Monday, December 23, 2013

24- Santa Claus

Christmas Eve!  Happy Christmas Eve, everyone! As we've already covered up to this point, the Dutch enjoy yearly Christmas visits from dear old Saint Nicholas, but their name for the fellow is Sinterklass.  There's no different, however,  between the characters really.  Sinterklass comes to town in a boat, gifts gifts, and pals around with Black Pete (who really aught to be retconed into being a pirate with an eye patch when you think about it...).  It is from a corruption of the name Sinterklaas that we get the newer name which is far more commonplace here in America, Santa Claus.

Santa is essentially the product of years worth of merging between the various European gift givers of Christmas time.  You take a dash of St. Nicholas's charity and love of children, you take a spritz of Father Christmas' revelry and implied gluttony, mix it in with a hint of Belsnickel's fur-clad man of the north, toss in some troll and elf stuff, and you've got yourself a Santa Claus.  This name was first used by the press in 1773, and though we have record of the character popping up now and again thereafter (Washington Irving of Headless Horseman fame has a sailor-eque Santa appearing in one of his satires) it's not until 1821, in a poem called "Old Santaclaus" (note the name not being separated) where we find a description of an old man riding a sleigh pulled by reindeer.

The popular belief is that most of our ideas about Santa seemingly became canon after the anonymous publication of the poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" (better known today as "The Night Before Christmas") in the Troy, New York, Sentinel on December 23, 1823- which was later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore.  In spite of the character in the poem being named as Saint Nicholas, he is clearly a very different sort of character than the one celebrated in Dutch communities, which is why it is said that a lot of the Santa mythos is established in this poem; such as riding in a sleigh that lands on the roof (though interestingly, we wouldn't necessarily have to interpret them as FLYING reindeer when you think about it), entering through the chimney, and having a bag full of toys. St. Nick is described as being "chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf" with "a little round belly", that "shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly," in spite of which the "miniature sleigh" and "tiny reindeer" still indicate that he is physically diminutive (a characteristic often ignored in later canon). The reindeer were also named: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem (Dunder and Blixem came from the old Dutch words for thunder and lightning, which were later changed to the more German sounding Donner and Blitzen).

As the years passed, Santa Claus evolved in popular culture into a large, heavyset person. One of the first artists to define Santa Claus's modern image was Thomas Nast, an American cartoonist of the 19th century. In 1863, a picture of Santa illustrated by Nast appeared in Harper's Weekly.  The story that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole may also have been a Nast creation, though it's not a major stretch since numerous characters on which he is based originated in the extreme Northern realms already. The idea of a wife for Santa Claus may have been the creation of American authors, beginning in the mid-19th century.  In 1889, the poet Katherine Lee Bates popularized the idea of Mrs. Claus in the poem "Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride."  Ever since, Santa often is depicted as coming home to a wife with whom he has an extremely healthy and idealistic marriage with.  By the latter portion of the 1800's the Santa mythos was extremely popular and well known to all.  Perhaps one of the best indications of this widespread sensation is the story of Virginia questioning the existence of Santa.  "Is There a Santa Claus?" was the title of an editorial appearing in the September 21, 1897 edition of the New York Sun. The editorial, which included the famous reply, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," has become an indelible part of popular Christmas lore in the United States and Canada.  And lastly, while Santa's basic image was pretty well set early on, it was positively immortalized when he started appearing in all his round, jolly, red suit with white trim glory on ads for the Coca-Cola Company in the 1930's.  And the rest is history.  The image of Santa has now proliferated most other versions of the character around the entire world, with his name even being commonly used in places it traditionally wasn't before.  Love live Santa, eh?

So now that we're here, on Christmas Eve, and all caught up on some of the wacky but ultimately deep rooted mythology surrounding this day (SOME of... there is oh so much more I never even got a chance to mention!) I wanted to bring up a few opinions I have about all of this.  I decided to look into the Santa lore and all surrounding cooky traditions because for much of my life I had always been told that the true meaning of Christmas had nothing to do with Santa and all this jazz.  In the beyond excellent (and extremely disjointed in its story telling) Merry Christmas Charlie Brown, the title character is depressed over all of the commercialism that has slipped into this holiday.  In the end, as he despairs over what Christmas is all about, he is answered by the recitation of the story of Christ's birth from the Bible.  And as nice as that sentiment is, I can't say I honestly find that to be the case.  Though I have always had a Nativity Scene, readings of the story from the Bible, and singing Christmas Carols in church, I have to say I find that this time of year has way more to do with Christmas trees, Santa, gifts, family, and fun music than anything else.

