times.”
Despite what Hollywood would have you believe, Roman society was quite strict about decorum and social conventions. Saturnalia allowed for a relaxing of those social conventions, and citizens could wear more informal, almost garish clothes, hats that normally only freed men (former slaves) would wear, get drunk in public and gamble! Reportedly the writer Pliny built a “soundproof room” so that he could work during celebrations! The party pooper.
No one was allowed to work during Saturnalia, not even the slaves, and one of the most interesting aspects of this holiday was the role-reversal. Slaves were allowed to celebrate along with their masters. Sometimes dining with them or even being served by their masters!
Saturnalian license also meant that slaves could disrespect their masters without threat of punishment. Scholars are not sure if these practices were common throughout the history of Saturnalia or if they changed over time, but it is mentioned again and again in the ancient source materials.
Saturnalia was celebrated throughout Roman history even long after it was removed from the official calendar, so much so that prominent early Christian theologian St. Augustus preached against it in the 5th Century CE!
Pope Julius I in the 4th Century CE decreed that the honoring of Christ’s birth be celebrated on December 25th to coincide with the Saturnalia Festival. Some historians theorize this was done to create an alternative to Saturnalia. So, while celebrating one god a person might swing by another temple to honor another god, just to cover their bases. A bit of sneaky PR right there!
Interestingly, early Christians did not celebrate birthdays, and indeed did not commemorate the birth of Christ for the first two to three centuries of Christianity, but birthday celebrations were quite common in the Roman culture so this idea of birthdays must have been slowly adopted over time.
Sol Invictus Gets His Kickus!
In the latter half of the Roman Empire, the cult Sol Invictus grew in popularity. Originally worshipped by Roman soldiers, he symbolized victory by overcoming the darkness of night.
Emperor Aurelian, who had an unprecedented string of victories in the eastern half of the empire, came back to Rome and established a new cult of Sol Invictus to be worshipped alongside the more traditional Roman gods, and dedicated a new temple and games (ludis) to the sun god on December 25th. Only the most important gods were celebrated with games, such as with Zeus and the Olympic Games. As far as games went, Sol Invictus’s specialty seemed to be chariot races.
Chariot races, like the NASCAR or baseball games of today, were major events with everyone turning out and rooting for their favorite team, whether it was the blue, green, red or white team, accompanied with drinking and gambling. Chariot teams would scout the provinces of the empire and the local circuses to find up and coming charioteers to train.
These were dangerous events for horses and drivers alike with the average life expectancy of charioteers being twenty-five years old. For the ludis solis there were an unprecedented thirty-six chariot races held on December 25th, the usual number being twelve!
Some scholars think that this connection with the sun, and Christ sometimes being referred to as the ‘Sun of Righteousness,’ as well as early debates about when the conception and birth of Christ actually took place, also lead to the 25th of December being chosen as the day of Jesus’s birth. While the first Christmas celebration is recorded as occurring in Rome in 336 CE, deep divisions in the early church led to the holiday losing prominence. Instead Epiphany celebrations overshadowed Christmas for years to come. It regained some of its importance in 800 CE with the coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor, but we will get to that later.
Yule Be Sorry If You go Outside
Another ancient holiday we associate with Christmas is Yule. Yule, sometimes called Yuletide, was celebrated by Germanic peoples in Northern Europe, with Yule being associated with Odin, who had the nameJolfaorin old Norse which translates to “Yule Father,” with Yule possibly being another name for referring to the Norse gods in general.
Yule might have been originally a holiday to celebrate and venerate the dead and the lengthening of days. There is evidence that Winter Solstice festivals held at Stonehenge held in the Late Bronze Age in England were also for the celebration of the dead.
Yule has been associated with the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession of hunters led by Odin, chasing elusive prey. To see the Wild Hunt was considered a bad omen or precursor to war and famine. It was also believed that if you saw the Wild Hunt you would be taken by it. So overall, Yule was a good reason to celebrate inside.
Fun aside, variations of the Wild Hunt have made their way into modern storytelling such as in The Witcher video game series or the song “Ghost Riders in the Sky” by Stan Jones!
During Yule farmers would bring ale and grain to the local temple, along with animals, usually cattle, which were sacrificed. The blood of the animals was considered sacred and would be sprinkled on the walls of the temple and on the statues of the gods and even on those present, while the meat was cooked. A sacred boar or Yule Boar would also sometimes be sacrificed as part of the celebrations, and to swear on its bristles was considered a sacred vow. The meat would be eaten during the festivities and this is where Christmas ham originated from!
