Saturday, December 21, 2013

The rich history of Santa and his evil sidekick

I have learned a great deal about the origins of Santa Claus from this article by philosopher Kyle Johnson

The central premise is that the idea that St Nicholas is Father Christmas is more myth than reality. St.Nicholas’ existence is sketchy at best, with the first details about the man emerging only several hundred years after his death. Also, stories that St.Nicholas gave away his possessions, provided the dowry for three daughters of a poor father, and intervened to save the life of a condemned man, all closely fit the Greek writer Philostratus’ account of the Pythagorean philosopher Apollonius. Coincidence?

We also know that over the centuries, many pagan gods were “Christianised” by being “sainted” in to the religion to make it more palatable to potential converters to the new faith. St Nicholas, with his far reaching miraculous powers, was adopted as the saint of sailors, penitent thieves, archers and prostitutes, and it appears that his character took on many of the aspects of several other gods. For example, he supposedly performed the same miracles as Posiedon, Neptune and the god Hold Nicker. Indeed, temples to these gods were appropriated and renamed for Nicholas. 


He seems to also have taken on the whit beard characteristic of the Norse god Odin, who would return in the month of December on an eight-legged horse. Odin, also known as Julebuk in Scandinavia, would visit with presents, and he would be accompanied by Brechta, who would bestow blessings and curses depending on whether children had been good or bad. Households would also leave out oats for Odin’s horse. 


Now it gets darker. For many years, there was a strong disciplinary angle to the mythology. Postcards from around the turn of 20th century show St. Nicholas putting children in sacks to be carried off, and sometimes Santa is pictured whipping them for misbehaving. For a long time, St Nicholas had assisting him a devil or Wild Man (Christians adopted the pagan Wild Man and changed him in to a devil), who was a horned, half-man, half-goat. The wild man creature would be released by St.Nicholas if the children had been bad, to be carried off to hell, whipped, put in chains, etc. This character was called Krampus in some European countries and he has in fact undergoing quite the revival! Note, this Wild Man was often called “Claus”.


In Germany, the Wild Man/devil and St.Nicholas blended together over the years: the furry Wild Man was manifested in Santa Claus’s furry costume; his sack was used to carry presents instead of bagging naughty children; and the birch used to beat children became a whip for the reindeer (the reindeer may have evolved from Thor’s two magical goats, Donder and Blitzen, who flew the Greek God’s chariot). 


For some time, Santa Claus appeared not as we know him today but as a dirty, furry, peddler type character. He cleaned up over the years and his girth increased substantially by the efforts of Harper’s Weekly in the later 1800s. He was quickly becoming a wholesome character to be loved, not feared. Mrs Claus appeared in 1881 through a poem, and in 1931, Santa’s official colours became red and white through the advertising work of Coca-Cola. The soft-drink company took away his smoking pipe and replaced it with a bottle of coke. Over the years, the idea of giving an endless quantity of presents developed, and when the stockings were overfilled, gifts would be hung on a table top tree. The tree quickly migrated off the table and grew in size to accommodate the increasing number of gifts.


I quite like the evolution of Santa and how he has moved with the times and become almost something devoid of religious tones. Instead of lamenting the fact that Christmas no longer “means” anything, perhaps we should accept and enjoy what it is morphing into, an irreligious celebration of giving and consideration, with a hefty dose of consumerism thrown into the mix (it’s this latter element that I think needs to evolve or devolve a little). Also I like the fact that Krampus is making a revival, although he is a bit rich for the delicate minds of young children. That said, the character would be far more palatable if parents stopped pretending that Santa and companions were all real. 

Merry xmas all and remember not to misbehave if you know what's good for you!


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