Quoting heavily from an article that recently appeared online, for a significant number of Americans, Christmas has largely lost its religious meaning, becoming an occasion focused instead on visiting family and friends and exchanging gifts.  Only half of people who responded to a Pew Research Center poll said they considered Christmas a religious holiday, even though nearly three-quarters said they believed Jesus was born to a virgin. One-third said they viewed Christmas as a cultural celebration.  Some of this poll's results show an interesting- and in my mind, personally, sort of sad -gulf that is forming between many Americans and religious life.  Church attendance will be higher than usual during the holiday, but of the 69 percent of respondents who said they attended Christmas worship services as a child, only 54 percent will do so this year. By contrast, 86 percent say they will gather with extended family or friends and will buy gifts for them.  About 20 percent of Americans overall say they have no religious affiliation, a figure which is expected to rise among younger generations.  The Pew Christmas study found a similar trend. While two-thirds of people age 65 and older consider Christmas religious, only 40 percent of adults under age 30 agree. Eight-in-10 non-Christians will celebrate the holiday, but mostly as a cultural celebration. A separate Pew poll found about one-third of U.S. Jews had a Christmas tree at home last year.  Not surprisingly, Christians who more closely identify with a faith are more likely to view Christmas as religious. More than 80 percent of white evangelicals consider the holiday religious, compared to 66 percent of white Catholics and 60 percent of black Protestants. Fifty-six percent of white Protestants from what are known as mainline churches consider the celebration more religious than cultural.

So the question is, is this a bad thing?  Like I said, in my own personal belief, I feel sad over the ever growing shift away from church-life.  But I can't say I disagree with the fact that Christmas is much more a cultural thing than a religious thing.  And in my opinion, that's not bad.  I am thrilled that this holiday is ever growing, and reaching people of all religious and non religious beliefs.  Garrison Keillor said, "A lovely thing about Christmas is that it's compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together."  I've said this before, but I have so often marveled over how much a holiday about trees, lights, corny songs, cheap decorations, a mythical gift giver from the North, and births in Bethlehem affects so many people all at once.  Rich, poor, young, and old, we all stop to observe this weird holiday to end all holidays.  Around the entire globe.  I know plenty of tough customers who you can bet don't have time for fairy tales.  They don't even care to see blockbusters like The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.  But they love Christmas time and sing along to song after song about magic and eternal fat bearded men during this time of year.  That, to me, is significant.  That is why I've often said that the folklore and fantasy surrounding Santa is, in my mind, the most important work of fantasy of all time, right up there with Beowulf and The Illiad.

Yes, I agree with Charlie Brown in saying that the mass amounts of commercialism ruins a lot of it.  I think a lot of people get caught up in the materialism of it- especially children who are taught that whatever they want they can get, and when they don't get it they throw tantrums.  People who go out and act so animalistic on Black Friday as to trample and injure others... there's just no need for it.  But the spirit of taking this time of year- a very cold and dark time of year for many -and spending it thinking of others, giving gifts, believing in magic, and visiting family... to me, that's good, and even miraculous, regardless of religious inclusion.  If Santa and his pack of magical friends is ruining your holiday, I submit to you that you are doing it wrong.  If there are people who put spiders on their trees claiming it has something to do with a totally made up story, then surely we can "observe" Santa and his traditions in the spirit of something real: a spirit of love, giving, charity, and family.  A common gathering of the human family.  I'm all for it.  It's not a lie or a commercial exploit at heart.  It's a belief in the "magic" that is charity- which can be celebrated by all, Christian or not.  Yes, I will always have a Nativity Scene in my home, but I'll also have some stockings, a Santa, some colorful lights, a tree, and maybe a Tio de Nadal from time to time.  And as trite as I find the "Yes Virginia" craze (it's even a musical these days! And a balloon in the Thanksgiving Day parade funded by the US Post Office of all things...), they summed up my feelings rather nicely.  When Virginia asked for the truth concerning Santa's reality after her friends told her that Santa was just the work of parents, the editor responded:

"Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas, how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished. Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world. You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding. No Santa Claus? Thank God, he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood."

Don't let this tradition fall to the wayside as something stupid, trivial, or bad.  Give it real meaning, and make the most of it that you can. Enjoy tonight (as best you can, anyway.  Remember, this is the night when trolls and stuff are on the attack so... be careful...) and tomorrow- and hopefully all of your Christmases to come.

So, with that all out of the way I just want to wish all my readers a Happy Christmas and leave them with some super weird stuff to watch.  First, I'm still banging the drum for one and all to watch Rare Exports, A Christmas Tale.  It's got Pukki and his demented trollish servants and it is awesome.  But I would also recommend two others that you might not have seen.

1964's Santa Claus Conquers The Martians.  This movie is bonkers. Meant to be an awesome Christmas movie for little boys who also want a healthy dose of aliens, this movie is about aliens from Mars- and yes, they are green men -coming to Earth to kidnap Santa after worrying that their children are watching too much Earth television and are seeing too many images of Santa.  It's a cult classic and you should be able to find it online fairly easily.  The popular show MST3K also had an episode featuring the movie so you might enjoy that as well, if that's your cup of tea.  It has a cool robot in it as well, if that's as much an incentive for you as it is for me.