Toasts would be held, with one to Odin, for victory and strength to the king, another to Njord and Freyr for harvests and peace, and then a third toast to departed family and friends.
Then the celebrations would really begin with singing and dancing and story-telling! Yule-singing, much like the English, wassailing, was a group of people going from house to house singing and offering up a drink from a wassail bowl (think hard apple cider) in exchange for gifts. It also could refer to the tradition of going to the orchards in areas of Europe that produced ciders and offering blessings to the trees in hopes of a good harvest the following year. This practice continued after the Christianization of Europe with priests performing the blessings of the trees.
Yule logs were burned and it was considered good luck to keep a piece to be used for kindling for the next year’s Yule log. Evergreens, such as holly, ivy, and mistletoe all of which were thought to protect against evil spirits were hung in door frames. Even the Romans would hang mistletoe during Saturnalia to protect the household, and associated it with love and fertility.
Since humans have celebrated the Winter Solstice, which marks the days becoming longer, for thousands of years, scholars believe that ever greens were chosen to decorate the festivities to provide some much needed ‘color relief’ from dark and overcast days of the middle of winter. It was only later on in human history that they acquired the associations with love, fertility, and so on.
Part two of “The Pagan Origins of Christmas” will be posted soon!
When I first joined the Villa Finale project in 2008, I was very excited about the wide range of interpretive eras we could tackle. From the construction of the house in 1876 (and even before if you figure Villa Finale was built on Alamo farmland) through Walter Mathis’ death in 2005, the epochs and variety of subjects we can cover at the museum for programs, events, and the like are far-reaching, even when talking about Christmas. If you have visited Villa Finale during our Holiday Open House Tours (a first-floor, self-guided experience from now until December 19th) you may have noticed the wide-ranging decorations that include some from the 1970s and 1980s. Since I do spend a lot of time in the house, I began to think: what would it have been like to celebrate Christmas as a kid in Villa Finale?
Mind you, Walter Mathis did not have any children of his own. More than likely, his great-nieces and great-nephews would have been the first children in the house during his ownership and, just like me, they would be Generation X (born between 1965 – 1980). And just like today, those children would’ve most looked forward to the presents … specifically, toys! So, what sort of toys were popular with Generation X children? Let’s reminisce a little, shall we?
There are so many toys I can cover but times-sake, I will only highlight a handful. You’re invited to share your favorites in the comments! Let’s begin with this: who remembers the catch phrase “Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down”? Weebles, the egg-shaped roly-poly toys manufactured by Hasbro, made their debut in 1971 with a variety of “Weeble people” and accessories including vehicles and playsets. There were over 40 sets of Weebles manufactured between 1972 and 1982 but there was only ONE I just had to have: the Weebles Haunted House (1976)! Santa Claus did come through with this fun little set for us one Christmas. I guess old “scary-looking” houses were always in my future!
One of our most popular holiday programs at Villa Finale is the “Music for Your Eyes – Holiday” tour where we not only demonstrate the museum’s music machines, but also talk about toys for Christmas, especially dolls (incidentally, we will be having a live virtual version of this tour on December 17th). On the tour we talk about the Cabbage Patch, the most popular doll of all time (mass-produced by Coleco in 1982), but in this blog post I would like to mention a little-known doll, “Whoopsie.” Manufactured by Ideal between 1978 – 1981, little pigtailed Whoopsie had a vinyl body that, when its tummy was squeezed, would let out a little “whistle” as both of her pigtails would fly up. I mean, what Gen X little girl wouldn’t want one? I can’t tell you how happy my six-year-old little heart was to find Whoopsie under the Christmas tree in 1978. Thanks, Santa!
I also recall toys my brother – who is four years younger than me – wanted for Christmas. Like many little boys back in the early 80s, my brother was obssesed with “Masters of the Universe,” the Mattel line introduced in 1981 that gave us such characters as He-Man, Skeletor, Battle Cat, and all sorts of other strange, super-muscular personalities. I remember my brother had his Masters of the Universe action figures all over the house, including one He-Man that had armor that could be punched and dented at the chest! My mom never understood my brother’s fascination with those monos feos (ugly-looking action figures), but my brother sure loved them! I remember how excited he was to get the Castle Grayskull playset for Christmas one year. Castle Grayskull was where He-Man or Skeletor or someone lived – not sure. Ha!
