A New Christmas Song (towards being honest)

This song is:

1) An attempt to respectfully add to our repoitoire of Christmas songs, while trying to be as truly historical as the other songs before it.

2) Making an attempt to reflect not only what Christmas is really about in our belief system, but also what we truly want from our All-Father.

Link to youtube video: here

Optimistic Chad

Chad really really hopes things are going to turn out ok. He loves his wife - with the passion of 1000 exploding suns, and is a diligent, but surely mediocre father to his brilliant and subversive children. He likes Chinese food.

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Holiday Harassment: Christmas pt. 3: Santa Claus and His Ilk

This is the third in a 3 part series. Part 1: Pagan origins of Christmas, Part 2: Christian origins of Christmas, and Part 3: Santa Claus and his Ilk.

In part 1, I discussed the pagan origins of Christmas. In part 2, we discussed the practices of Christmas that were Christian in origin. In this piece, we’ll talk about the Characters of Christmas, particularly Santa, but with notable others as well.

Santa Claus

Santa Claus has, for better or worse (who are we kidding, its worse), become ubiquitous with Christmas. It is usually the first image that pops into little heads when the C-word is mentioned. But from whence did he come? So many names for him, too: Saint Nicolas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, among others. So what is the origin of the fat one? Let’s start at the beginning.

Yes, there was in fact, a real person named Saint Nicolas. He was born in 270 CE, and died in 343 CE. He was the bishop of Myra, in what is now Turkey. He was very devout, even at an early age, and after his parents died while he was young, he was tutored in bishoprickery by his uncle, and soon was ordained. He was at the council of Nicea, and was among the signers of the titular creed.

He was also known as Nicolas the wonderworker, on account of the miracles he was said to have done, but probably more well known for using his considerable wealth (which he inherited) to help those less fortunate. In the most popular story, Saint Nicolas heard of a poor man being unable to provide dowry for his daughters, and feared them becoming prostitutes. So Nicolas, in secret, provided the money for the dowries in three separate purses for the girls.

Now, here is where the magic starts to kick in. St. Nick became something of a church rock star. And often, when this happened, there came followers, who wished, not to follow St. Nicolas, as it were, but were so inspired by him, that they desired to follow God in the same way that St. Nicolas did. So a “cult” of St. Nick began. Nicolas, after his death, became quite popular as the patron saint of navigation. Around the Mediterranean  this was quite important. So in the Eastern part of Christendom, Nicolas was gathering quite a following. However, turkey fell to the Turks in the 11th century, and in 1087, Nicolas’ bones were moved to the Western part of the empire, where, between the Pope’s to-do made about the bones, and the popular feast days associated with him, Nicolas’ cult exploded in popularity, rivaling that of even the blessed Mother Mary. This cult (in this sense, simply an atypical way of practicing religion) began spreading quite far across Christendom and in the medieval period, spread across Northern Europe quite fast.

Once there, the cult and myths of Nicolas crashed into more local and pagan expressions of culture and myth. Around the same general times of Nicolas’ feast days, the great hunt of the God Odin was held. Odin was said to ride in his chariot, pulled by his 8-legged horse, Sleipnir. Often, children would fill their boots with gifts for Sleipnir, usually carrots, straw, and sugar, and in return, Odin would leave gifts or candy in the boot. As Christendom’s influence became dominant, the practices that once accompanied the veneration of Odin were still celebrated, but the attributes of Odin were shifted onto St. Nicolas in order to make his cult more popular and to give a reason for Christians to keep traditions alive and still remain faithful to their religion.

So it was that St. Nicolas gained a nordic look, a white beard, a sleigh, and a penchant for putting goodies in stockings. Around this time, his name became skandinavian-ized to Sinterklaas. Odin’s raven helpers became Sinterklaas’ various helpers and Odin’s spear  became Sinterklaas’ staff.

Interestingly, Woden, the counterpart of Odin in many other areas of northern Europe, did not merge with St. Nicolas, but a similar process occurred. While Woden’s influence waned in places like England, a new character, Father Christmas, was created. Father Christmas appeared as a tall man, usually very old. He usually wore green suit trimmed with fur and dark boots. He often had a large sack with him, and many times had a beard, with or without mustache.

This Father Christmas appears in Dickens’ novel as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and also in Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

To various degrees, when the Father Christmas myths and the Sinterklaas myths made their way to America, the stories began to merge. In 1773, Sinterklaas was first Americanized into Santa Claus, and as a parody of Dutch culture of the time, was made to look stout instead of lean. In 1821, a poem called Santeclaus described this chap as having a sleigh with reindeer. It is interesting to note that Santa had 8 original reindeer to pull his sleigh and Odin had a horse with 8 legs to pull his. In 1823, various myths were cemented in the poem “Night Before Christmas.”