My next recommendation has also had its go on MST3K, and that is 1959's Santa Claus.  This movie is a Mexican Christmas fable in which all the children on earth like Christmas a lot, but Lucifer in Hell did not!  So Satan sends a demon to Earth to try and ruin Christmas and I guess kill Santa Claus so that all of Earth's children will be persuaded to be naughty and, I suppose by degrees, eventually full on evil.  Also, to ad some "cool" factor, Santa no longer resides at the North Pole but instead has a Toyland Castle... in Space!!!  It's another wonky Christmas adventure that I'm sure you all can enjoy.

And lastly, I will post right here for you all, this cartoon.  This is one of my favorites simply for how bizarre it is in concept.  A king, on Christmas, decides to be charitable so he takes in a disgusting bum off the street to come spend the night with him.  They become friends and do a whole myriad of strange things like: bathe together, wear bras, support the NRA, destroy everything within the castle, sleep together... it's a classic.  Not in a good way, but in a "who made this and thought it was sweet and normal!?" kind of way.  And if you didn't get a chance to watch The Snowman from yesterday's post, i highly recommend it one more time.  After mulling it over in my head for a while, I think it very easily trumps all as my favorite Christmas film for it's magical and calming quality, complete with essentially everything I love about Christmas.  There is even a sequel which was produced in 2012 that is actually pretty good, and is located here if you wanna see it:

Anyway, Happy Christmas everyone!!!  And my gift to you all is one more piece of Christmas Mythology that is sure to only lead you all spellbound, amazed, and with a big ol' yuletide smile across your face.  I'm not going to write about it, in light of the holiday, but please for your own sake check out the Wikipedia article on Caganers located here:

Happy Christmas and God Bless Us, Everyone.

23- A Christmas Adam Catch-All Of A More Modern Christmas

I warn you, this is my longest post yet- but it is not my grand finale... though it is a bit rambling.  I've spent much of my time this season gawking at traditions that are perhaps less familiar to the average American holiday-enjoyer.  And as much time as I've spent looking at weird things that amuse me about the season, there is still an entire cornucopia's worth of things that I didn't even get around to- like Japan's Christmas traditions all revolving around eating Kentucky Fried Chicken and being a sexy Santa girl.

(Seriously, Japan goes wild over KFC around the holidays.  It's available year round but Thanksgiving Turkey for us is Christmas KFC to them. Look it up!)  I also wanted to cover the belief that Christmas Eve is the single most terrifying night of the year!  While we often propose that on Halloween night our world and the spirit realm come close together and monster and ghosts and witches all pop out and cause chaos, the ancient Pagans believed something quite different.  In their version, Christmas Eve was the night when all of that happened... only, times a thousand.  Trolls, witches, bears, wolves, goblins, giants, ghosts, spooks, dragons, and essentially every horrible thing one could think of would be at its most active on Christmas eve.  They called it Julenatt, and it was some pretty freaky stuff.  That's why it was so important that they paid proper homage to the Yuletide in order to renew the Earth and make these things all go away.  Some even think that the sublime Pukki character may have been a protector who fought the monsters and beasts away from human dwellings which would be why people thought it important to respect him and let him in the house.  Get this though!  This is from a real article I picked up about a day or two ago: "REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) - In this land of fire and ice, where the fog-shrouded lava fields offer a spooky landscape in which anything might lurk, stories abound of the "hidden folk" – thousands of elves, making their homes in Iceland's wilderness.So perhaps it was only a matter of time before 21st-century elves got political representation.Elf advocates have joined forces with environmentalists to urge the Icelandic Road and Coastal Commission and local authorities to abandon a highway project building a direct route from the Alftanes peninsula, where the president has a home, to the Reykjavik suburb of Gardabaer. They fear disturbing elf habitat and claim the area is particularly important because it contains an elf church.The project has been halted until the Supreme Court of Iceland rules on a case brought by a group known as Friends of Lava, who cite both the environmental and the cultural impact – including the impact on elves – of the road project. The group has regularly brought hundreds of people out to block the bulldozers.And it's not the first time issues about "Huldufolk," Icelandic for "hidden folk," have affected planning decisions.They occur so often that the road and coastal administration has come up with a stock media response for elf inquiries, which states that "issues have been settled by delaying the construction project at a certain point while the elves living there have supposedly moved on."Scandinavian folklore is full of elves, trolls and other mythological characters. Most people in Norway, Denmark and Sweden haven't taken them seriously since the 19th century, but elves are no joke to many in Iceland, population 320,000.A survey conducted by the University of Iceland in 2007 found that 62 percent of the 1,000 respondents thought it was at least possible that elves exist.Ragnhildur Jonsdottir, a self-proclaimed "seer," believes she can communicate with the creatures through telepathy."It will be a terrible loss and damaging both for the elf world and for us humans," said Jonsdottir of the road project.Although many of the Friends of Lava are motivated primarily by environmental concerns, they see the elf issue as part of a wider concern for the history and culture of a very unique landscape.Andri Snaer Magnason, a well-known environmentalist, said his major concern was that the road would cut the lava field in two, among other things, destroying nesting sites."Some feel that the elf thing is a bit annoying," said Magnason, adding that personally he was not sure they existed. However, he added, "I got married in a church with a god just as invisible as the elves, so what might seem irrational is actually quite common" with Icelanders.Terry Gunnell, a folklore professor at the University of Iceland, said he was not surprised by the wide acceptance of the possibility of elves."This is a land where your house can be destroyed by something you can't see (earthquakes), where the wind can knock you off your feet, where the smell of sulfur from your taps tells you there is invisible fire not far below your feet, where the northern lights make the sky the biggest television screen in the world, and where hot springs and glaciers `talk,'" Gunnell said."Everyone is aware that the land is alive, and one can say that the stories of hidden people and the need to work carefully with them reflects an understanding that the land demands respect," he added.Gunnell said similar beliefs are found in western Ireland, but they thrive in Iceland because people remain in close contact with the land. Parents still let their children play out in the wilderness, often late into the night. Vast pristine areas remain, even near the capital, Reykjavik.And at Christmas, Icelanders await not just one Santa Claus, but 13 trolls known as the "Yule Lads" who come to town during the 13 days before Christmas. Each has his own task, putting rewards or punishments into the shoes of little children. They include Stufur, or Stubby, who is extremely short and eats crusts left in pans; Pottaskefill, or Pot-Scraper, who snatches leftovers; and Hurdaskellir or Door-Slammer, who likes to slam doors at night."If you ask an Icelander about elves, they might say they don't believe," said Jonsdottir. "But we always have stories of them, if not from ourselves then from someone close like a family member."Hilmar Gunnarsson, a writer in Reykjavik, fondly remembers a story his grandmother told him about a mischievous elf."She told me about (a pair) of her scissors that went missing and she was certain that an elf borrowed them," Gunnarsson said. "She would not believe that they were just lost and she would not buy (new) scissors. She said the elf would give them back when he was finished. She said they were returned."One of Iceland's most famous daughters, the singer Bjork, displayed no hesitation when asked by U.S. comedian and TV host Stephen Colbert if people in her country believed in elves."We do," she said. "It's sort of a relationship with nature, like with the rocks. (The elves) all live in the rocks, so you have to. It's all about respect, you know.""

