Frog Murder Christmas

tumblr_nz989wd1lK1u5yqcfo1_1280

It’s a joke, right?

It has to be. There’s no way this can be sentimental. There’s no remote possibility one could look at this and think of the holidays without the caption, right?

One thing’s certain: this card is far and away the most popular I’ve ever posted. It has thousands, THOUSANDS of reblogs and likes. It’s travelled in every genre and category of reposting blog I can imagine, from simple holiday things to S&M tumblrs to grandmothers to furry fans. This one struck a chord.

But why, exactly?

Part of me wants to believe that this card is a joke, plain and simple. But there are so many other odd ones where the humor is tinged with something “jolly” or “festive” that it makes me skeptical. This card is almost too ironic, too “modern,” to be the kind of humor that usually passes on these old cards. It just doesn’t fit the genre to show something essentially outright malicious and slap a “Merry Christmas!” on it. Even Krampus doing his worst usually did it with a sense of just punishment and a wink at the audience:

vintage-christmas-krampus-postcard-4_l

So let’s break this one down. First, the crime. One frog has apparently stabbed another and stolen 2000 pounds (?) from him. And he’s in the process of running away. We see the moments after the actual murder. Dramatically, it’s well-staged, I’d say. We see the aggressor in the act of escape, his worst done and now a fugitive. One leg is in the air, and his head seems slightly twisted away from us (expressing guilt?) while his eye fixes us steadily, knowingly, perhaps even challenging us to shame him.

frogeye

The victim is either dead or dying. The wound is still fresh, and blood has already poured down onto the ground. (Kudos to the artist for actually including a bit of a red smear in addition to the direct application of red pigment; it lends the sense that this poor frogged has flopped around a bit and already smeared some of the blood on the ground.) One arm lies listless on the floor while the other reaches, perhaps to the last place his living eyes saw his killer, perhaps for a love or a child or a parent – we’ll never know. What we do see, however, is that he was stabbed in his chest, a very vulnerable place underneath.

frogstab

And that brings us to another fact: the killer is wearing clothes. The victim is naked. Why this discrepancy? Are we to assume that this is a class difference? Has the killer stolen the victim’s clothes? Do the clothes hide his shame? Is this an allegory of human animals killing their animal brethren for gain with the subtle reminder that, underneath our finery, we’re all flesh and blood?

Perhaps. But notice something else. The killer is wearing not a shirt but a vest. The vest leaves his chest exposed, just as the dying or dead frog’s wounded chest is exposed. And the shadow of the dagger points in a straight line to another object held directly in front of the killer’s chest: the bag of 2000 pounds. Is this perhaps a way to indicate that both weapons and greed invade the heart?

frogline

But before we jump to conclusions, we should ask about the use of a frog itself. Why anthropomorphize this creature? And why include both a clothed and naked, “natural” version? Perhaps this is a leap of faith, but I find it intentional that we have an amphibian in a morally awful situation on a Christmas card. Amphibians, of course, can live on both land and water. They are between-dwellers. We have here one creature whose natural dual nature is also figured symbolically in a dual position: both victim and aggressor. We, too, are that creature, at once killing our own kind for gain and, perhaps, feeling remorse and regret, knowing that, at any moment, we could find ourselves in either situation.

So I come back to the eyes. The killer’s eye looks at us seemingly without emotion. But it’s possible to detect tears of a sort in the froggy coloring just underneath it. Further, that eye pierces us, asking us not to judge but to understand, to invent the reasons, perhaps even empathize with the reasons for this crime. Note, too, that we can just make out one of the victim’s eyes. It does not see us, but looks forward, likely at the same thing that grasping hand reaches for. Both eyes are imploring. Both ask to change what has happened, both to alter the course of this immediate crime and, in the eye of the killer, to alter the circumstances that led us here.