Santa began landing on roofs and using chimneys. Toys now figured prominently.  St. Nick is called “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” with “a little round belly”, that “shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly”, while “miniature sleigh” and “tiny reindeer” might indicate that he was still considered short. The reindeer recieved names: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem (meaning thunder and lightning, were likely the common names for Thor’s chariot goats in Norse mythology, but later changed to Donner and Blitzen).

Thomas Nast, in the 1860’s, popularized and/or created a number of other Santa Claus myths with his cartoons. From Nast, Santa gained his home at the north pole, and has Santa as a large, fat guy. In one cartoon, Santa is even seen wearing an American flag. No comment.

While Coca-Cola was not the first company to feature Santa Claus in advertisement, they were the ones that so popularized the red and white fur suit that all other dresses for Santa virtually disappeared in the 20th Century.

 

Santa’s Companions

Mrs. Claus

Mrs. Santa Claus first appeared in 1849, in “A Christmas Legend,” a short story. She gained a more popular appearance in the poem “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride” in 1889, where she nags Santa into letting her ride with him on the sleigh one year. Interestingly enough, one of her earliest appearances gives her first name as “Layla.”

Krampus

Krampus is a demon-looking character who makes appearances during Advent, sometimes with, sometimes before Sinterklaas. He is usually black or brown, with cloven hoofs and large horns. He either carries, or is bound with, large chains, and usually carries ruten, which are sticks to beat children with. Krampus likely predates Christian celebrations in northern Europe, but once the cult of St. Nicolas merged with customs, the chains began to appear and symbolized St. Nicolas defeating and binding Krampus. Traditionally, Krampus accompanies Sinterklaas and while Sinterklaas gives toys to good children, Krapmus either beats them with the ruten, or stuffs them in either a bag or tub which is on his back to take the children to drown them, eat them, or carry them to hell. Most of Krampus’ legend is from the Alpine Countries of Europe.

Black Peter

Black Peter, or Zwarte Piet, is another helper of Sinterklaas. This time, from the Netherlands and Belgian traditions. Black Peter likely morphed from the black Raven companions of Odin and from myths of elves from northern Europe. These elves were not the short, inventive elves that we think of in Santa’s workshop today (probably better labeled as gnomes). These elves were more akin to Legolas in the Lord of the Rings. And there were evil, or dark, elves present in those mythologies as well. On of these, in the same tradition as the captured Krampus, was Black Peter. An evil being, he was defeated by Sinterklaas, and forced to help in his duties. In most stories, Black Peter, like Krampus, carries a sack and a roe (a group of switches akin to the ruten) to punish children who were bad. Over time, the “black” in Black Peter began to take on more of a realistic meaning and those who dressed up as Black Peter in plays began portraying him, not as an elf, but rather as a”moor.” This tradition carries on to today, where Black Peter can be seen being portrayed in black face (judge the taste with which this is done in for yourself) at some Christmas parades.

Knecht Ruprecht

Knecht Ruprecht is a character who helped Sinterklaas, much like Krampus and Black Peter, but is human, rather than creature. He dresses in brown, dirty robes or straw, and gives bad children swats, or gives their parents sticks to beat their kids. He is also known simply to give bad gifts. He is also known as Farmhand Rupert, and often carries a bag of ashes with him to hit children who don’t pray. Interestingly, Ruprecht is a common name of a devil in many mythologies from Germany, where Knecht Ruprecht originates, so perhaps there is a connection to Krapus and Black Peter in Ruprecht’s original form, but that is my speculation.

Elves

As early as 1850, elves have been depicted as helpers of Santa Claus. Of course, these smaller, kinder, and more creative elves were sanitized and sweet versions of the helpers that came from across the Atlantic, but is seems that Americans had no stomach for the more evil appearing helpers, especially with the Calvinistic assaults on Christmas celebrations common in American history. So the elves continued to evolve with each new appearance  gaining hats, then appearing all green, then depicted, alongside developments in Santa myths, in workshops, etc… I still advocate that these are gnomes, not elves, but I digress…

Now you know, and knowing is half the battle. I think the point of all this, is that… we should be honest with our kids about Santa Claus. Unless of course, you take the good with the bad and tell them about Santa’s helpers, too….

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Optimistic Chad

Chad really really hopes things are going to turn out ok. He loves his wife - with the passion of 1000 exploding suns, and is a diligent, but surely mediocre father to his brilliant and subversive children. He likes Chinese food.

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Holiday Harassment: Christmas pt. 2: Christian Origins

This is the first is a 3 part series. Part 1: Pagan origins of Christmas, Part 2: Christian origins of Christmas, and Part 3: Santa Claus and his Ilk.

In part 1, I discussed the pagan origins of Christmas. However, that is not the whole story. Christmas, in its current form, did not simply spring up or evolve from just one source, Christian, pagan or otherwise. Therefore, in the interest of fairness, here are the Christian origins of Christmas.