But for today's post I thought I'd hit some traditions that are a little bit closer to home that we are all pretty used to, but ultimately are strikingly weird.  It's going to be a big one, and a bit of a catch-all... but isn't that what today is all about?  Rushing to finish up all your Christmas prep before things get really in full swing tomorrow?! Which brings us to TODAY: Christmas Adam!  Which is today.  Many people think it's super clever to call today Christmas Adam, since tomorrow is Christmas Eve and in The Bible Adam comes to Earth before Eve.  Weird.  It's not called Christmas Eve for any reasons having to do with her.  It's just an abbreviation for evening.  So calm down people.

Next on the list is The Easter Bunny.  Calm down, I know this humanoid lepus is associated with a different holiday... but maybe not so much.  Could it be that the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus are in fact the same guy?  For this to make sense we need to look at a creature out of Irish folklore and mythology called the púca.  It's also spelled as pooka, phouka, phooka, phooca or púka. The púca has multiple counterparts throughout the Celtic and Scandinavian cultures of Northwest Europe. For instance in Welsh mythology it is named the pwca or pwwka and in Cornish the Bucca. In the Channel Islands, the pouque were said to be fairies who lived near ancient stones; in Guernésiais and Jèrriais a cromlech is referred to as a pouquelée or pouquelay.  And, if you haven't cleverly figured this out yet, the origin of the name may have come from the Old Norse term pook or puki, and in Germanic languages, such as Frisian or English, this became pucel, pook or puck, and refers to a nature spirit that we have discussed here earlier: the pukki.  Nuuttipukki.  So what are these little guys? These creatures were said to be shape changers which could take the appearance of black horses, goats and rabbits.  Horse?  Goats?  Rabbits?  You mean... Mari Lwyd, The Yule Goat, and The Easter Bunny?  Could these things all be related?  Be prepared to have your mind bent with one more little tidbit: if you recall back to my post about the Yulecat, I referred to Trollcats which were also shape-sifting creatures which usually took the form of- in spite of the name -a rabbit.  The pagans had a goat creature visit at Yuletide, but at Eastertide (which was later taken over by Christians just like Christmas and made to be about Jesus' resurrection) ancient pagans worshiped a goddess of new life and fertility, and her symbol was a rabbit, and much of their rituals had to do with... rabbits.  Could these guys have initially been the same semi-divine beings who served the gods and shape shifted into different forms depending on the time of the year?  While scholars are out on that one, it can be said with pretty fair certainty that while Santa and the Easter bunny absorbed all the nice and happy parts of these characters, the puca no doubt became the catch-all for the rest of their more monstrous traits.  What was once may have been revered as a sort of lord of holidays is now just a folklore monster for children in fairytales to outsmart.

