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world wide wednesdays :: you're in santa country now

santa?
merriest of christmases and post-yuletide greetings to all! i hope that you're enjoying some down time with family or friends or a bottle of bourbon, whichever gives you the most pleasure. since pretty much the entire world is forced to observe this euro-pagan-turned-christian holiday in some way or other, i figured i'd just use this week's post as another way for you to think about the northern nether regions. if you're in an area of the world where celebrations are more of a minority cultural event, take heart: your observant friends will only keep wishing you the best for a holiday you don't celebrate for a couple more days, tops.

i'm not exactly sure how the birth of christ got all mixed up with a greek saint [although he'd be turkish now], a pre-christian figure associated with yuletide, or the winter solstice, and some kind of toy workshop at the north pole. i mean, clearly the early christians took some poetic license that allowed european pagans to slip into a new religion almost without noticing and you can trace lines from the legends of saint nichloas the fourth century gift-giving bishop of myra to odin, bearded king of the norse and teutonic gods, to the renaissance era "father christmas", who brought gifts to children in december. time and the fluid nature of folklore mean that it's not a clear line, simply a gradual procession, picking up bits and pieces from various cultural norms over the centuries. [side note :: st. nicholas was actually kind of bad ass, as ancient saints often were. one of the miracles attributed to him is that while visiting a town struck by a terrible famine, he resurrected three children who had been captured and killed by a particularly evil butcher who stuck them in barrels to cure, planning on selling them as ham. no one mentions what the children were like once he'd brought them back, but raising the dead does tend to increase you profile. the church clearly concurred on his bad-assery, because when he was given a saintly portfolio, he became patron of children and sailors, but also of thieves and murderers. so don't fuck with jolly old saint nick, kids. also, make sure you go to a reputable butcher.]

hippie boho wizard santa
while neither birthday boy jesus or saint frankenstein had any ties to the north, the association of saint nicholas, or father christmas, with the north is branded on our brains. we might chuckle when we hear a fox news puppet reassure children that santa is white, because historically, it's hogwash. that said, centuries of representation of the santa character have been white, because he's not really saint nicholas at all- he's more likely odin, the heathen god who led the wild hunt. while not associated with a particular time of year, there is reason to think that the idea of odin thundering around the heavens on his eight-legged steed sleipnir, might have been a precursor to the idea of santa claus riding the skies in his sleigh. in particular, it could be related to the idea that it's considered a bad idea to stay up and try to see santa. in modern times, the tacit understanding is that if you stay up waiting, santa just won't visit you. where the wild hunt was concerned, however, seeing it portended calamity. if you saw the shadowy hunt rumbling just above the horizon, you might have your soul sucked out of your body on the spot, or you might just die shortly afterwards. those were considered the best possible results, since seeing the wild hunt could just as easily mean that your entire town could be wiped out by disease, or that war would break out, or that mass unpleasantness could befall basically everyone you'd ever known. if i were a parent, i'd be interested to see which one of these stories got my children in bed faster, which is just one more reason why staunch childlessness was a good decision for me. [side note :: it's kind of fascinating how many cultures have myths that seem to align with the wild hunt. germanic tribes re-enacted the hunt as far back as roman times, but there is also a similar legend in hinduism, mentioned in the bhagavata purana, indicating that the original story is much older. it's also apparently an extremely persistent myth, as it surfaces again in the folklore of comparatively modern quebec, as a "phantom canoe" and even in a country song "ghost riders in the sky". why is this cryptic myth so widespread? damned if i know.]



kinda scaring the shit out of us here santa
some of the santa myths aren't rooted that far in the past at all, but that doesn't necessarily make their origins any  clearer. for instance, the idea that santa claus lives at the north pole seems to have taken hold in nineteenth century america, but it's not immediately clear who exactly came up with the idea. you'd think that it would be a pretty quick thing to check, but no, it seems like the idea of santa's polar domicile just sort of sprung up out of virtually nowhere. if there is an originator of the idea, it is likely american political cartoonist thomas nast, who drew the earliest representation we know of santa's workshop, which was accompanied by a poem that gave its location as the north pole. why the north pole? well, you have to admit, it's a place that people couldn't just run off to and check to see if there was really a factory there. and it does tie into santa's northern roots, assuming we're not taking jesus or saint nicholas into account. [side note :: it's worth looking into the life of thomas nast regardless of his connections to santa claus. he did give us the foundations of santa's modern image, updating the portly, pipe-smoking man in green who was created originally as a sort of joke about how dutch people were fat and smoked and were generally silly. so american santa is descended from a racist caricature that witty progressive nast made more user-friendly. but santa is really just the tip of the cartoon barrel. you might be surprised at how many of his creations are familiar even now.]

jolly old saint nick
it's somewhat clearer that santa's reindeer came from a couple of nineteenth century children's books, especially "a visit from saint nicholas", which we've all heard millions of times and which you may know more by its first line "twas the night before christmas". aside from giving us a slew of reindeer names to memorise, the poem was responsible for taking a whole bunch of santa mythology and bringing it together. bringing it together extremely effectively, considering how the poem and its imagery have endured. one of the few things that's been lost is the idea that santa is supposed to be very small- more of an elf or fairy than a human analogue- which may again hearken back to the wild hunt. [the spectral hunters were thought sometimes to be souls of the dead and others to be fairies or other supernatural beings. one assumes no one wanted to check them out too closely, what with the whole bringing down the wrath of the gods business.]

the modern history of santa is, of course, better known: his career in advertising; his various doppelgangers who listen to children expound on what their greedy little hearts desire; his conflicts with devout christians who believe that he distracts from the true meaning of the season. [hey, maybe trying to stamp out every other religion in the world while also appropriating much of their lore and iconography to make your own look more palatable was a particularly schizoid dick move.] so remember when you're telling your young ones that santa does or doesn't exist that you're actually speaking of a multiplicity of characters who may or may not have existed in different forms for widely different groups of people. and if going through all that doesn't bore the kids to sleep, maybe you should just tell them about santa's history with the wild hunt.

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