Saturday, December 20, 2008

Jolly Old Saint Nicholas

We were concerned, as young adults, that our children might be confused and ultimately hurt emotionally, by the discovery that Santa Claus "isn't real". Also, I didn't want the children thinking that some costumed stranger at the mall is giving them gifts.

Following the suggestion of our child's nursery school teacher, I dressed up as Santa on Christmas Day and did the entire Santa schtick, from wakening the children with bells to handing out the presents with plenty of stereotypical "Ho-Ho-Ho" ing. Then, at a pause in the action, I removed the costume to show that it was really Daddy. There was some confusion and then delight and laughter.

This, of course, also back-fired, as we now had a Family Secret which the child must never reveal to her friends. What damage that caused to our child's social development is incalculable, although the child did, in fact, brag to class mates that Daddy is Santa, which caused a brief flurry of irate phone calls from parents of confused and hurt classmates.

Santa Claus should not be conflated with the real Saint Nicholas, although the traditions are historically pretty solid, as religious traditions go. There really WAS a Nicholas who loved children, gave generously, and even punished the wicked. He was bishop of Myra in what is now Turkey, appointed to the post as a young man. I notice, however, that Saint Nicholas of Myra and Saint Nicholas of Bari (who are traditionally the same person) are NO LONGER LISTED as saints in the Catholics On-Line Saints and Angels reference database.

"Santa Claus" is supposedly a corruption of "Sinter Klaus", supposedly a curruption of "Saint Nicholas", and apparently there are places where it is pronounced "Sant NEEklaus". That notwithstanding, there have been plenty of jolly gift-givers in other theological and mythological traditions that preceded Christianity, and legend of jolly gift-givers persist in non-christian cultures world-wide. In almost every case, the jolly gift-giver is also the implacabale judge of the wicked.

"He's makin' a list,
Checkin' it twice,
Gonna find out who's Naughty or Nice..."

In India, the goddess Durga rides a tiger and dispenses blessings and gifts, conquering your personal demons and always jolly. Durga is also Kali, the implacable destroyer.

In Sicily, there was a pagan goddess known as "The Grandmother", or "Bastrina"a sort of fertility/agriculture/hearth-and-home deity who at midwinter would leave gold coins in the stockings of good children but a lump of coal for the naughty ones. Well....the grandmother doesn't want to encourage bad behaviour, but she doesn't want her little ones not to be warm on cold nights....this tradition dates back before Saturnalia of Roman times and has "infected" Mediterranean Christianity as an enduring Christmas tradition. Interestingly, La Befana (as Bastrina is now known in Sicily)is thought to ride the world on Christmas Eve ON HER BROOMSTICK, with which she cleans the houses of the children she visits. Gah. Don't get me started....

In 1087 AD, Sicilian sailors stole the relics of Saint Nicholas from the church in Myra and interred them in Bari, Sicily, probably in an attempt to create in Bari a pilgrimage site to attract tourists. A consequence of this was that the cult of the grandmother morphed into the cult of Saint Nicholas, who acquired many of her idiosyncracies, such as the coal in the stocking and the flying around the world on Christmas Eve.

In Austria the pagan cultures expected at midwinter a visit from the Krampus, a magical troll who would spirit away (in a sack, no less!) naughty children to work in his toy factory under the mountains. Apparently it isn't just the birth of Our Lord that inspires children to unfortunate behaviour at mid-winter. Despite centuries of Christian domination, the Krampus still visits in some parts of Europe. (As a bizarre segué, the secret police in Haiti, who spirit people off the streets never to be seen again, are called in Haitian Creole the "Ton-ton Macoute" or "Uncle Knapsack". Alas, they are not restricted to midwinter in their predations, and I do not think their victims are making toys anywhere.)

Odin was the Norse god fertility god, full of the sap of spring, jolly and mirthful, wise and helpful, with a long white beard and a magical flying horse. Odin brought blessings and joy, but, in his persona as Nikanor, also doom for the wicked. Nikanor was the alter-ego of Odin. His skin was black, which among the pale Norse meant he was scary, but also implies living underground. Pagans who were mining tin and copper in those mountains were wary of Nikanor whom they sometines called "Old Nick", which you may recognize as one of many cultural cognates for "Satan". On occasion, for example, miners would find a mineral that looked like copper ore but when smelted would yield only slag and a bad smell. They called this mineral "cupfernickkel", or "the devil's copper". The metal we now can derive from this ore is called "nickel", a fine sturdy and useful metal named after the Devil himself.

People who were considered Odin's friends acquired some of his divinity and were called "alfs" or "elves". These were real people who were connected to the gods in a special way. Over the years, though, they acquired more and more supernatural attributes and became smaller and smaller, supposedly to account for how the elves could enter through locked doors, small windows or chimneys.

The real Saint Nicholas was pious and wealthy, giving abundantly and anonymously to the poor. He also stood before Emperor Constantine to criticise policies that were injurious to Christians. He was known to also be courageous and quick to correct people he thought we on the wrong track, to the point of punching in the nose a person he was debating at a church synod. He was NOT a toy-maker nor a fabricator of any kind.

The poor guy has been conflated with all kinds of mid-winter traditions that predate Christianity. Santa has often been described as an elf, a clear harking back to the pre-Christian traditions. Martin Luther attempted to distract Christians from the St. Nicholas muddle by telling children that the Christ Child had brought the Christmas gifts. The German for "Christ Child" is "KrisKindle", which became Kris Kringle, now synonymous with "Santa Claus". According to Stephen Leacock, early Canadian Protestants told their children that the angels brought the presents. This may be why Canadian children have an abiding distrust of angels....

One cannot rant about Santa without noting that the Coca-Cola company, noting that Christmas is celebrated with the colours red and white, co-opted Saint Nicholas as a corporate shill in a red and white suit. This despite Clement Moore's poem that clearly states that St. Nick was "dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot", more like a furry chimney sweep than a shopping mall Santa.

And we must never forget what comedian Dana Carvie pointed out: that "Santa" is an anagram for "SATAN"!! Old Nick, himself....

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