What may be the true Santa Claus

Okay moving on.  The Nutcracker Ballet.  To many, Tchaikovsky's music which he wrote to accompany this ballet is an absolute staple of the Christmas season.  And while we more or less accept this as holiday norm- when you really think about it, The Nutcracker is totally weird.   What many do not know is that the ballet itself is actually based on The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, a story written in 1816 by E. T. A. Hoffmann in which young Marie Stahlbaum's favorite Christmas toy, the Nutcracker, comes alive and, after defeating the evil Mouse King in battle, whisks her away to a magical kingdom populated by dolls. It wasn't until 1892 when the Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky and choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov turned Alexandre Dumas père's adaptation of the story into the ballet, The Nutcracker, and it became Tchaikovsky's most famous composition.  The story has numerous versions all with different names for the characters.  I've found that the most popular names given to the main protagonist are Marie- which is from the original story -and Clara, which is actually more prominent these days and what I will be using from here on out.  On Christmas, Clara is given a gift by her sometimes godfather, sometimes uncle, sometimes grandpa, sometimes one-eyed, and always awesome Drosselmeyer.  Drosselmeyer is also often a wizard, or a toymaker, or an inventor, or a clockmaker, or just a creep depending on the story.  The gift he gives her is a nutcracker solider, which she loves to death- which is also a bit curious when you think about it.  Nutcrackers aren't usually very handsome or pretty or fun.  They're stiff and usually pretty ugly (any Freud fans out there?).  He also often offers up a clockwork toy castle with little mechanical people inside.  At any rate, Clara's brother Fritz usually breaks the nutcracker at some point in the night, and Clara gets ticked off and leaves.  But in the night everything goes crazy and the toys all come alive and engage in warfare against a horde of rats or mice depending on the version of the story you like best.  In the original story, a great deal of the plot centers around Drosselmeyer telling Clara about his time in the past working at a castle where the rats caused a great deal of trouble and kill children and sometimes do and sometimes don't cause a prince to be turned into the nutcracker which she now possesses.  At any rate, the rats/mice are generally lead by a powerful Rat King/Mouse King.  In the original story the Rat King's mother- The Rat Queen -was defeated by Drosselmeyer during his days at the castle, but that's not always the case.

But what is interesting here is that "rat kings" in the real world are phenomena said to arise when a number of rats become intertwined at their tails, which become stuck together with blood, dirt, ice, excrement or simply knotted. The animals reputedly grow together while joined at the tails. The numbers of rats that are joined together can vary, but rat kings formed naturally from a large number of rats are rarer. The phenomenon is particularly associated with Germany, where the majority of instances have been reported. Historically, there are various superstitions surrounding rat kings, and they were often seen as a bad omen, particularly associated with plagues.  As a result of this, the Rat King in the story is depicted in numerous ways, some of which simply have him being a huge terrible rat and others have him being a multi headed monster.  Cool.  Clara usually kills the monster by throwing a shoe at him at which point they enter the clockwork castle/kingdom and meet sugar plumb fairies and women hiding children under their dresses.  It's a weird fever-dream of a story that really has nothing to do with Christmas, but for whatever we have embraced it.  And that's ok.

And by the way, a sugar plum is a piece of dragée candy that is made of dried fruits and shaped in a small round or oval shape.

How about White Elephants?  A white elephant gift exchange is a holiday party game found primarily right here in good old North America. The goal of a white elephant party is usually to entertain rather than to gain gifts that of any actual use. So if we were to attend one, I might go to a thrift store and just buy some random crazy thing there, with no particular recipient in mind, that would be funny to unwrap at the party.  The term "white elephant" refers to the idea of an extravagant but burdensome gift which cannot be easily disposed of, supposedly after the King of Siam gifted rare albino elephants to courtiers who had displeased him, that they might be ruined by the animals' upkeep costs.  

Mistletoe is commonly hung about during Christmas time.  Traditionally, it is placed over doorways and walkways, and if two people are found standing underneath it, they are obligated to kiss each other.  So what's the big deal with mistletoe?  Well, in Norse Mythology mistletoe was a powerful object not only for medicinal purposes but also because it brought about the death of the god Baldr.  The gods prophesied that Baldr would die, and that his death would bring about their destruction, and so they went around and made all of the plants, creatures, and elements promise not to harm him under oath.  But mistletoe didn't promise, and when Baldr was arrogantly asking people to try and kill him to show off his immortality, Loki tricked Baldr's blind brother into shooting him with an arrow made of mistletoe.  Crazy.  There's also a pretty good line in Batman Returns where Batman tells Catwoman awkwardly that "mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it." She responds, "But a kiss can be even deadlier if you mean it."  Ooooh! Zing!

