Sunday, December 21, 2003

Who’s the Fat Guy in the Red Suit?

Ah Christmas time. It brings warmth to your soul just thinking about the season doesn’t it? We all have fond memories of family and friends, Christmas gatherings and giving and receiving gifts.

Where did it all begin?

Christmas is celebrated throughout the world by almost every culture in one form or another. There are winter stories told as long as stories have ever been passed down from generation to generation.

Here in America Christmas has a decidedly Christian flare, but it wasn’t always that way. Did you know almost every Christmas tradition predates the Christian religion?

This sort of talk always makes Christians angry, because it infringes on “their holiday”. At the risk of making even more Christians dislike me, and this web site, let’s take a brief look at one Christmas icon, Santa Claus, or if you’d prefer, Father Christmas.

The figure of Santa Claus, which we can all relate to, is actually an amalgamation of several gods from time gone by. The “Reader’s Digest Big Book of Christmas” relates that Santa’s origins stem from the Norse king of gods, Odin. He certainly looks the part as the father of Norse mythology, a larger-then-life figure with a full white beard.

Although Odin looks the part his son, Thor, may have had a hand in creating some of the legend as well.

You see it’s been told that Odin’s son, Thor, rode through the skies in his chariot being pulled by two magical goats named, Tanngrísnir (Tooth-Gnasher) and Tanngnjóstr (Tooth-Grinder). Hmm, yelling, “on Gnasher, on Grinder” doesn’t sound as nice as the current reindeer names do they?

The Christians added their own entry with stories of a kind man named Nicholas, who was very giving and in one instance dropped three bags of gold down a chimney so that their father could afford their dowry and they could marry. The gold just happened to land in each of the girl’s stockings that were being hung by the fireplace to dry.

Nicholas the gift giver became St. Nicholas, and a feast for him was celebrated on the 6th of December. When the church stopped celebrating different days for different saints, St. Nicholas merged into the December 25th celebration of the birth of Christ.

What is more fascinating is that many cultures had their own twist on a kindly old gentleman who brought gifts during the time of winter celebrations. In Germany it was Christkind (meaning Christ Child) or Kris Kringle, the Dutch had Sinter Claas, a shortend form of Sint Nikolaas (Dutch for St. Nicholas) who would place gifts by the cinders of a fireplace.

Santa Claus didn’t really take off as the striking figure he is today until Clement Clarke Moore wrote, “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas" in 1822, which later became, “The Night Before Christmas”. In his poem Moore describes St. Nicholas as a “right jolly old elf” with “a little round belly”, who had a “miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer”. Rudolph wasn’t with him in those days.

Describing St. Nicholas as an elf brings into the mix the stories from the Norse and Germanic peoples who tell of a Yule Elf that brought them presents on winter solstice if they left offerings of porridge. This brings us back to Odin, who was a Norse god, and identified as “Jolnir”, the “Lord of the Yule”.

As an elf, Santa is also linked to the faerie folk. Did you know that bringing Christmas trees inside, and other evergreen decorations such as wreaths, were originally to give the faerie folk a place to come in and stay out of the harsh cold of winter? If you provided these magical creatures a temporary haven from the winter weather they would bestow upon your home their favor and blessings for the year ahead.

Elves seem to get most of the press, and are the workforce for Santa, and why not? Elves love little shiny things such as toys and lights, and enjoy being little tricksters. Being related to these little people, Santa is a bit of a trickster himself. After all, if you’re naughty you will get a lump of coal.

Be thankful you didn’t live in some European towns long ago. It was known there, that St. Nicholas traveled with a helper called, “Black Peter” who carried a sack of switches. If they visited a home with naughty children Black Peter would beg St. Nicholas to let him punish them. Luckily, St. Nicholas was so kind that he would almost always intervene and give all the children presents anyway.

Guess a lump of coal isn’t so bad after all.

Do I believe in Santa Claus? You bet I do. To me, Father Christmas shows that the spirit of Christmas is caring for each other. It’s giving to others, whether gifts to loved ones, or to those less fortunate then we are. He’s the ambassador to “Peace on Earth and Goodwill”.

In my heart, Santa Claus exists. Every year he magically enters our home, eating our carefully prepared cookies, and washing them down with milk. His reindeer also get a much-needed snack after pulling the little fat cookie addict all over the world in his sleigh.

Our home is decorated with evergreens, and little lights to please the faerie folk, and with any luck they will bless on our home this coming year.

More important, Santa Claus instills magic in the hearts of our children, and a twinkle in their eyes as they wander around taking in every sight of this wonderful time of year. When they go to bed they dream fantastic dreams, and anxiously wait for the day when they are visited by a kind and gentle man, letting them know that they have been good enough for his treats yet again.

How can you not believe in Santa Claus if he has the power to have this much impact on the children of the world?

It’s time for me to wrap this article up, and head off to bed. Perhaps I will dream of Christmas, the faerie folk, and Santa. I can’t imagine a world without the image of St. Nicholas, and I feel sorry for those who deprive their children of the magic of the Christmas season.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

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