It’s Christmas time, and most of us are sucked up by the current that swashes along with it. Year by year, it seems to be swashing earlier and to suck more. Easter rabbits have hardly vanished from shelves, August-heat still blazing and: forward come chocolate Santa Clauses and gingerbread loaves, twinkling stardust-sprinkled Christmas balls and light chains. By October, carols obtrusively blaring from loudspeakers near and far have long lost their magic – and meaning. In November, commerce and media insist that it is high time for us to finalise our Christmas shopping, and we are constantly reminded that the western-world citizen spends an average of 280 Euros on presents alone. Those who won’t comply, will forever be stigmatised stingy misanthropists, who – not even for the holiest of occasions – overcome their revolting parsimony.
Excessive consumption implies affluence and prosperity, but what does Christmas really stand for and why is it celebrated so fervently the world over? When questioned, randomly interviewed pedestrians are not seldom at a loss, if not embarrassingly clueless. “Something religious?” “With Jesus, perhaps?” Yep! But what with Jesus? “Nailed to the cross??” Poor Jesus! From the manger straight to crucifixion! Who needs an old-fashioned calendar when we’ve got social media educating the world?
Joyful and triumphant
Blessedly, most contemporaries are indeed aware that Christmas has to do with Jesus – Christ! – being born in Bethlehem 2021 years ago. But where does Father Christmas/Santa Claus/St. Nicholas come in?
That story is a much more complicated one and not at all clarified even to this day.
Santa: Benevolent and kind
Santa Claus’s image is that of an immortal character associated with philanthropy and charity. Some sources say that his origins lie in Myra/Turkey, where, in the 4th century, the Greek bishop Nicholas became famous for his benevolence by making gifts to the poor. Special mention in the history books receive the three destitute daughters of a pious man: to save them from the undesirable fate of prostitution, Nicholas bestowed them with generous dowries. The festively clad bishop depicted on Christmas-related ornaments is a familiar feature worldwide.
Odin: the Norse All-Father
Jacob Grimm (the fairy-teller) believed “Ho ho ho” being Odin’s hunting cry during the Wild Hunt – and the eight reindeer pulling Santa’s slay at the speed of lightning are reckoned to symbolise Sleipnir’s eight horsey legs …
As is often the case with folk myths retold and embroidered over the ages: one can never tell the facts inside the fiction.
„Santa is really the only cultural icon we have who’s male, does not carry a gun and is all about peace, joy, giving, and caring for other people. That’s part of the magic for me, especially in a culture where we’ve become so commercialized and hooked into manufactured icons. Santa is much more organic, integral, connected to the past, and therefore connected to the future“, TV producer Jonathan Meath once stated.
The pleasant picture we harbour of our Santa coming to town today, is said to have its roots in this poem by Clement Clark Moore:
A Visit from St. Nicholas
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ’kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St. Nicholas too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk…
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle,
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.”
The header image, also by Clement Clarke Moor (1823), is in the public domain (creative commons)
and thus free of copyright.