Ever considered The Grinch?  The Grinch is the main character of Dr Seuss's children's book called How The Grinch Stole Christmas.  The story is about a town full of creatures called Whos, which are microscopic beings who live on a speck of dust that appear periodically throughout the universe established by Dr Seuss' writings.  The Grinch himself appears to be a mutant vagrant member of their society though, who has turned himself into a recluse and now lives on Mt. Krumpet which overlooks their main city of Whoville.  The Grinch hates the Whos and Whoville and everything about anything that's nice or pleasant, but he especially hates Christmas.  What ensues is a story about him trying to wreck their holiday by masquerading as Santa Claus and stealing all of their possessions, but in the morning they don't care and enjoy the "True spirit" of the season all the same.  He is touched and comes back to return their belongings and rejoin their society.  Oh... spoiler alert... oops.  Anyway, The Grinch has since become an icon of Christmas time, especially since 1966- ten years after the book was penned -when the story was turned into a half hour animated Christmas special.  Narrated by Boris Karloff (Frankenstein's monster) and directed by Chuck Jones of Tom and Jerry fame, the special was a hit.  As it should be.  It now ranks up there as a classic for this time of season.  It was later adapted into a horrible/terrible/awful/crude/over-long/yet-still-somehow-well-liked-by-a-portion-of-the-population-I-am-currently-frowning-at live action film that was a commercial success.  With catchy songs from the special as well, blasting their way to permanent spots in Christmas canon, The Grinch and Christmas are almost inseparable.  But should they be?  The Grinch isn't merely a Christmas character.  He exists in a larger universe full of other characters who appear in numerous works aside from just the one in which he stars. In 1977, Seuss responded to the fan request for more Grinch tales by writing Halloween Is Grinch Night, a Halloween special that aired on ABC. This was followed in 1982, when they made The Grinch Grinches the Cat in the Hat, which was also produced by Dr. Seuss though it ignores some facts about the character, such as his microscopic size.  He even appears in Seussical The Musical as a reformed- albeit obsessed with holidays -citizen of Whoville.  For whatever reason, we have adopted this creepy green monster as a beloved member of our collective Christmas conscience.  But the Grinch isn't the only character whose story appears as part of a larger universe.

L Frank Baum, author of the Oz series wrote a book called The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus that detail his version of Santa's origin story.  The book takes on numerous fantasy elements, telling of how Santa was raised in an enchanted forest under the teachings of immortals, and how he came to be an immortal himself and decided to live his life the way he does.  It's a pretty good book and has been adapted into animated features on more than one occasion. Interestingly though, the lands that Santa hails from and adventures through are all featured in maps of the larger Oz universe, meaning that his Santa lives in the same world as Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, and all the rest- making it a part of the larger Oz canon-proper.  

The writer of The Wizard of Oz isn't the only fantasy author to have a go at writing about Santa- who is indeed in my mind probably the most prolific, and important fantasy/fairy tale/folkloric/mythological character of all time.  Tolkien, the writer of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit also penned a book called Letters from Father Christmas.  The letters themselves were written over a period of over 20 years to entertain Tolkien's children each Christmas. Starting in 1920 when Tolkien's oldest son was three, and each Christmas thereafter, Tolkien would write a letter from Father Christmas about his travels and adventures.  Each letter was delivered in an envelope, including North Pole stamps and postage marks as designed by Tolkien himself.  They were collected and published as a book posthumously in 1976.  The interesting thing about this work is that many scholars believe that without this, we might never have gotten The Lord of the Rings. While it may or may not be part of the "Middle Earth" canon, it does feature many elements that would later feed into Tolkien's fairytales like The Hobbit.  For example, Santa finds himself sometimes coming into conflict with goblins and the like.

And since his works began seeing cinematic adaptations in 2005, it's not secret that C. S. Lewis features a Father Christmas character in his Chronicles of Narnia.  A weird fact about Narnia is that Lewis originally came up with the stories as a way to help his children understand the teachings and stories of Jesus Christ.  And while he did not intend to make his stories be some sort of blasphemous perversion, Lewis stated on many occasions that that character of Asland in his stories was the actual Jesus, just in a different dimension.  Sort of like a Jesus fan fiction meant to only honor its source material.  So how is it that the Father Christmas in Narnia appears to be the same one as the one who visits our world (he even knows Lucy, Peter, and the gang!) but Jesus is a totally different guy?... well, a totally different form.  A small discrepancy, but when you're a Christmas Legend Expert like me, you notice.  Lewis isn't the only one to have written Jesus fan fiction, though.  In fact, some of the most popular pieces of Christian fan fiction about The Savior were written in song and verse.  One particular popular one would be The Little Drummer Boy. The song was originally titled Carol of the Drum, and was published by Katherine Davis as based upon a traditional Czech carol.  Davis's interest was in producing material for amateur choirs, and although she did search far and wide for suitable material, the Czech original has never been identified. Carol of the Drum appealed to the Austrian von Trapp singers, who first brought the song to wider prominence when they recorded it in 1955, shortly before they retired. In 1957 it was recorded, with a slightly altered arrangement, by the Jack Halloran Singers for their album Christmas Is A-Comin' on Dot Records. Dot's Henry Onorati introduced the song to his friend Harry Simeone and the following year, when 20th Century Fox Records contracted him to make a Christmas album, Simeone, making further small changes to the Halloran arrangement and retitling it "The Little Drummer Boy," recorded it with the Harry Simeone Chorale on the album Sing We Now of Christmas. Simeone and Onorati claimed joint composition credits with Davis, and the album and the song went on to be an enormous success. In 1963 the album was reissued under the title The Little Drummer Boy: A Christmas Festival, capitalizing on the single's popularity, and the following year the album was released again but in stereo. In 1968 the song was adapted into an animated television special by Rankin/Bass who would go on to make scores of other holiday specials as well.

