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.
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|
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.
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.