This, friends, is a tragic card. This is a card that is not funny. It is not a joke. This is a card that compels us to feel our morally amphibian nature at this very time of the year. We celebrate our joys when we know that we could easily be bemoaning our losses. What is stolen in this scene is not money but a heart (that line of the dagger’s shadow bridging the symbols). And the card’s caption addresses us directly, imploring us to pay attention, “A Merry Christmas TO YOU.” This card is personal, direct, visceral.

Do not laugh at this card. Rather, feel the lament for yourself at this time of year, the lament that says that our joys may be stolen, the lament that says our happiness lay on the backs of those we’ve made to suffer. This “Merry Christmas” comes at a price, and that price is self-knowledge, the frog’s eye that sees itself in us, in our gaze, in our hope that the laughter pushes the truth away just that much.

This card opens a wound so that we may feel the pain of others.

This image, friends…this image *IS* Christmas:

frogeye2

Dead Birds

tumblr_ngchu9C7Ra1u5yqcfo1_500

These cards get the most disbelief and shock of any I’ve found. So, first, let me answer the usual questions:

1) Are they real? Yes, very much so.

2) Was this a one-off thing? No, they were a trend. There are different styles and qualities, so it wasn’t a single set or collection that were just oddball.

3) So…what the hell?

I’m still not completely satisfied with the explanations I’ve found, although I have a good guess, which I’ll get to in a minute. But most speculation follows the lead of the book where I first found them: John Grossman’s Christmas Curiosities: Odd, Dark, and Forgotten Christmas. Here’s Grossman’s take:

tumblr_ngchtnx1cK1u5yqcfo1_500

A dead European robin frozen from the cold was bound to elicit Victorian sympathy and pity and may reference common stories of poor children freezing to death at Christmas. The 1880s card may have invoked one’s own good fortune and that of the card’s recipient during the holidays. (214)

It’s certainly possible that the Victorian love of sentimentalism was being exploited with these things. And it’s true that it wasn’t just holiday cards that got the dead bird treament. A similar image was used with a general well wishing card:

RSx2062215-46.2L

“Hope you aren’t dead like this guy” seems like a reasonable enough sentiment. But what bugs me is where there are so many examples of these with the holidays. There’s not much in the text to explain it: “May yours be a Joyful Christmas” and “A Loving Christmas Greeting” don’t even seem to acknowledge the befowled fowls.

So I followed what little leads I could find. Grossman points out that two of the birds, the robin and the wren, were sacred to different degrees in Anglo and Irish folklore, but he seems wrong by suggesting that they weren’t meant to be harmed. In fact, there’s an old Celtic holiday tradition (or ritual), still celebrated in a few small corners of Ireland, that begins by killing a bird: Wren Day. Irishfestivals.net explains it this way:

In Ireland, St. Stephen’s Day [the day after Christmas] is the day for “Hunting the Wren” or “Going on the Wren.” Originally, groups of small boys would hunt for a wren, and then chase the bird until they either have caught it or it has died from exhaustion. The dead bird was tied to the top of a pole or holly bush, which was decorated with ribbons or colored paper.

It even points to an tradition of seeing the robin as a symbol of the new year while the wren was the symbol of the old year. That certainly fits with Grossman’s robin and wren images (although it doesn’t seem quite right to kill off the new year’s symbol before it had a chance to start).

You can read a bit more background on the holiday here, even hearing a song supposedly sung as the “Wren Boys” wandered from house to house with the dead bird on a pole, doing a bit of wassail-ing and partying along the way.

So if that’s the connection, then the cards are reminders of local traditions that are both part of Christmas and New Year celebrations. And they’re more symbolic than sympathetic, which seems to make more sense to me than a random card that doesn’t even acknowledge that they’re supposed to be pulling on heart strings. A common analogue might be turkeys on Thanksgiving cards — we know we’re going to kill and eat the things, but we show images of them fully alive and thriving. We don’t have to explain the image because we know the connections. The dead bird, however morbid, likely held some common cultural currency.

Of course, there’s a simpler answer, too: maybe they just had a screwed up sense of humor and loved the incongruity as much as I do.

tumblr_nyi4agYR8e1u5yqcfo1_1280