Two of the weirder additions to their holiday special list are Santa Claus is Coming to Town, which is also based on a song of the same name, and tells the story of Santa's origins.  The story borrows a lot of concepts from Nordic mythology- to my excitement -including him being raised by dwarves of some sort, and a conflict he has with a monster known as "The Winter Warlock," which results in another classic Christmas tune that has nothing to do with the holidays about learning to "put one foot in front of the other, and soon you'll be walkin' across the floor."

See?  It seems weird to some of us to think that Santa traditionally comes from stories involving monsters and witches, but our stories tend to have those elements in them as well- albeit, honestly feeling much more out of place.  Another one of Rankin/Bass' wacky additions to Santa lore comes in their film, The Year Without A Santa Claus in which Santa decides to retire, and amidst the ensuing chaos we see the Heat Miser and Snow Miser- rulers over the warm and cold seasons respectively -warring over who gets Christmas now.  Both are extremely weird characters and children of Mother Earth- if that isn't Pagan enough for you, I don't know what is.  Happy Yule.  They also include some excellent musical numbers respectively that have nothing to do with the holidays but are ultimately part of current Christmas tradition.

Okay just a few more things and then I'll save the best for Christmas Eve!  Now, I wanted to turn my attention toward what is easily Rankin/Bass' masterpiece of Christmas film making- though, I honestly don't know how or why once I take a step back and think about it.  That film, of course, is Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.  Somehow, this bonkers tale about a mutant deer who's nose radiates red light so brightly that it cuts through fog has become an inseparable part of our Christmas traditions. The story of Rudolph has been adapted numerous times across multiple mediums, but Rankin/Bass' is easily the most well known and iconic version of the story, adding a whole host of new Christmas Songs to our culture, as well as a bunch of characters.  So much so that we now often include Rudolph across all version's of Santa's story as the ninth member of his reindeer team. Anyway, the story chronicles the experiences of Rudolph, a youthful reindeer buck who possesses an unusual luminous red nose. Harassed mercilessly and excluded by his peers because of this trait, Rudolph manages to prove himself one Christmas Eve after Santa Claus catches sight of Rudolph's nose and asks Rudolph to lead his sleigh for the evening. Rudolph agrees, and is finally treated better by his fellow reindeer for his heroism.  The themes of being an outcast and having individual talents are hard to not appreciate.  But ultimately the story gets much more complicated.  Rudolph's tale was invented by Robert L. May in 1939 as an assignment for the Montgomery Ward retail empire. The retailer had been buying and giving away coloring books for Christmas every year and it was decided that creating their own book would save money. May considered naming the reindeer Rollo and Reginald before deciding upon using the name Rudolph. In its first year of publication, 2.5 million copies of Rudolph's story were distributed.  The positive feedback they received prompted Maxton Books to publish the first mass-market edition of Rudolph and also a sequel, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Shines Again in 1954. In 1991 Applewood Books published Rudolph's Second Christmas, an unpublished sequel that Robert May wrote himself in 1947.  May's brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, adapted the story of Rudolph into a song. Gene Autry's recording of the song hit No. 1 on the Billboard pop singles chart the week of Christmas 1949. Autry's recording sold 2.5 million copies the first year, eventually selling a total of 25 million, and it remained the second best-selling record of all time until the 1980s.

All the success lead to several animated adaptations, but like I said, the essential version is the Rankin/Bass stop motion version of the story.  Yes, at its core it still has those themes of exclusion and so on, but this version is entirely weird.  I absolutely cannot help myself from wondering what on Earth they must have been thinking as they wrote it.  This time around, Santa is a skinny jerk.  Every year he loses weight and then binges to gain it back before Christmas.  But when he and the rest of his team meet Rudolph- who is the son of one of his current deer -they all treat him like absolute garbage just because of his nose.  There's also a side story involving one of Santa's elves wanting to become a dentist of all things.  Yes, it matches the theme of the film which has to do with being a misfit, but I doubt anyone ever thought that an elf wanting a degree in dentistry would ever in a thousand years become an icon of Christmas for years to come.  I wonder what he would even do as a dentist though.  Nobody seems to have any real problems with their teeth from what we see (Hermey- the wannabe dentist -tells the head Elf that he needs some work done on his, but that's questionable at best since they've lived at the Pole for years without a dentist... and Hermey just read a book without receiving any actual formal education).