We Gen Xers experienced the “golden age” of arcade video games (1978 – 1982). We loved going to the mall, having mom give us a couple of dollars in quarters to spend in the arcade while she went shopping. Gen Xers were among the first to grow up with home video game consoles, as well. I remember being about four and watching all wide-eyed as my uncles (who were in their late teens, early 20s) played Pong. It was magical! There were other home video game consoles that followed including the Atari 2600 in 1977, and the very famous 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System – NES for short – in 1985. My little neighbors had the Atari 2600 in the late 1970s and I would be as anxious as can be waiting for them to invite me over to play! That is until Christmas 1982 when Santa Claus brought us the pièce de résistance of home video game consoles (at the time): the ColecoVision!
Then it became OUR turn to host little friends for video game playtime! Released in 1982 by Coleco Industries, Inc., ColecoVision was far superior to the Atari 2600 because the graphics looked like what they were supposed to be! Donkey Kong actually looked like an ape (if you’re familiar with the Atari, you know what I’m talking about). In addition to this home console, Coleco also put out miniature table-top versions of arcade cabinets beginning in 1982. Over a couple of Christmases, Santa brought us table-top cabinets of Zaxxon, Frogger, and Donkey Kong.
If you love classic video games, do check out the National Video Game Museum in Frisco, Texas where you can travel back to play in an arcade of the 1980s called “Pixel Dreams.” Click here for more information on the NVM.
While I can’t say for sure any of the toys mentioned in this post were ever under Walter Mathis’ Christmas tree, it certainly is fun to imagine these – or others – were. Can you imagine Villa Finale’s rooms filled with the laughter of children ripping presents open and pieces of wrapping paper scattered everywhere? It would be kinda neat, don’t you think?
[Villa Finale’s virtual “Music for Your Eyes – Holiday” will be transmitted via Facebook Live on Thursday, December 17th at 6:00pm CST. Join in to share your own remembrances during the tour via the Facebook Live chat! Click here for the Facebook event page.]
And now, part two of Doug’s fifteen holiday classics. Let us know which movies make your list in the comments below!
8. The Nativity Story (2006)
The biblical story of the birth of Jesus is emphasized during this time of year. The story starts off in the Roman province Judea during the rule of Herod the Great who orders the death of every first born infant male. Mary and Joseph must escape to Bethlehem for the safety of their unborn child. This film brings this story of Mary and Joseph to life and is led by an all-star cast.
9. Come to the Stable (1949)
Two French nuns travel to the town of Bethlehem, Connecticut to build a childrens’ hospital as a tribute to the Americans who died in WWII. In the film, Sister Margaret explains that she made a plea to an American general during WWII to spare the childrens’ hospital in Normandy that she was in charge of, but many American lives were lost in the process. Sister Margaret and Sister Scholastica encounter many obstacles but kindly persuade other eccentric characters to help them in their efforts.
10. The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)
This biographical drama is based on Charles Dickens and his attempt to write “A Christmas Carol.” As he writes, many of the characters manifest in front of him, including Ebenezer Scrooge! This story examines how Dickens’ tale changed Christmas forever at a time when the holiday season was seen as irrelevant.
11.The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Who loves the fun, quirky romantic comedy “You’ve Got Mail”? Then you’ll appreciate the original film it was based on. Avoiding regional politics of the time prior to WWII, this is a romantic comedy of two pen pals who happen to work together at a leather goods store in Budapest. They can’t stand each other in real life but end up realizing they have feelings for one another. Sound familiar?
12. Babes in Toyland (1961)
If you’re a kid, what’s Christmas without toys? In this story, Mary Contrary and Tom Piper are preparing for their wedding, but the villain Barnaby has Tom kidnapped in an effort to get Mary for himself! They both encounter the Toymaker who is also a pawn in Barnaby’s scheme. It’s a fun, colorful movie which features the famous Toy Soldiers that have since appeared in the Disney Christmas parades around the world!
13. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018)
On the night of Christmas Eve in Victorian London, Clara comes upon a special string at her godfather Drosselmeyer’s party that is supposed to lead her to a key to unlock her present. Instead she gets sucked into the magical fourth realm and must restore the balance along with the help of her soldier friend Phillip.
14. Miracle on 34th St. (1947)
Starting off right in the midst of the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Kris Kringle is made to become a replacement Santa Clause for the parade. However, problems arise when his mental state is questioned after he tries to convince everyone that he is the real Santa Claus. This film became a perpetual holiday favorite which led to the film’s remake in 1994.
15. Jingle Jangle (2020)
A brand new Christmas musical film set in an alternate fantasy world! A depressed toymaker who is down on his luck finds new hope by way of his smart, gifted granddaughter. The production was filmed in various historic locations in England that date back to the Tudor period, which gave the film its traditional look.