December 25

In the last post, I mentioned how Dies Natalis Solis Invicti was the reason that Christmas is celebrated on December 25. Well, that isn’t the whole story. While it is true that the celebration of the Sun (or Sun God) was celebrated on this day, and that some early Church Fathers commented on how appropriate it would be to celebrate Jesus’ birth on the day of the unconquered Sun, it is also true that the idea of Jesus’ birth being on December 25, predated those decisions. Hippolytus of Rome, a 3rd century theologian, makes it clear that he believes Jesus’ birth to have happened on December 25, not because of the Sun celebration, but because he believes that Jesus’ conception took place during the traditional date of the creation of the world on March 25 (which also happened to line up with the vernal equinox and often with the Jewish Passover), although he also put forth April 2nd as a date of conception in some writings. Regardless, Hippolytus felt that this proved a date of Jesus’ birth at December 25th. Still, it could have been an attempt of a Christian apologist to retroactively prove Jesus’ birth after other’s had connected the date already to Saturnalia or Dies Natalis Solis Invicti. Except… that Saturnalia was not celebrated on December 25. It was celebrated on December 17, and was lengthened over time to December 23, but never the 25. Sorry Mythicists. Further, while Dies Natalis Solis Invicti WAS indeed celebrated on December 25,  there is no mention of this celebration being held on December 25 prior to AD 354, since before this, the celebration was held every 4 years, and not on the 25th of December, and often not in December at all. This is relevant because Hippolytus died in 235, over 100 years before Dies Natalis Solis Invicti was practiced on December 25. In fact, around 200 AD, Clement of Alexandria gives us an even better clue (through his consternation), complaining in frustration that some Egyption theologians are celebrating Jesus’ birth  on December 25 (Stromata 1:21). So it seems that the December 25 date for Christmas IS actually a Christian tradition, not a lender from a pagan source.

Note: this does not actually make it true that Jesus’ was born on December 25. He almost surely wasn’t. But it does mean that Christians have honored Jesus’ birth on that day by our own (often flawed) resources, and not as a direct result of other holidays.

Christmas Trees

I did make a mention last time about Romans bringing in trees during this time, and even decorating them with 12 candles. However, no Christians are ever mentioned as taking on this tradition during the time of the Roman Empire. While this practice does seem similar to our Christmas tree tradition, the practice of bringing trees into homes to celebrate Saturnalia (or other mid-winter holidays) was long dead (by a millennium) by the time Christians began to celebrate it during Christmas time. While it is also true that many different cultures brought greenery and trees into the home during winter (from Egypt to Norway), it appears that the 16th century German Christians were the first to bring Evergreen trees into their homes and decorate them for Christmas. There is little chance that 16th century Germans relied on long forgotten Roman practice to initiate theirs. As the story goes, Martin Luther, the 16th Century German reformer, was the first to use candles and light up a Christmas tree.

And while the tree has not always been accepted as a good thing in all Christian circles, it can certainly be said however, that it too, is of Christian origin.

The Name “Christmas”

Of course, it doesn’t really take a genius to realize that the actual word “Christmas” is of Christian origin. Cristes Maesse in old English, it appeared around 1038. Christes – Christ, Maesse meaning dismissal, or colloquially, the way to refer to a church service, as in “we are dismissed to be about the mission of God.” It came to refer to the service on Dec. 25. Not much pagan there.

Nativity Scenes

The first nativity scene is said to be the work of St. Francis of Assisi. He was attempting to reverse the tide of materialism encroaching in on Christmastime around 1223 CE. Imagine if he had been around today…. mercy.  He made it up in a cave near Greccio and had live animals and people. Soon, it spread all around Italy, and was soon common practice in most churches. Statues soon replaced live people and eventually, homes adopted smaller versions. Clearly Christian in origin. St. Francis is hard to beat for sheer Christianity.

Christmas lights

Early in the  20th century, electric lights became available for use on Christmas trees (don’t believe me? Watch Downton Abby). Soon after in the mid-2oth Century, folks began using Christmas tree light on the outside of their homes. Hmmm…. since this took place mostly in America, i don’t think we can call this one Christian origin…. but it is derivative of a Christian practice.

Stockings

Well, i don’t want to spoil next week’s addition to the conversation on Santa Claus, so it will have to suffice to say that this practice of hanging stockings on Christmas Eve is particular to his legend, and not anywhere beforehand. But I won’t give anymore away, next week’s will be awesome.

So to summarize:

December 25 date: Of Christian origin

Trees in the house: Of Christian Origin (and yet attested to in many other cultures in parallel, not dependence)

The word “Christmas:” of Christian origin

Nativity Scenes: of Christian origin

Christmas Lights: of Christian origin

Stockings: of Christian origin

 

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Optimistic Chad

Chad really really hopes things are going to turn out ok. He loves his wife - with the passion of 1000 exploding suns, and is a diligent, but surely mediocre father to his brilliant and subversive children. He likes Chinese food.

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