There's another subplot involving an island of mutant toys- er, misfit toys.  All sorts of weird things like trains with square wheels and squirt guns only capable to shooting jelly and a doll named Sally... a doll that appears to have nothing wrong with it... why is that there?  Anyway, this island is ruled by King Moonracer.  If that name doesn't scream, "Christmas!!!" then his appearance sure won't either.  King Moonracer is a ginormous King-Kong sized Lion.  Who talks.  And wears a crown.  And has wings.  King Moonracer!  The mutant toys are his subjects, and his kingdom has a large palace and buildings on it... but so other subjects other than the toys.  Moonracer explains in one scene that he flies all over the world finding these unwanted toys and brings them back in hopes that someday he can find suitable homes of them where they will be wanted.  But, for all the years he's been at it, he's never succeeded.  Later in the film Santa comes and takes all the toys away and immediately matches them up with presumably grateful owners, so we have to wonder: Did Moonracer even try!? For all his flying over the world, he obviously never opted to just ask Santa.  He seems really good at collecting them and making them work for him and be subservient, but his tale about trying to help them is loose at best.  The film, however, never opts to delve deeper into the mystery.

The show stealers here, however, are Yukon Cornelius, and the Abominable Snowman- or Bumble, as Yukon lazily slurs it.  Yukon is a bad-A explorer who is conquering the northern landscape with just his wits, ingenuity, backpack, and dogsled carried by a pack of loyal canines.  He has a super manly beard, an insatiable lust for adventure, a jagged mustache, and he can locate silver and/or gold just by sniffing and licking the ground.  Pretty cool guy.  And ultimately he ends up befriending and taming his ex-nemesis, The Bumble (after Hermey, our questionably trained dentist, forcibly rips the monster's teeth from his skull and he becomes dependent on Yukon and Co for protection/care).  Seriously, this cast of characters make up one of the most beloved recent additions to Christmas mythology.  A mutant reindeer, some malfunctioning toys, someone posing as a dentist, a tough-as-nails gold digger, a ginormous yeti, skinny Santa, and a tyrannical Eagle/Lion/Monster.  It's as strange as can be when you think about it.  I hope sometime a hundred years or so in the future there are bloggers like me scratching their heads over how ridiculous the entire concept of the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer Christmas special is, and how equally silly it is that the people of our time have fallen so in love with it!

And lastly I want to spend some time talking about snowmen.  Snowmen have been built by us humans since before Medieval times and probably even before that.  I've personally never been much of a fan, and ultimately, I've been a downright hater of probably the most famous (non abominable) snowman of all, Frosty.  Frosty the Snowman is a character deriving from a modern fairytale which originated in a song in 1950.  The story is about a group of children who discover an old hat that turns out to be magic.  When they place it on the head of their newly built snowman, he comes to life and befriends them.  Frosty is his name and he has a seriously awesome time living life and getting to know what it truly means to be human.  Ultimately, however, the fun ends when the temperature starts to warm up and Frosty ends up melting, but telling the children right before he dies that he'd be back again someday- hinting that his life-force was more eternal than the snow and probably resides within the hat itself, so they could just build him again next winter.  Again, I'm left to wonder if they put the hat on anything whether or not Frosty would begin to possess that thing.  Like a pile of leaves or a man made of mud or dirt.  Or what if they put the hat onto an already living object, like a horse?  Would Frosty's spirit possess the horse and start dancing around and wanting to play?  Would the horse's actual spirit die?  Questions questions, people.  Frosty's legend became forever burned into popular culture beyond the song when his story was made into a half hour Christmas special in 1969 by none other than the folks at Rankin/Bass.  Their version is considerably more annoying than the song itself, as Frosty feels the need to literally scream, "Happy Birthday!" every time he is brought to life. The special spawned several sequels (one even has John Goodman voicing the Birthday-happy abomination) and has remained pretty popular since.  

But I promise you I'm not a complete hater of snowmen.  I'm going to end this post by recommending a film to you all- which I will link to below -that I've always actually held with the utmost respect.  The Snowman is a children's picture book without words by English author Raymond Briggs, first published in 1978. In Britain, it was a highly commended runner up for the Kate Greenaway Medal from the Library Association, recognising the year's best children's book illustration by a British subject. In the U.S. it was named to the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award list in 1979. It's magical illustrations and wordless narration tell a story very similar to Frosty about a boy who's snowman comes to life.  However, all of the loud obnoxious frivolity and shouting commenced in Frosty's adventures is absent here, instead substituted for the quiet, darker, softer, and all around more magical and enthralling tone that the author was trying to convey.  The book was adapted into a 26-minute animated film in 1982 which debuted on British television that December. The short film was even nominated for an Academy Award. It is ultimately, in my mind, one of the most beautiful Christmas fairytales devised and put to film within the past half century or more. I highly recommend you check it out.  I'm also providing a bonus video- also featuring a snowman.

The Snowman