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.

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